Sermon - Sunday, 3 September 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 3 September.

Scripture: Exodus 3: 1-12 / Matthew 16: 21-28

Text: From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised                                                             (Matthew 16: 21)

IN THE NAME OF GOD, FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

On the road leading into the village of Stotternheim near the German city of Erfurt you will find a granite column.

The column is said to mark the spot where a young law student took shelter during a violent thunderstorm.

Having been visiting his family in Mansfield, apparently the young man was walking back to Erfurt when, on the outskirts of Stotternheim, he found himself caught in a raging storm.

Fearing he was about to be struck by a bolt of lightning, the young man prayed to St Anne and vowed that if she protected him, he would abandon his legal studies and become a monk.

Whether or not it was as a result of the protection of the Virgin Mary’s mother, the student did survive and, being a man of his word, two weeks later, and much to his father’s displeasure – he was reported to be very angry at the turn of events – the student abandoned his legal studies and presented himself at the gates of the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.

So it was that 21 year old Martin Luther took the first tentative steps on the journey towards the priesthood.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a movement that changed not just the face of the Christian church but the social, political and cultural face of Europe, a movement in which the writing, teaching and activities of Martin Luther proved to be a decisive factor.

As well as celebrating what is a hugely significant anniversary not just for the Protestant tradition but for the whole Christian Church, the concerns that led Luther to risk his life by challenging the corruption and complacency of late medieval Catholicism, are not just of historical interest but have, in my view, a surprisingly contemporary resonance.

If the 31st October 1517 is the date typically cited as the starting point of the Reformation, the date Martin Luther was said to have nailed his 95 thesis or statements of concern to the door of the Wittenburg church of All Saints, given the profound consequences of his change of heart during that fearful storm, it might well be argued that it was in fact some twelve years earlier, the 3rd July 1505, on a country road outside Stotternheim in the midst of a violent thunder storm, that the Reformation was born.

Of course, picking a starting date for such an important historical event as the Reformation is a somewhat arbitrary thing to do – think of the recent vote on Britain and the European Union – was the date of the referendum the starting point of Britain leaving the EU or had the seeds of the decision to leave been sown some time before – there is good historical evidence to suggest some if not all of the concerns expressed by Luther in his 95 theses had been voiced for many years previously.

What cannot be denied is that the thunderstorm resulted in a very personal change in the young legal student’s circumstances.

Having been pointed in the direction of a legal career, and what his stern and ambitious father Hans Ludher hoped would be a springboard into work with the growing number of professional public administrators, or best of all a position as a counsellor in the royal court, from that time on Martin Luther’s life took a very different direction.

And much more than just the choice of a different career, it is the very personal nature of Luther’s experience I want you to notice.

Luther’s change of heart grew out of his faith in God, in Luther’s case a troubled and fear-filled faith, but a faith nonetheless that was rooted in his personal relationship with God.

And as Luther would later discover, it was a relationship that would lead him to a very different understanding of God, fresh insights into God’s presence and purpose, and a radically different appreciation of the grace and forgiving love of God brought to earth and brought to life in Jesus of Nazareth.

From that time on…………..

From the afternoon he spent on the slopes of Mount Hermon watching over his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, Moses’ life would never be the same again.

The story of Moses, the Hebrew baby hidden in a basket in the bulrushes of the River Nile, found by an Egyptian princess, brought up by his natural mother, adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, and introduced to life in the Egyptian royal court is a wonderful tale.

However it takes a dark twist when in a fit of rage Moses kills an Egyptian soldier.

Forced to flee, Moses makes a new life for himself in Midian where he finds work as a shepherd and marries.

Visit Israel/Palestine today and you will see Bedouin shepherds trekking for days with their flocks across barren hillsides in search of pasture.

So it was with Moses, the Hebrew-born adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, as one day he led his father-in-law Jethro’s flock across Mount Horeb.

Moses sees a bush on fire, nothing so unusual in such a hot and arid environment, except this bush is not being consumed.

And as he moves closer, he hears his name being called from the bush, Moses, Moses.

Far more than we commonly realise, this too is our experience, God’s presence and promise evident in the activities of our everyday life, the commonplace of home and work, but the commonplace touched by God.

The Hebrew storyteller’s description of what happens next is as simple as it is profound when, aware he is in the presence of God, his sandals removed and his face covered, Moses is told to take God’s message of liberating hope to God’s suffering people and to plead with Pharaoh for their release from captivity.

A burning bush, holy ground, the voice of God, and as Moses stammers his protestations, it is evident he is as surprised as he is confused.

Who am I to go and plead with Pharaoh, Moses asks, and who are you to send me?

If there is an intensity to the personal nature of the dialogue, what also emerges is Moses experiencing God’s presence in a new way and being led, not only to a very different understanding of God’s purpose, but of his part within it.

God has heard the cries of God’s people Israel and with God’s help, Moses is being sent to rescue them.

From that time on…………..

Years later, on another hillside, this time in the north of the country in the region of Caesarea Philippi, Peter and the disciples are left reeling.

Peter has just named Jesus as the Christ but the moment of holy insight is about to take its own dark turn as Jesus reveals the fate which awaits him in Jerusalem.

Poor Peter, still flush with excitement from his great declaration but now shocked by what he has heard, the one who was to be the rock on which Christ would build his church, now accused of being Satan and a stumbling block to the purpose of God.

His voice doubtless shaking with emotion, Peter’s reaction could not be more understandable for who would not want to protect someone, their dearest friend, from such an appalling fate.

Yet beyond Peter’s very personal concern for his friend lies a deeper issue, the commonly held view that Israel’s long awaited Messiah would be a warrior king, someone who would rally the people, put God’s enemies to flight and re-establish Israel as supreme among the nations.

With this picture in his mind, little wonder Peter was appalled by what he heard, Jesus telling him he would suffer and die at the hands of the occupying Roman army.

However from that time on Jesus started to lead Peter and his fellow disciples to a very different understanding of the Messiah, the servant king whose crown would be of thorns and not of jewels, who would wrap a towel around his waist and wash their dirty feet, who would break bread with them on the night of his arrest and who, having suffered and died, would rise again to new life.

Humility, intensely personal, a willingness to be led to fresh insights and new understanding; as we seek to discern something of God’s presence and purpose in our day, these are some of the things to be gleaned from Moses and Peter, two of the great heroes of the faith.

And from the often troubled Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, the man at the heart of the Reformation, the profound conviction that true life and self are to be found through a personal relationship with God in Christ and in following his way of sacrificial love.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen