Reading: Matthew 16: 13-20
I would like to speak a little longer than usual for a Sunday morning. I humbly request some patience on your part, but I think you will see why I do have to speak for longer. We live in troubled times and our Lord commands us to observe the signs of the times. He also requires honest speech, and truth is seldom a welcome visitor at any door.
“But who do you say that I am?” A straightforward question, apparently, but to understand its full significance, we must understand the context in which Jesus asked it. He and the disciples were in the hills outside Caesarea Philippi, a city with an overtly pagan character. It was named after Caesar whom the Roman state had acclaimed as a god after his murder. Furthermore, the disciples were almost certainly standing beneath cliffs dotted with shrines to Greek and Roman gods. This is what the disciples would have seen when Jesus asked his question. By recognising Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed king sent by God, Peter recognised the truth, and showed up the idols for what they were – forgeries. Jesus acclaimed his faith as the rock on which the Church would stand. Peter’s faith is the true rock, the counterfeit images in stone are not.
Is this question relevant to us, two millennia later? I tell you what. Let us come back to that. Instead, let us ponder the events of recent years. We know the world economy is peering into a chasm. We know that our cities are ablaze as its inhabitants discover the joys of shopping with violence. We know that newspapers have eavesdropped on the grief-stricken in order to quench their readers’ thirst for voyeurism. The West is stuck in a seemingly perpetual war in Afghanistan, not to mention adventures elsewhere. We know we are plundering God’s Earth to continue our way of life, with not a thought to the consequences. Are these all random events? No. No, they are not. They seem disparate, but something does connect them. They are all the outward symptoms of an inner and spiritual illness. And that illness is idolatry, the worship of something which is not God. He made us to be stewards of his good wholesome creation. But something has gone wrong. Instead of worshipping him, we seem drawn to worshipping elements of the creation itself.
There may be some here who think this is a bit over the top. But I ask you to consider the defining features of the modern world. Easy money, rampant consumerism, ego-worship, the cult of celebrity, sex without commitment or consequence, military adventurism. Now we can delude ourselves that everything is all okay, but we can’t deceive the One who made us. I put it to you that our way of life is a very long way from anything recognisably Christian. To all intents and purposes, it has become colossally idolatrous.
But what are these pagan idols? They are not hard to find. Chief among them are money, power and sex.
First let us deal with the love of money or Mammon as the Jews called him. There is nothing inherently wrong with wealth. Obviously not. But what happens when Mammon is the lord of our lives and Jesus is not? The pursuit of stuff consumes every waking hour. People want cash and the trinkets and sensations it brings. But the appetite is never satisfied. There must always be more to fill the boredom, the hole where God used to be. And in pursuing will o’ the wisp, they leave the path of sanity.
Our economic woes illuminate this very clearly. Our whole way of life is an illusion. Far from being the result of real achievement, it floats on an ocean of borrowed money, so vast that it can never be paid back. The Bible connects wealth with humility, the individual labourer earning his bread through the sweat of his brow. It has a dim view of debt and interest because these are unearned and fictitious forms of wealth and can easily foster speculative manias and hysterical delusions of easy fortunes. And my goodness don’t they just. Across the world, governments, companies and ordinary people have convinced themselves they can borrow and borrow ‘cos there ain’t no tomorrow. But now the merry-go-round has stalled, the music has faded and nobody knows what to do next.
In a world in love with Mammon and addicted to debt, there must always be growth; there has to be an ever more radiant tomorrow, because the moment hard times come, and the supply of credit runs dry, the consumer gets angry, the shutters go down and the barricades go up. And it is not necessarily because of hunger or thirst. When spiritual sustenance comes in the form of a plasma TV set, don’t be surprised at those who smash, burn and kill to get their hands on it.
The second idol is power, or Caesar as we might call him. In other words, the state. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with the state. Indeed God created government for our benefit and it has a vital role to play in a Christian society. But the state can never be a substitute for God. Think about the model for mankind represented by the early church. It is an alternative community, a new way of being human. In the world, but different from it. A gathering of men and women connected by the bonds of love that flow between God and them, and then between each other. It is in community that we are made Christians, because it is in the face of our neighbours that we meet Jesus, just as the disciples met God in the person of Jesus. When we look to the state for all the solutions to the problems of society, we enter a blind alley. In the long run, the state will never find enough money, and bankruptcy will ensue. This is what we are living through. But if we always look to a bureaucracy to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, heal the sick, teach the unschooled, visit the prisoners, are we not abdicating the responsibilities that God expects of us, as the creatures he made to be the stewards of his creation?
