Reading Mark 8:27-38
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
A few weeks ago we discovered some ants scurrying around one of the rooms in our humble dwelling.
While I was dithering and being generally indecisive (as is my wont), Fee (my wife) went straight for the ant powder and sprinkled it round the affected area.
I have to confess a certain twinge of guilt at this course of action. The writer of Psalm 139 says that human beings are fearfully and wonderfully made and ants too, in their own way, are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Still, you’ve got to be practical, I suppose, so I didn’t remonstrate.
It seems obvious to me that not only human beings, not only ants, but the whole of creation is fearfully and wonderfully made. And you’ll remember that in the book of Genesis God says that it is all not only good but very good.
Christians sometimes talk about original sin and very grim it can sound too. But prior to all that there is a universal, still on-going, original blessing on all creation.
It’s my belief that all animals are blessed, approved (as it were) by God. They are fully obedient to God’s will. That goes for tigers and boa constrictors as well as for hamsters and bumble bees. And that would also have been the case for the creatures that were the ancestors of us modern human beings. They were fully obedient to the will of God.
But somewhere along the line, millions of years ago perhaps, something changed. The Bible suggests that it was our becoming aware of the nature and reality of good and evil. Once we became aware of good and evil, we became capable of good and evil. Before that, like the animals, we were entirely innocent.
Whether you agree with that analysis or not, it’s an obvious fact that we are not at one with God. A gap has developed between us and God.
Now, let’s look at our New Testament reading. We have Peter confessing that Jesus is the Messiah. We have Jesus predicting his own judicial murder on the cross. And we have Jesus enjoining us to take up our own cross and follow him.
That’s pretty much a summary of what the gospel is all about: Jesus’ divine mission, his sacrificial death on our behalf on the cross and our response.
In many ways the key words in the passage are those addressed by Jesus to Peter: ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
The natural inclination for a human being is to set his or her mind on human things and not on divine things. We are by nature self-centred, self-loving. That’s what I think Jesus means by human things, and they’re fine as far as they go. After all, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbour as ourselves, not more than ourselves.
But we have perceived the nature of good and evil, so such merely human things –self-love etc – are not good enough for us now.
So the cross, I believe, is making that leap from loving ourselves to loving others as well as we love ourselves and indeed to loving all things, loving all creation. Jesus went to the cross out of love for us – as a servant. Jesus had that divine perspective.
Taking up our own cross out of love is to achieve a divine perspective because God himself loves all people, all creatures, all things, all creation.
Once upon a time human beings became aware of the reality of good and evil, we became capable of good and evil. And once that particular cat was out of the bag, it couldn’t be put back in. We couldn’t go back to the innocence of being animals.
That’s why Christ came among us – to take us forward and not backwards, to rescue us from our self-centredness and bring us into union with him and therefore with God.
We are all a work in progress and we are all fully capable of falling at the next hurdle in our journey towards the divine fulfilment of our existence. We are all capable of turning in on ourselves and ignoring the divine call to take up our cross and love others.
And love is an intensely practical business. In a world where suffering is so prevalent, it manifests itself pre-eminently in compassion – feeling compassion, speaking compassion and acting compassion.
At the forefront of all our minds at the moment is, I’m sure, the current crisis surrounding refugees and asylum-seekers. Now, I’m not here to tell you what to think and what to do.
But I am here – in my view – to tell you that unless our thoughts and actions are filled to the brim with compassion, then they’re not worth all that much from any Christian perspective.
Compassion isn’t, can’t be selective and it has to take many different factors into account. Speaking politically, for instance, that makes any decision-making very complex and difficult. All I would say is that any policy decision that isn’t shot through from top to bottom with compassion is severely malformed.
Compassion isn’t selective and it isn’t easy. Ultimately, our compassion as Christians must be for all people, all creatures, all creation – like the compassion of God himself. Only then will we be setting our mind on divine things and not on human things.