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Sunday Sermon

For Sunday 25th February 2024, the Second Sunday of Lent Genesis 17:1-7. 15-16

Psalm 22:23-end

Romans 4:13-end

Mark 8:31-end

May I speak in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen A few years ago, I was with some friends helping to prepare for the Lewes Passion Play. We had to get some equipment in my friend’s car, and it wouldn’t start. My friend opened the car’s bonnet and asked us to stand around and pray for the car to start-to have faith that God would somehow intervene and of course He didn’t, and we had to call the AA, but I thought about this story when reading today’s readings, because today’s readings are very much about faith. My friend’s faith that God would somehow intervene to fix his car was quite moving in away because he genuinely believed that if we prayed hard enough something would happen, but Faith as it appears in today’s readings is a little more challenging.

Today’s readings invite us to have faith in our potential to be creative agents of God’s grace, like Abraham and Sarah, but also to understand that Christian faith involves accepting that Christian life isn’t always going to be free of suffering and pain; in fact, it might call us to suffer. Jesus shows us that faith isn’t just a matter of hoping for the best -it’s about being willing to confront hard truths about the nature of the world and ourselves and fellow human beings whilst still believing that God has a purpose for us and acting accordingly.

This is why there’s such a focus today on Abraham. Paul’s readers in the Roman community know their Genesis- they’re familiar with the idea of using characters from the past as models for their own observance, and Abraham exemplifies characteristics which are central to the faith which Paul wants his readers, whoever and wherever they are in time and space, to understand and practice.

Central to this faith is belief as Paul puts it ‘in the presence of the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’. Abraham and Sarah are to be remembered as inspiration for us all because they show that faith in God is a creative force for good- because they have faith their old age is no barrier whatsoever to their being able to act as the means by which God’s grace becomes known to the multitude of nations.

Paul tells us that faith is what connects us to Abraham and Sarah, and our reading from Genesis reminds us of what it means to have faith in a God who is constantly creating and renewing us and the world we inhabit.

Faith, and the creative power that faith in God has to bring about change, even in the face of our human frailty, involves taking on the darkness of evil, such as Jesus talks about in Mark- a darkness in which even He can’t be rescued from suffering. Peter and the disciples understandably don’t want to hear this from the man they hope is going to rescue them from their oppressors. Peter’s faith is in a Jesus who will somehow sidestep the reality of human cruelty – he wants to believe in a Jesus who is above suffering, and Jesus rebukes him, telling him he’s thinking ‘not on divine things but on human things.’

Mark’s audience, just decades after Jesus’s crucifixion, would have known all about the threat of losing their lives for their faith. Jesus tells us that faith will mean persecution for his sake and that became their reality. We think Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in in AD 57-58, when any Christian hearing his letter in Rome would be living through the terror of Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians. The persecution Jesus warns the disciples to expect is a reality for Paul’s Roman readers, but this isn’t just a historical detail. even now, 2000 years later the persecution of Christians for their faith is growing worldwide. Earlier this year the World Watch list published a report saying that around 365 million Christians around the world are subject to “high levels of persecution and discrimination” compared to 340 million in 2021 (PDF). They say the number of Christians killed for faith-related reasons worldwide was 5,621 in 2023, compared to 4,761 in 2021. But what it is that Jesus believes makes such loss worthwhile.

We might, with Peter, want to reject Jesus’s insistence that suffering, and faith must go together, but that’s to think in human terms, whereas what Jesus wants us to do is to think differently and to see not just that faith may lead us into dark and dangerous places, but that Faith involves taking on those places of danger, pain and suffering and being liberated as a result. Jesus tells Peter that although he will undergo great suffering and rejection, ‘after three days he’ll rise again’. Just as faith in God enabled Abraham and Sarah to experience God’s life-giving creativity, even in the face of their frailty, so Peter and the disciples are being told that God will bring hope and new life even where there is terrible cruelty and destruction.

Above the West door to Westminster Abbey are ten statues to modern martyrs - Christians who gave up their lives for their beliefs. The martyrs are drawn from every continent and many Christian denominations and represent all who have been oppressed or persecuted for their faith. Among them are victims of Nazism, communism, and religious prejudice in the 20th century. The modern martyrs include Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for refusing to follow Hitler instead of Christ, and Wang Zhiming, a Christian pastor in the Yunnan region of China, who lost his life for refusing to renounce his faith in favour of Communism. This week we could Alexander Navalny to that list, who once said he was motivated by Jesus’s reassurance that ‘blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied’. These are our modern Abrahams; people whose faith in God and whose understanding of what it means to set our minds on divine things rather than human ones leads them to act in ways which are daring and dangerous, but also inspirational.

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus is uncompromising ‘those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ Not everyone is called to be a Bonhoeffer or a Navalny. But we can all find ways of accepting Jesus’s call to make our faith central to what we do and how we act. And this might be in very simple acts of self-giving. Ann Wroe describes such a life very beautifully in a poem describing a woman she saw once in Bishopstone church, a woman whose faith is shown in how she lives and what she does,

‘Crop-haired, a little lame,

she polishes the church

on Saturdays, her turn;

always the shuffling same

hoovering of the nave,

the dusting of the pews

[though dust is rare, she says]

with flowers to change or save;

and if she should feel low

she leans a little while

against the wall where glass

throws on its opal glow-

And is transfigured so.'

May our own faith lead us to live and work in ways which enable us too to be transfigured.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy spirit amen.


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