St Francis, Terriers - Lent 2 (25.02.2018) Tony Dickinson

Whoever told you it was going to be easy? No riding off into the sunset here. Not at all. Here’s Jesus telling the crowd, and his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Or, as one parish in the West Midlands responded when their diocese asked for their mission statement: “Follow Jesus and die.”

That seems like an appropriate note for me to sign off after twenty-three years here. I’m not, I hasten to add, expecting to be gunned down by right-wing extremists on the streets of Genoa – though that is a possibility, given the current febrile state of Italian politics. What I am expecting is that this unlooked-for “retirement ministry” will strip away the false security which has tended to go with being “a Brit abroad”. And if Brexit does happen and Mrs May doesn’t show more willing to protect the rights of citizens of the other 27 states resident in Britain, then every one of the 1.5 million Brits who are living in those 27 states is likely to find the level of security they currently enjoy stripped away pretty smartly.

However, like Abraham, I am setting out in faith, remembering that he was rather older than I am when he received the call, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I shall show you.” I’m remembering, too, that the call to Abraham to embark on such a journey and to embrace so great an insecurity was accompanied by the promises which we heard in our first reading, the promises which meant, as St Paul realised, “that [Abraham] would inherit the world.”

Now it’s important to realise that when Paul writes about Abraham and his descendants inheriting the world he is not talking in the sort of terms that a Donald Trump or a Vladimir Putin or a Boris Johnson would understand. This isn’t about “making America great again” or “taking back control”. The people of Israel had been down that road in the millennium and a half that separates Abraham and Paul, and it had gone very badly wrong. That didn’t stop them from trying again in the decade after Paul’s death – with even more disastrous results.

We inherit the world when we say goodbye to the things that we rely on for security and instead place ourselves in the hands of the living God, when we abandon our attempts to grasp and hold and control and recognise instead that whatever comes is gift. The promise, as Paul points out, rests on grace, God’s free gift received in unconditional trust. The life of faith is not about pushing the right buttons, “doing the right thing”, and so earning a reward from God: it’s about holding out our hand, like a beggar in France or Italy waiting outside church after mass, and trusting that God will fill it. “Losing our life” is about recognising those uncomfortable truths: “You are not in control”; “Your life is not about you”; “You are not that important”.

It’s Peter’s failure to recognise that which earns him such a stinging rebuke from Jesus. “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” – and this, remember, is just after Peter’s great moment of insight at Caesarea Philippi. He recognises Jesus as “the Messiah”, God’s anointed, but totally fails to understand what that means. He wants to go back down that road to political power, the road which had led the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to such disaster. Jesus is not, emphatically not, such a leader.

One of the things which have stood out for me from the many obituaries and assessments that have followed Billy Graham’s death last week is the fact that, unlike his son Franklin, he actually understood that. In the course of his long life, Billy Graham was close to many US Presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. But he never saw that closeness as giving him the right to use or to manipulate their political power. His calling, he knew, was to proclaim the Good News of the Jesus whom he loved and adored, and not to allow that calling to be compromised by “setting [his] mind not on divine things but on human things”. His calling was to proclaim God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.

Now, that is the task of every baptised Christian, to live (and, if necessary, to die) for the sake of the gospel, to live lives marked by love and justice and mercy. It remains your task here in Terriers. It will continue to be mine after I have moved to Genoa.

If we want, as we claim to want, the conversion of the world, we will not achieve that by politics or programmes or slogans. What converts the world is the trust, the hope, the love revealed in our lives. “Acquire inner peace”, said Seraphim of Sarov, “Acquire inner peace, and thousands around you will find their salvation.” That requires the kind of “setting [our] mind on divine things” that comes with contemplation, the setting aside of twenty minutes or so, at least once each day, simply to be consciously with God, to rest in God, to empty our mind of “human things” as Peter could not. That isn’t a substitute for intercessory prayer, placing those who are in our thoughts, those who have asked for our prayers, within the healing stream of God’s love; it goes alongside it, as a time when God strips away our anxieties – and our self-satisfaction – and comes to us as the ultimate reality in which we live and move and have our being.

Sometimes that can be a very uncomfortable experience. The thoughts crowd in. The fears and anxieties do their very best to knock us off course, to disrupt our equilibrium. Our need to be pleased with ourselves is constantly nagging us to forget our prayers and, instead, to be up and doing – in other words to “earn” our salvation. That is to seek salvation by what Paul called “works of the law”, an attitude that makes trust in God “null and void”. It’s as we accept that our task is to “follow Jesus and die” at the very least, to all of that – it is then that that we come to experience a deeper reality of life in Christ. To him, with the Father....