August 31, 2008
( Jeremiah 15, 15-21; Romans 12, 9-21; Matt. 16, 21-26. )
There’s a version of the Gospel that is preached by some evangelists, particularly some of the tele-evangelists in the United States, which says that if you live according to what the Bible teaches, pray regularly and tithe your income in your gifts to the church, you will experience material prosperity in this life. Pastor Ike in the 70’s said “Don’t wait for pie-in-the-sky by and by. Get yours now with ice cream on top.” The Lord does not want anyone to be materially poor, they say, and they deny the traditional picture of Jesus as a poor person. They argue that he was wealthy enough to support his 12 followers. Rather than having a special concern for the poor, they say, God wants all his followers to be rich, and if they obey him, they will be given the power to become wealthy ( and the limousines and private jets of the tele-evangelists are proof that this is right).
There is some support for this view of faith in the Old Testament, particularly in the Book of Deuteronomyand in the history books that follow. They constantly re-iterate warnings to obey God and be faithful to the covenant, so that “your life may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you” and Deuteronomy 8.18 specifically promises “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to become rich”. The belief came into prominence again, to a certain extent after the reformation. Some groups taught that you could tell ‘the elect”, those pre-destined to God for salvation, by their material possessions. This lead to what the sociologist Max Weber called ‘The Protestant Work Ethic’ credited by him with promoting the rise of capitalism in the West.
There is also a version of the Gospel that is taught that maintains that those who have true faith will never get things wrong, and never encounter doubt or despair. If you really believe and trust in God, this version of Christianity says, you will sail through life in peace and confidence.
But the view that God rewards those who are faithful with peace of mind and prosperity in this life did not even hold sway throughout the whole of the Old Testament period. As early as the prophet Elijah, we find him complaining ( like Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading) that doing God’s will has brought him only misery and danger – and we get similar complaints against God in the Psalms and the Book of Job.
Perhaps we find it strange that some of the major Old Testament figures berate God so vigorously in their prayers. We are more used to hearing about God’s dependability from those who have faith. Jeremiah’s experience seems to have been quite different. He was called before birth, he says, to preach the word of God, and he was promised God’s support; he has been faithful to his commission, and all it has brought him is misery, and he has no sense that God is supporting him. God’s support he says, is as unreliable as a stream that dries up in the heat of the sun.
It is not a comforting God who answers. Stop wallowing in self-pity, he says to Jeremiah. Stop wasting your words on complaining to me and go back to preaching the message I sent you to preach. I won’t make life easy for you, and your message will not be welcomed by those you speak to – but I will be with you and you will not ultimately be overcome.
I imagine that in the euphoria of accompanying Jesus on his ministry in Galilee, witnessing the success of his preaching, his miracles and the large crowds who followed him, the disciples must have believed in a version of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would throw out the Romans, re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, and that his loyal followers would have pride of place in his administration.
No wonder Peter reacted so badly when Jesus began to predict his arrest and crucifixion. That didn’t fit in with his dreams for the future at all.
And, just as God reacted with bluntness to Jeremiah, so Jesus answers Peter with a sharpness that we find surprising, calling him by the name of the Devil. Why? Because Peter was doing Satan’s work for him, in preaching the idea that there is a way of doing what God wants us to do which is guaranteed to bring us peace and prosperity, whereas it is much more often the case that, in following God’s commands, people get hurt.
Then, just as God did with Jeremiah, Jesus urges the disciples to get back on the right track, to face up to what is coming for him, and possibly, for them. “Follow me” will not lead to guaranteed peace of mind and prosperity. It may lead to persecution, it may lead to death. But again, there is a reassurance at the end.
Although sometimes we may feel that God has deserted us, and at times, our faith is not strong enough to get us through the hard times without complaint, there will be justification for those who are faithful – but in God’s time, and in God’s Kingdom – not necessarily on earth.
I find it very reassuring that sometimes the giants of the faith, like Jeremiah and Peter, can get discouraged and get things spectacularly wrong. It puts the problems we experience as a follower of Christ into perspective. I am sure that many of you will have experienced times ( as I have) when doing what we believe to be the work of God has brought us frustration, hurt feelings and problems in life. I am sure, because it is a common experience of the great spiritual writers, that many Christians experience a period, sometimes called ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ when prayer seems dry, God seems to be absent, and our faith is severely challenged.
It can be hard to be a member of a church community when you are going through this sort of experience. The dominant atmosphere in the majority of our churches ( perhaps as a reaction to the doom and gloom of previous generations) is joy and praise. If you are depressed, if you are going through a period of doubt, if your faith is not bringing you any comfort, it can be hard to admit it, especially if you have a position of responsibility in the church and are expected to be an example to others. Our readings today should reassure us that no-one is infallible, and no-one should expect to be happy and confident in their faith all the time.
But they also reassure us that God is not absent, even when he appears to be. Hardship, troubles and depression may be part of the road God asks us to tread when we answer his call to “Follow me”. But God is there with us, even if we can’t feel his presence.
In all circumstances, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, when things are going well and when we seem to have come to a dead end in our faith, the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans give good advice.
They tell us to be sensitive to the moods of our fellow-Christians, to be happy with those who are happy, but to mourn with those who are sad. They encourage us to think the best of what is happening, to be patient in times of trouble and to persevere with prayer, even when it does not give us satisfaction.
They encourage us to be humble and to work hard – and not to expect riches to fall into our laps just because we are faithful Christians. They encourage us to love sincerely both our Christian friends and those who may be considered our enemies.
Above all, they teach us that we need to trust God to sort things out, even through times of persecution. God will not reject us if we rail against him – after all, he whose Son bore the cross for us is not going to be too offended by a few human complaints. But, as Paul reminds us, we should strive always for the best in life, so that good overcomes evil. That is what we are called to do when we respond to Jesus’ call “Follow me”.