Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
1st of March, 2015
Today’s reading comes from a pivotal moment in the Gospel of Mark. Brendan Byrne, who taught me the Gospel of Mark, says that there are three stories in the gospel. Story One asks the question who Jesus is. We know, because we’ve read the opening line of the gospel: ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ But the disciples and the crowds don’t, and through the first half of the gospel they are asking who this person with power and authority could be. The answer is that he’s the Messiah. Story Two then asks what sort of Messiah Jesus will be. The second half of the gospel shows Jesus teaching his disciples that as Messiah he must suffer, be rejected, be put to death, and on the third day rise again. For the disciples this second story, about suffering and death, conflicts with the first. The two stories clash on the cross, when Jesus is taunted by the crowds who call: ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ These two apparently contradictory stories are resolved in the third story, which sees Jesus, the crucified messiah, as the Son of Man who returns in glory.
Today’s reading comes from the moment in the gospel when Mark’s Story One is replaced by his Story Two. The disciples now know what we readers have known from the beginning: who Jesus is. Peter has just answered Jesus’ question: ‘Who do you say I am?’ by saying ‘You are the Messiah’. What the disciples don’t yet know is what sort of Messiah Jesus will be: ‘Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.’ Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee is finished; he has begun his journey towards Jerusalem and his death, and along the way he will teach his disciples that he has come ‘to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’. (Mark 10:45) It’s a difficult teaching; and Peter stumbles at it. The disciples will continue to have difficulty with what sort of Messiah Jesus is right until the end.
In today’s reading, Jesus not only speaks openly about his own suffering. He also speaks openly about the suffering that those who follow him can expect. And he doesn’t limit this teaching to the disciples who have already chosen to follow him. He calls to the crowds, and speaks to them too when he talks about those who want to become his followers carrying their cross and losing their life. It’s pretty much the exact opposite of any modern evangelical strategy. Rather than telling the crowds that following him will make their lives better in any way, Jesus speaks of judicial execution. The cross was an instrument of torturous death used to keep the population subdued under Roman rule. Carrying one’s cross was literally what criminals and slaves had to do as they went to their place of execution. Who would follow a Messiah whose followers risked crucifixion? And yet Jesus speaks about suffering and death, and not just his own, but the suffering and death of those who want to follow him.
For Mark’s first readers, taking up the cross, losing their lives, meant risking quite literal death. They were being persecuted and they were being asked to stay faithful despite persecution. Throughout history many Christians have literally lost their lives for Jesus’ sake: from the early martyrs; through twentieth-century disciples like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero; to those Christians who are face displacement and death today in the Middle East. Yesterday I watched the film Selma, and was reminded of the Christians who lost their lives in the Civil Rights’ Movement. (I’d recommend that you all go and see Selma; it’s currently showing at the Sun in Yarraville.)
We don’t face that sort of danger and death. For us, taking up the cross is less literal. For us, living in relationship with God, losing our lives by recognising they belong first to God, means removing ourselves from the centre of our lives. Rather than making our own life and health and happiness and safety our priority, we are called to follow Jesus and serve others, living lives of sacrificial love. We are called to place the needs of others before our own desires; to refuse to be seduced by a society that tells us that it’s more important that we enjoy luxuries than that other people eat.
I need to be careful about what I’m going to say next, because I believe that one way in which we in the Uniting Church are being invited to take up our crosses at the moment is through the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. This past week, the Royal Commission has held public hearings into the abuse that took place at Knox Grammar School in New South Wales between 1970 and 2012, and the response of the school and of the Uniting Church to that abuse. The Uniting Church is involved because, as the name of the school suggests, Knox was a Presbyterian school that became a Uniting Church school at Union.
I listened to some of the hearing this week as it was streamed live and I was horrified. Five past teachers at Knox have been convicted of child abuse, and another three have been named. A warrant has been issued for one ex-teacher who has failed to attend the Royal Commission. School documents about the abuse have gone missing.
This is a situation in which the Uniting Church must take up our cross. I want to be clear that by saying that I’m not suggesting that the Church is a victim in this. When the Royal Commission was announced back in 2012 Cardinal George Pell said that he felt the Catholic Church was being unfairly targeted due to anti-Catholic prejudice. I’m not saying anything like that. The churches, of whatever denomination, are not victims in this process. The victims are those people who were abused while in the care of institutions, and their families and friends.
When I say that this is a situation in which we must take up our cross, what I mean is that as members of the Uniting Church in Australia we must accept responsibility for what happens in Uniting Church institutions, including schools like Knox Grammar School. In January I talked about the story of Jonah and his call on the people of Ninevah to repent. In that sermon I said:
The king of Ninevah demands that everyone, human and animal, cry out to God in repentance. I’m sure that not every citizen of Ninevah was equally sinful. I suspect that some people, and definitely the animals, weren’t directly sinful at all. But it’s likely that all of them benefitted from being part of the empire, whether they personally oppressed others or not, and so all of them fasted and clothed themselves in sackcloth. Sometimes sin is social and structural, not something we do individually, but something we all benefit from. And that sort of sin demands repentance, just like our individual sins.
This is that sort of case. We are members of the Uniting Church. We cannot take pride in, for example, UnitingCare being one of the largest providers of community services in the country, if we are not also willing to repent for the abuse that took place at a prestigious Uniting Church school. As a minister, I can’t rejoice in the actions of a clergyman like Martin Luther King if I’m not willing to repent the abuse perpetrated by priests, ministers and Salvation Army officers.
There is one very practical way in which we may be asked to show our repentance. The Royal Commission has suggested that $4 billion dollars will be needed to compensate victims of child sexual abuse. The suggestion at the moment is that a national scheme will be set up to be administered by the government, funded by the institutions involved. That obviously will include the Uniting Church in Australia; we are an institution involved. That may mean that the Uniting Church has to sell property; and we’ve seen recently in Victoria how little we like being forced to sell our property! But in this case selling some of our assets is the very least we can do to show that we as the Uniting Church accept responsibility.
At the end of today’s reading Jesus says: ‘Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ I cannot imagine how ashamed Jesus must that parts of his church, his very Body here on earth, have abused children, those of whom he said: ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:37) Let’s not make Jesus ashamed of us. Let’s take up our crosses and follow him, repenting of the evil that has been done under the Uniting Church name. Amen.