A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-1
Psalm 22:24-32
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Last Wednesday, 24 February, a day when we remembered St Matthias, Canon Bill Goodes stood at the altar in the Lady Chapel counting wafers out of the little silver box. A few moments later he prayed, as he has done for the past sixty years, the great Thanksgiving Prayer before giving the congregation the blessed sacrament of Holy Communion. Sixty years is no mean achievement as a priest, and we congratulate Bill and thank him, and God, for this remarkable priestly ministry. Nor do we forget Chris who has actively shared so much of that ministry.

In his short homily on Wednesday Bill offered a few thoughts on Matthias. The name Matthias appears just twice in the Bible, at the end of Acts chapter one. The eleven Apostles assembled to choose someone to replace Judas who had betrayed Jesus. The lot, we are told, fell on Matthias. One of the criteria for Matthias being eligible for election was that he had ‘accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.’ This prompted Bill to comment that Matthias is famous for ‘having turned up’! He was simply there. We know nothing else about him.

We do know quite a lot about Bill Goodes! You can’t spend most of your life, and be a priest for sixty years, in South Australia and not be known. Bill has offered his own reflection and a very brief life-story – which was shared in Friday’s eNews. Bill, in the model of Matthias, ‘turned up’ faithfully and regularly during his sixty years as a priest. To my mind, that is one of the most important things a Christian can do – ‘turn up’. Be present to God and to God’s people, whether that be as a priest at the altar, someone sitting in the congregation, a group studying and praying together, reaching out to the poor, the distressed, the sick, the bereaved. Christians ‘turn up’ as the visible agents of God.

Things have changed much over the past sixty years. The confidence of the church of those days – with its building programmes, large Sunday Schools and youth groups, expected teaching of the Bible in schools, hospital visits, baptisms, weddings and funerals – is long gone. We are, for the most part, a humbler church today. Christians, and Anglicans in Adelaide in 2021, have to live with the knowledge of some dark moments in our past, and some difficult decisions to make for the future. The priest is no longer the first person called when a baby is born, or someone is sick or dying. For an increasingly large proportion of the general population the church is irrelevant – perhaps a rather attractive building which is worthy of a photo or two, but little else.

And yet, here we are today, gathered to worship God – a God we can’t see, for whom there is no proof. A God who, so we profess in our Creeds, became a human being and was given the name Jesus. He never went far from his birthplace. He invited a few people to follow him – who never really understood him, or ‘got’ him. He was betrayed, mocked, put on trial, strung up on a cross and left to die. Incredible as it seems, Matthias and Peter and the rest of the twelve, along with others, including a number of women many of whom seemed to be called Mary, claimed Jesus was raised to life on the third day. This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We believe in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It took three hundred years but the cross, the instrument of torture and death, is now marked on the forehead of those who are baptised, it is worn as a sign of honour by Christians, clutched in the hand of the dying, a symbol of faith and the hope of life everlasting. It is for this that we ‘turn up’.

This morning we are offered four passages of scripture to read, to mull over and try to make sense of in our day and context. Let’s note first the rebuke of Peter by Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan!” Three times in Mark’s Gospel Jesus tells his friends he will have to suffer, be rejected and betrayed, and killed. Three times too, he says he will rise again, or be raised, after three days. On each occasion there is misunderstanding on the part of the disciples, which is then followed by an injunction or order from Jesus. Peter tries to turn Jesus away from going to Jerusalem to meet his death; the disciples argue over who is the greatest; and the brothers James and John sidle up to Jesus seeking positions of power in the heavenly cabinet. In response to Peter Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In the second incident Jesus suggests that the first shall be last and the last first. And the third is that whoever wishes to be great must be the servant. (See Mark 8:31ff, 9:31ff, 10:33ff) Clearly what Jesus has in mind, and what the disciples have in mind, do not completely sinc. It is a feature of Mark’s Gospel that the disciples, those closest to Jesus, never really understand what Jesus is on about, and what is required of them.

Perhaps that is true of us today. How can we understand the mystery that is God? How can we really grasp what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus? A few years ago one of our EFM students came up with the phrase ‘the mystery of ambiguity’ when talking about God. It was woven into a prayer that the group continues to pray. It is a good reminder that to live a life following the crucified one, believing in God, is to embrace the ‘mystery of ambiguity’. That can be hard in a world which wants proof, which does not deal well with mystery and faith.

Yet that is the world of the follower of Jesus. Jesus does not say sit in my class and all will be revealed. I will prove to you that God exists. That it all makes sense. No – Jesus says, leave your nets, come and follow me. Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.

Two of today’s readings refer to Abraham. In Romans St Paul holds Abraham up as a great example of someone of faith – one who, despite the seeming impossibility of such an old couple having children, nonetheless believed God. Paul is referencing today’s first reading from Genesis 17. We know the story for we hear it read every year. God makes a covenant with Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child from which will come a great nation. Humanly it is impossible. But Abraham believes – he has faith. Isaac is born and the rest, as they say, is history!

But there is more to the story. We think that the Book of Genesis, including the great saga of Abraham, was written at the time of the Exile. At a time when it seemed utterly impossible to believe in God the story of Abraham’s faith surfaced. The Exile was a devastating experience for the People of Israel. Everything that they had thought and believed and lived had been whipped away by the mighty Babylonian Empire. How was it possible to believe that God cared, loved, thought of them at all? Yet they dared to tell the story of Abraham – of God, described as Almighty, inviting him to ‘walk before me, and be blameless.’
Charles Cousar, a New Testament scholar, writing about the faith of Abraham and his belief in the impossible, describes faith as ‘giving space to the surprising power of God, refusing to settle for what is possible or what is reasonable.’ (Text for Preaching, Year B, pg 206)

Perhaps that is what Matthias did when he ‘turned up? He stepped into that space where the surprising power of God is allowed to be exercised, where the possible and reasonable are not the only options. Perhaps that is why Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross, he knew that after the opening verses beginning ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ there follow the verses and sentiments we said/sung earlier today. “Those who seek the Lord shall praise him.” And at a time when there was as yet no concept of an afterlife, the psalmist could be confident that God’s righteousness would be declared to people as yet unborn.

Sixty years is a long time to be a priest – to turn up Sunday by Sunday to preach, teach and celebrate the mysteries of God. The church in Adelaide may be very different to what it was on St Matthias Day sixty years ago, but the invitation is still the same: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Peter did, as did Matthias and Mary Magdalene and the countless others down the centuries. Dare we continue to step into that space and allow the surprising power of God to act? Dare we continue to live into the mystery of ambiguity? Dare we follow Jesus to the cross and beyond?