Summer Hail

Sunday 28th August 2005
Year A, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Matthew 16:21-28

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I have been swept away by green advocacy into an unquestioning belief that we are suffering from a form of climate change which is bringing us ever more extreme weather. We know that there have always been heavy storms in Summer after an extended period of hot weather but the phenomenon on the increase which strikes me as most odd is Summer hail. Why are we being showered with pieces of ice in the middle of Summer?

I remember asking that question for the first time in 1974 when I was caught in London in my first ever massive Summer hail storm which was not only remarkable because of its ferocity but also because the hail stones were carrying red dust which turned out to be from the Sahara Desert. When the storm abated and the hail melted, we were left with red blotches of Saharan dust.

I recalled this rather strange experience when I read today's Gospel. Here we are, approaching the end of Summer, coasting along through the Sundays after Trinity, and then, suddenly, we find ourselves in the shadow of the Cross, brought with a start back to Holy Week. As the fruit ripens we feel the chill of early Spring days. Like hail in Summer, like red dust on our grey pavements, we are disturbed from our routine of the seasons.

And yet, even though I don't suppose for a moment that the Lectionary designers thought of this, there could hardly be a better Sunday of the year to think about the Cross because we are at a time of new beginnings. After the long Summer break for school children, after the change of routine in television and radio programmes, after the Summer fairs and fetes, after our own holidays or the pleasure of receiving post cards from friends, we are getting ready for the new term, for new projects, for the resumption of familiar routine, for the long stretch to Advent and Christmas. The only oddity is that we play Test cricket until half way through September.

Just as we are at a little, annual shift of emphasis this weekend, so the reading from Matthew's Gospel for today, the Gospel which is the backbone of our Church Year, represents a major change of emphasis. Up until now the narrative has been taking place under bright skies: Jesus is seen choosing his Disciples, travelling by foot and by boat, teaching, preaching, performing miracles; and then, part way through Chapter 16, where today's Gospel begins, we have this ominous phrase: "From that time on, Jesus began to show his Disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering ... and be killed, and on the third day be raised."

Peter's reaction to this was perfectly natural. Along with some of his friends and family, he had given up all he had to follow Jesus; he had been inspired and strengthened; this missionary work, so close in every way to Jesus, was more wonderful than anything he could have imagined as he went through his fisherman's routine of frenetic activity and enforced idleness. And now he is being told that his Master, The Messiah, the Son of God, must be killed. Although Matthew mentions it we cannot be sure that the last part of what Jesus said, about the Resurrection, actually went in.

Peter must have been appalled by the idea that the Messiah could be put to death by the elders, the Chief priests and the Scribes; it is as if Billy Graham had been told that if he came from the United States to England he would be put to death by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with the full consent of the Synod and the Church Commissioners. Just as Billy Graham is only a slightly different kind of Christian from the Archbishop of Canterbury so Jesus was only a slightly different kind of Jew from the other Rabbis; the difference, at the level at which Peter would have seen it, was not so much what Jesus taught but where he taught. Jesus taught in the fields and at the lakeside as well as in the Synagogues where Billy Graham taught in football stadiums and concert halls as well as in churches. As Jesus called for a rather more direct response to God than contemporary Rabbis, so Billy Graham called for a direct response from people to God; he wanted them to walk up to the front and affirm.

It is easy to understand Peter's response to what Jesus had said and it is also easy to understand Jesus' rather harsh reaction in that famous phrase: "Get behind me, Satan!" Poor Peter; but Jesus must have been heavily preoccupied with what was to come; for him, too, as a human being, as fully man, born without foreknowledge, he had reached the point where he knew that the bright days were over; he had reached the point where he knew that there would have to be a price paid for his love of the Father and that price would be heavy.

Perhaps for the first time, Jesus was contemplating His own death and the last thing he needed was for His chief Lieutenant to tell him that it was all right, it would not happen, such a price was not necessary. Perhaps, too, in looking forward to the end of His own human life, Jesus was forced to contemplate for the first time what would happen to the Disciples He had chosen; they, too, might have to die for staying true to what He had taught them. Whether they had to die or not, all that Jesus could see ahead was trouble and pain. And in such circumstances what Jesus did not want was a set of clever human calculations; he did what He always did, He turned to His Father in prayer.

Looking back perhaps forty years later, Matthew expressed what Jesus asked of His disciples in terms of what happened to Him; they must "Take up their Cross"; and so must we who follow; and as we settle back into our working routines, it is a good time to think what this means. It always sounds rather dramatic; more dramatic, even, than standing up and coming to the front of one of Billy Graham's revival meetings. But that is exactly what carrying the Cross involves; before you can carry it you have to stand up; to stand up, as the saying goes, and be counted. But too often we think of taking up our Cross as a solitary occupation; we think of silently enduring suffering, of being stoical or, if it's part of your culture, of keeping a stiff upper lip. We think of Jesus, lonely and deserted.

But Jesus wasn't entirely deserted; he was helped by Simon of Cyrene whose sons became pillars of the early church; and there is our clue. We are Members of the Holy Catholic Church which carries the Cross of Jesus in collective proclamation. And no matter how difficult our personal suffering may be, the really difficult part of being a Christian is living a public life of integrity. Now, more than at any time in our history, as pressure mounts for punitive new laws as the result of the London bombings, that integrity is called for as we think about the question: "Who is our neighbour" and as we struggle to love where we might be inclined to condemn.

As Summer turns to Autumn, as Parliament considers its reaction to the bombings, our love will be on trial, the Cross will feel heavy, and some of us may be tempted to take a break from carrying it, telling ourselves that we can separate our public life from our Christian duty of love. This is a good time to be careful not to imitate Peter the insider, too hasty in his reactions, and to remember Simon the outsider who helped Jesus to carry His Cross. It is easy to say what happened in London, as alien as the red dust in the hail from the Sahara, will not change our way of life; but in the way we carry the Cross with all of our neighbours we have to mean it.