Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (23 September 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (23 September 2018) by the Revd Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Precentor considers whether, in the community of faith, it is effective to take sides, or whether, by sitting on the fence, we allow ourselves to focus entirely on God.

I was fortunate enough to attend the women’s semi-finals of the wheelchair basketball during the Paralympic Games a few years ago. It was exciting stuff but, just to ensure that we really were excited, there was a cheerleader who bounced onto the court every now and again to teach us how to do Mexican waves and to ask us whose side we were on. 

I had arrived at the matches without plans to support any particular side but I quickly realised that this would make me non-participative and risk the camera being turned on me during the cheers and expose me as a party-pooper. I almost imagined the cheer leader coming and having words with me – words which might be broadcast all around the world if I didn’t play ball. 

So, in the match between the US and Australia, I decided to support Australia on the grounds that we share the same monarch and, in the match between Germany and the Netherlands, I chose Germany on the grounds that my father was German. The latter decision was assisted by the fact that I was sitting near a very big and very loud group of Dutch supporters with enormously large orange hats on their heads – a form of millinery which is rather alien to me.

And, of course, I had to admit that, by becoming an actual supporter, the matches were all the more thrilling as a result.

The taking of sides is a natural human response to events and situations. And, in human terms, it is also seen as a show of strength. But it is not so within the context of a community of faith and our Gospel lesson this morning makes this clear.

Jesus’s disciples are afraid to ask him what he means about the death and rising again of the Son of Man, partly because Peter’s assertion previously that Jesus is the Messiah has led to Jesus ordering them not to reveal his identity as the Messiah to anyone. The reason why Jesus orders his disciples to keep secret his identity as the Messiah is for fear of misinterpretation. Peter – always the one to find words when challenged, even if they’re not always wise or suitable words – means to identify Jesus as the triumphant rebel leader who will throw off Roman tyranny and establish God’s people as an independent state. Jesus, however, will articulate his messiah-ship as a mere mortal: a defenceless sufferer, who wins dominion by utter obedience, not by force of arms. Indeed, he will best be identified as a child – an innocent, dependent, out of the mouths of whom God has ordained strength.

The cheerleader at the basketball match would be pretty unimpressed by this sort of Messiah and the Church finds itself frequently compromised by the same pressure to take sides and to command, but that is not the example which Jesus has given to us.

Although I get frustrated by the leadership of the Church of England, I do recognise that its attempts – vain though they often are – to steer a via media through the complex and diverse range of confessional stances and opinions that exist within the Church is a better reflection of the messianic secret than magisterial dictats from on high which certain types of Christians prefer. 

People frequently misinterpret what it means to be a Church which claims allegiance to a King, to a Messiah, as if the Church should take up arms against people’s whims and shibboleths without regard to the complexity and diversity of the human condition. 

In situations of conflict, Jesus is the Son of Man – the human figure who wins through not by force of arms, not by killing and conquering, not by taking sides, but through the sovereignty of absolute devotion to God. 

And, yes, that sometimes means sitting on the fence: that lonely, weak, unpopular, much-derided location, from where one looks down sorrowfully on what happens when people of faith take sides. 

Of course, the Son of Man didn’t sit on the fence. He hung on the cross – a step too far probably for all of us here. That was the consequence of not taking sides but of being a defenceless sufferer – a child – who wins dominion by utter obedience, not by force of arms. 

Jesus indicates that his is a kingship whose royal authority consists not in coercing others but in respecting their freedom. His royal bounty goes to the length of giving up his own life when people misunderstand and hate him. 

Likewise, a disciple’s life must be forfeit if he or she is indeed to follow Christ. If that’s too much to ask, the least we can do surely is to follow Jesus’s example and not take sides. 

Sitting on the fence is lonely, weak, unpopular, and much-derided but it allows people of faith to focus entirely on God and, if we all did that, we’d be on the same side anyway and we’d be able the more readily to set about the task of that other much-derided activity: mutually worked out compromise, at which the Church of England, for all its faults, is pretty adept.

Our messianic task, our Christ-like task, our child-like task is to end the war, not win the war.