Audio version here (N.B. I managed to leave out a vital "not" as I preached this, at about 3mins. 15 seconds . The quote should be "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."Fairly crucial to the meaning! It is correct in the text below!
There’s an item that I put on every agenda of every Parochial Church Council meeting we have at Seal. I call it the Vision Question; it’s designed to help us think about the broader issues of our church life. Otherwise finance and building work discussions swallow us up. One Vision Question I asked a while back was this, “What are our success criteria as a church? How do we know whether we are doing what we should be doing? “
Success criteria can be fairly easy to come up with in many organisations and businesses. If you own a factory that makes rivets, your success criteria are presumably that you sell lots of them, and that people come back for more. That’s what tells you you’re getting it right. But what does a successful church look like?
The PCC answered the decided that we would know we were succeeding if those who came here felt loved and welcome, if they were are growing in faith, if we could see that we were making a difference to our community. Much though we like to see the church full, numbers weren’t the key, we felt – these other things mattered far more. It was an important conversation to have because our success criteria set our direction of travel, the paths we walk on as a church. Consciously or unconsciously, they shape our church’s life.
Being clear about what we think success looks like isn’t just important for churches and businesses, though. It’s important for us as individuals too. How do I know whether I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing with my life, whether it’s going in a good direction, whether I am treading the right path or being led astray? If we want to know the answer to that, we have to begin by asking where it is we want to get to, and what our lives would look like if we arrived there.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about success and failure and what they look like, and what he says comes as a surprise to those who hear him. “Jesus began to teach his disciples” says our Gospel reading today, “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.”
“Whoa, Jesus!” says Peter. “What are you going on about? It sounds like you’ve really lost the plot! What has all this suffering and rejection and death got to do with being God’s Messiah?” Surely God’s chosen one should have an easy ride, straight to glory!
Jesus doesn’t mince his words when he answers. “Get behind me, Satan!” You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” He obviously wants to hammer the point home. But what’s the problem? What’s wrong with human things? After all, God, in Jesus, became human, and he enjoyed the humanness of life – eating, drinking, relaxing with his friends, so he isn’t telling Peter that he should reject the material world, or despise bodily existence. What Jesus is challenging is Peter’s success criteria, his judgement of what success and failure look like. To Peter, at this point in his story, success is all about health, wealth, popularity, the respect of others. But if he truly wants to follow Jesus, if he wants to see God’s kingdom come, “on earth as it is in heaven”, he’s going to have to learn to look at things differently, otherwise he’s going to come badly unstuck and very soon.
Not long after this exchange, Jesus will be arrested and nailed to a cross. At that point, everything about him will scream “failure”. He’ll be mocked. He’ll be suffering. He’ll be alone. The crowds that have followed him, and even his closest friends, people like Peter, will desert him. It’s true that after three days he will rise again, but only after he has gone through this painful and humiliating death – there’s no way around it. Why should this be so? Peter has always assumed, as most people did, that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen to his Messiah. Why would he, when he could surely prevent it? “If you are God’s Messiah, come down from the cross” the bystanders shout at Jesus as he dies. But they are just saying what most other people – including Peter – are thinking. By anyone’s success criteria, the crucifixion doesn’t look like success.
Sometime around the beginning of the third century, a bored Roman scratched some graffiti into a wall of a building on the Palatine hill in Rome. It’s a picture of a man with a donkey’s head, nailed to a cross, with the words beneath it “Alexamenos worships his God”. I’ve put a sketch of it on the pew leaflet. It’s now in a museum in Rome. It’s widely regarded as the first representation of the crucifixion we have. We don’t know anything about Alexamenos, but it seems he was Christian, and he was being ridiculed for it.
We’re used to seeing glorious and moving representations of the crucifixion in art and architecture. We decorate our churches with crucifixes and wear them round our necks, but that can make us blind us to its horror. To those who saw crucifixions happening all the time around them, they were a sign of failure, a deliberately shameful form of execution, handed out especially to traitors and rebels. And that’s how most people at the time saw Jesus - as a traitor, a rebel, and most of all, as a failure. Why would anyone want to worship, let alone follow and emulate, someone like that? The person who scratched that graffito didn’t get it. And yet people like Alexamenos did. Evidently, somehow he’d come to understand that in dying on the cross, in deliberately embracing it, Jesus had transformed its shame. Through it, he’d identified with those the world had cast out, the marginalised people he’d befriended in life, those who were crucified daily by prejudice, poverty, hatred, the mess of their society, and their own sense of guilt. Through his innocent death on it, the cross had become a reminder that whoever and wherever you were, whatever you had done and whatever had happened to you had a friend in him.
Peter eventually got his head around this too, but he had to learn the hard way. When Jesus was arrested, Peter was challenged by some bystanders as he lurked in the shadows near the place of his trial. “Aren’t you one of his followers?” they asked him. But Peter denied it. He knew that he risked losing everything he valued – his status, his self-respect - even his life - if he admitted to being Jesus’ disciple. He was desperate to cling to what he had. But as soon as he denied Jesus, he realised he’d sacrificed not only his integrity, but also his friendship with the only man who’d ever unswervingly accepted and loved him. Nothing he had was worth the price he’d just paid. He wept bitterly, thinking there was no way back and it wasn’t until after the resurrection that he found the healing and forgiveness he needed.
Jesus had warned him, as he warns us, about putting too much trust in “human things” – about judging ourselves and others by the success criteria of the world around us – honour, status, wealth and strength. They aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They often don’t make us as happy as we thought they would, they bring their own worries and pressures with them and, getting to those goals often means treading pathways that, looking back, we bitterly regret. To paraphrase Jesus’ words here, “What will it profit someone if they have become the CEO, but have abused their power in order to do so? What will it profit someone to win an Olympic Gold medal, but only through doping? ” What value do these prizes have if getting them has corroded our souls by killing our capacity to love and care?
And to cap it all, those things won’t last. If we put our trust in our jobs, our families, our earning potential, what will happen to us when retirement, illness, or simple bad luck take away those markers of achievement? How will we measure the “success” of our lives then?
It seems to me that Jesus is telling us that, in the end, the only goal that’s really worth giving ourselves to is the goal of knowing that wherever we are, whatever is happening to us, we’re held in the hands of God, who will never leave us. Living or dying, healthy or sick, famous or obscure, rolling in money or without tuppence to rub together, we are his, loved, known, never forsaken. That’s the prize worth giving everything for, the prize that is still there when everything else is lost.
One of the privileges of my work is to take communion to people who can’t get to church easily themselves anymore. Some of those I visit have dementia. They may have achieved all sorts of things in their lives, brought up families, held positions of authority, but gradually even those memories slip away, or survive to taunt them with what they used to do. I wish I had a magic wand to make life easier for them, and those who care for them, but I don’t. I wonder, what does “success” mean for them? What does it mean for me as I visit them, when they may have forgotten my visit five minutes after I’ve gone? Is it worth going at all?
I’ve never doubted that the answer is yes. Just last week, I visited one man who, at the end of our little home communion, with its familiar words and symbols said, as he always does “Anne, that was wonderful!” And I absolutely believe it was.
In that twenty minutes or so, as we prayed together, we both knew that we were in the presence of God, right there, right then. It didn’t matter what we remembered or didn’t remember, what we understood or didn’t understand, what we’d achieved or failed at in life. None of that could make God love either of us any more or any less, none of that could change God’s mind about us. A great deal had been lost – memories, skills, purpose – but for that brief time we had the only thing that really mattered, an awareness of the love of God, which nothing could destroy. Whatever we think a successful life might look like, in the end, to loved and to know we are loved, is the only success criterion that really matters.