Clearly we can not do everything. But we can do something with our time and money, and small things can grow to become something bigger, and in the world we now entering, they will probably have to grow bigger if the destitute and the downtrodden are to be lifted up. Are we really content with things as they are, consuming the products of Mammon while Caesar looks after the mess we choose to ignore? We should remember that Caesar is not simply concerned with our ‘best interests’. The same Caesar that sustains massive borrowing to fund our way of life, sustains the wars being waged in far away places to remake the world in our image. If we look to the Caesar for the solution to all our problems, he will expect a price in return that we may not be willing to pay.
The third idol is Sex, or Venus as the Roman goddess of love was known. As with money and the state, there is nothing inherently wrong with sex. It is a gift from God, but a dangerous one when uncontrolled, and he has made the boundaries for it quite clear, namely as the private expression of love between a man and woman within the life-long covenant of marriage. What happens when these boundaries are disregarded? When Venus is at the centre of our lives and Jesus is not? We know. Sex has spilt over to suffuse the public sphere, so that one can not turn on the television, read a magazine, or even open the front door without being blasted by it. The plain truth is that ours is culture of relentless seedy hedonism that derides self-control and elevates the pursuit of pleasure without consequence to the status of a spiritual quest. It is hardly surprising then that the most intimate and sacred relationships between human beings are then violated so casually. That so many regard marriage as a contract that can be easily dissolved if becomes ‘difficult’ or that the unborn can be terminated if nature’s gift of a human life proves inconvenient to those out for a good time.
The degenerate actions of parts of the media, laid bare in recent weeks are an indirect result of this cast of mind. True, the worst phone hacking allegations did not relate to smut, but when titillation and voyeurism becomes a national past-time, when we become a nation of Peeping Toms, we should not be surprised that media elements should use any means necessary to supply demand for the darker side of life. Inch by inch, the hunger for the lurid and the coarse has dulled the conscience of those who produce tabloids and those who read them.
I could go on and on, listing other symptoms of idolatry. But although we can not deny the illness, neither must we despair of cure. There is nothing less Christian than to be without hope. The cure starts with Peter’s response to Jesus. ‘You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.’ Jesus is the lord of this world, not Mammon, not Caesar and not Venus. The cure, for us and for humanity as whole, starts with repenting and believing that. This might seem naively simplistic, but it is not. Repentance means facing the truth about who God is and who we are. The Jews of Peter’s day had a sense of the unspeakable holiness of God that has all too often been absent from the Church since the Enlightenment. God is immensely kind and patient, but he is not an indulgent grandfather. Precisely because God is good, he can not pretend that our idolatry and the chaos it produces don’t matter. We do well to remember the vision of God that Isaiah had in the Temple. Isaiah had more claim than most to be holy. But his reaction was not to introduce himself calmly to his Maker. He was convinced that he would die because he, a sinner, stood before the Holy One of Israel.
The cure starts with this recognition that our world has gone dreadfully wrong, and that God sent his Son on a mission of mercy to put it and us right. When we see this plainly, we can reassess our lives and send them on different course. It is not my place to provide a tick list of things to do. But honest repentance will bring certain question to mind, and I can only start with myself. What am I doing with my life? What do I fill my mind with? Do I devote my time and treasure to the honouring of God, or do I spend them on that which is idolatrous? Do I practice self-control and restraint, or do I not? Do my actions prop up the idols that bestride our world, or, in my own small way, do I resist them? When for example, I hear that the Church of England owns £4 million of shares in News International, do I shrug my shoulders or do I make plain to our bishops and our Synod how abhorrent this is? Do I bother to inquire where my pension funds are being invested, or do I put it to the back of my mind? Were I to have children, would I bring them up to have the mind of Christ, to practice charity, humility and mercy and to know their lives had a greater purpose than empty-minded and vacuous amusement?
The times through which we live expose the degree to which paganism has penetrated to the heart of our civilisation, its reach being so insidious because it has not been recognised as paganism. The mission of the Church, as an institution and as individuals, must be to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and the idols are not, and then to present the alternative by showing forth in our lives the fruit of God’s grace. As Christians, we have no choice.
And we do so in the knowledge that God is with us in this mission. The Church began, after all, as a tiny gathering in a Jerusalem attic, and look what followed from that. God can and will take our efforts, however feeble in worldly terms, and make of them something different. No act of self-restraint is trivial and no refusal to submit to the ways of this world is insignificant. They are all lodged in the memory of our Creator. And when he renews creation, when he unveils new heavens and a new earth and puts the idols to flight, he will remember them.