Dealing with a God who is alive and restless

Liz Stuart, 28 February 2021

Genesis 17: 1–7, 15–16; Romans 4: 13–25; Mark 8: 31–38

One of my favourite birthday cards was given to me some years ago by my former PA. It depicts the devil sat up in bed reading the Bible, and he is saying to himself, ‘A bit harsh’.

‘A bit harsh’ is how we might feel about Jesus’ response to Peter in our gospel reading. After all, Peter is the one who has just got it right when Jesus asked his disciples who people said he was. Peter gets it right: ‘You are the Christ’. And now, when Jesus explains that the Messiah must suffer and die, Peter is understandably upset. Okay, he got that bit wrong, but to call him Satan, that’s a bit harsh, Lord.

I think the extremity of Jesus’ response is aimed not really at Peter but at himself. It takes us right back to his encounter with the real Satan in the wilderness when he was tempted – tempted to be the kind of Messiah that was expected rather than the kind of Messiah he was called to be.

The gospel of Mark pivots on this moment, this moment with his disciples. From now on Jesus will be making his way to Jerusalem to die. How hard that must have been for him, and his reaction to Peter probably reflects the depth of his longing to avoid it. He does not want it to end that way, but he believes that that’s the way it must be, because of the kind of Messiah that God has called him to be. Despite being so close to Jesus, Peter is still stuck in previous ideas of what the Messiah should be. He can’t leave those ideas behind.

The greatest challenge of being a Christian, I always think, is that we’re dealing with a God who is alive and restless. God does not get stuck and he does not expect us to do so either. Abraham was called by God to up sticks and leave his home country. At the age of 100, his wife being 90, God informs them that they will have child. Abraham laughs. It’s ridiculous. It’s not the way things work.

St Paul was called to proclaim that salvation in Christ was not dependent upon first becoming Jewish – and he uses the example of Abraham in his arguments around that. Abraham received the covenant, the promise from God, before the law was given. It’s hard for us to appreciate how radical Paul’s argument was. Paul has had to leave behind much of what he had been taught and much of what he had lived because of his encounter with the living God on the road to Damascus. Despite his encounter with the living God in human form, Peter is not ready to let go of his preconceived ideas and move on.

In one of his writings Pope Francis talks about the Church as ‘a Church which goes forth’. Apparently, the original Spanish is better translated as ‘a Church in departure’. Either way it suggests that the Church is constituted to move, to be permanently ‘leaving behind’ to keep up with God. I have mentioned before how I think the poet R. S. Thomas gets it when he describes God as, ‘Such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive’. He also noted, ‘We never catch him at work, but can only say, coming suddenly upon an amendment, that here he had been’.

We have to keep moving if we are even going to find out where God has been, never mind where he is. Each week we come together at this Eucharist to be constituted and to offer ourselves as the Body of Christ on earth. And each week the Eucharist ends with a dismissal (which recently we varied as a command to stay during these Covid times). It’s a variation on the Latin Ite, missa est, which is often erroneously translated as, ‘Go, the Mass [the Eucharist] is ended’. In fact, it translates as, ‘Go, it has been sent’. What has been sent? The Spirit, the Church? Whatever, the command is clear. We can’t stay here, static and comfortable in our current ideas and certainties. God has already burst out of the church doors; we must chase after him into the world. ‘Go’ may sound a bit harsh, but God is already ahead of us.

God has already burst out of the church doors; we must chase after him into the world.

From the beginning God has had a method to poke his people into movement: prophets – men and women who hold up mirrors to their society and dare to suggest that God may be calling us to move our thinking and/or our doing. We’re currently surrounded by prophetic voices challenging white privilege, challenging our thoughtless exploitation of the earth. We as individuals and as Church need to be moved by these challenges to come to a different place in our thinking and acting.

But here is something even scarier than having to move beyond comfortable positions. By virtue of our baptism you and I are called to share in the prophetic nature of Christ. As a church how do we, the people of St Matthew with St Paul, exercise that prophetic ministry in helping people to depart and find God in new ways of thinking and doing? What do we have to say to the wider Church and to the community at large that makes them think, ‘Oh, they’ve gone too far’? And if no one says that about us, ‘Oh, they’ve gone too far’, I would like to suggest that we probably haven’t gone far enough in our search for God. Amen.