Sermon delivered on the Second Sunday in Lent, the 25th March 2018 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.

Scriptures: Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16     Romans 4: 13-25     S. Mark 8: 31-38

Romans 4:13 The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.

The Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ makes the demand upon us that we accept its privileges and take on its responsibilities by faith. One of the wonderful things about that Good News through faith is that it causes us to have a forward-looking outlook. Whatever difficulties we may be in, the Good News through faith shows us that there is a way through them and out of them, beyond the dictates of current law and logic. That does not mean that law and logic can be ultimately dismissed or broken or overturned. What it means is that life possesses a dimension by means of which that law and logic which seem totally to govern a situation do not, in fact, have the last word. Indeed, this extra dimension of faith will enable us to access a deeper and truer law and logic. However, to accept such a position may also involve humbling ourselves to an unaccustomed extent.

To this day the Jewish people who retain their Judaistic heritage are people of laws and books of commentary that flow out of their laws. It is interesting that in the secular world of the West, there is a strong Jewish presence in the judiciary. But when you read the Gospels and St. Paul’s epistles, you see recorded there the extraordinary unfolding to us of a sort of life that brings all schemes of law-books under judgement. There we find out that the way that is good is more and other than whatever law-keeping way is current. Jesus and St. Paul, both notably of the Jewish race and both notably transcending their Jewish heritage, while in some ways of course fundamentally different, are united in saying that the ways of the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin have diverged from the fullness of life to which God invites us. I am of the view that this New Testament scenario reflects some of the particular challenges of our own time. In today’s world the process of laws and regulations and conventions claiming authority over principles or sovereignties we thought we had held secure on ethical or perhaps theological grounds, seems unstoppable. From time immemorial the Scripture has declared, “He has shown you, O man, what is good.” But now in the world, we are to consult the law-books for what is good, employing an ever-increasing army of advisors at an ever-increasing expense to guide us, to find out the ways to walk in, the ways to talk and even to think, ways that are written upon the new tablets of stone. So increasingly, the only way to maintain our own humanity is to hold intact a humble allegiance that, like that of New Testament Christians in their day, transcends and challenges the increasingly legalistic element in the ethics of our time.

Our Scriptures today remind us how our father in faith, the Biblical Abraham, responds in faith to the good news that the Lord makes known to him, that God will establish a covenant with Abraham and Abraham’s descendants through Sarah his wife. The dictates of natural law and logic, however, ruled that to be impossible. Even allowing for a possible discrepancy between the patriarchal reckoning of biological ages and our own, it was still undoubtedly true that not only was his wife past the age of child-bearing, but that they had for all the years of their marriage been a childless couple.

So as might be expected, Abraham and his wife did not at first fully take in every element of the good news. Even so, Abraham positively responded to the Lord’s promise by doing what He was commanded at that time. As the story of Abraham goes on we see how in the course of time Abraham trusts in the word of the Lord with decreasing hesitation and increasing simplicity. That trust in the word of God no matter what, is what makes the New Testament writers regard him as the father of all who have faith. The story of Abraham is a story of the breaking in of God upon our human systems and disrupting them.

There is a light touch in the way this is done that perhaps we can easily miss, especially if we do not study the text around the Old Testament passage dictated by the Lectionary. It is as if God is establishing His way, not with heavy-handed compulsion, but with laughter and gaiety. Not unreasonably, when Abraham is told he will father a son at 99 years old and with a barren and elderly wife, he laughs, we are told. Later, from Genesis ch. 18, we learn that when Sarah is herself within earshot of the promise, she laughs too. One of my commentaries points out that by putting the sounds “ah” into both their names, so that Abram was to be called Abraham, and Sarai was to be called Sarah, seemingly without changing much the substantive meaning of the original names, God can be said to have put laughter into their names. Both saw that what God proposed was laughable, and both indeed laughed when they heard the proposal. As always though, it was God that, by humbling this couple, laughed last and best, and provided that when the promised son was born to them, he should be called “Isaac”, meaning, “He laughs”. Let us learn that the ways of God are ultimately the ways of gaiety that finally come to laugh at the solemnities and obstacles that they perennially challenge.

In the Gospel today we see Peter, like Abraham, at the stage of doing what Jesus commands him to do, namely to follow him as a disciple, but not yet fully able to take in every element of the good news, and in particular, to accept Jesus’ teaching about His suffering and His being raised from the dead. Again, that was against what all logical and contemporary Messianic expectations permitted. The teaching of Jesus was countercultural. In the context of the confusion this induced in the disciples, the vision of the Transfiguration of Christ and the voice from heaven, as we saw two Sundays ago, were shared with the leading three vulnerable disciples. This was another instance, no doubt, of God’s persistent gaiety, that the men who had demonstrated a sort of stubborn obduracy in the presence of the Son of God, God should freely so astonish. Peter and the others were shown that the last word was not that of their heritage of family or race or custom, but the word of God Himself about His Son. And our way of life as those baptised into Christ, will, if we are true to Him, come to show forth, as Peter’s life as well as Abraham’s came to do, that dimension that gives us humility as well as freedom - freedom from the imprisonment and frustration of every system or culture or law of man’s devising. And Christ shows us too how high the stakes are. The way of faith calls us to go counter to the very core of our own expectations in life. We have no desire of our own for a cross, any more than Peter had. Yet, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” By the laws of nature, self-preservation is written into the fibres of our being. Yet, “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” We may appropriately consider in Lent, that it will take a humble courage of the highest gaiety for us to maintain that walk of faith upon which we have set out, and not with pride fall back for our Christian identity upon the culture from which we came or the systems of this world that urge us to their obedience. Relentlessly but mercifully, Jesus drives us forward on a humble faith’s way by His pitchfork-like utterance. “Whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation will the Son of man also be ashamed of, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” With a humble and yet gay trustfulness in His words, let us take up our cross for His sake, no matter what may appear to be the consequences.