Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Lent: Things Earthly and Heavenly – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 25 February 2024 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (Romans Ch 4: v 13 – 25; Mark Ch 8: v 31 – 38)

Poor old Peter – getting it wrong again, and receiving an earful from Jesus, in words that should probably come with a trigger warning: “strong language from the start.”

His mistake? To respond to Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection with outraged disbelief. He rejects the possibility of such an outcome and takes Jesus to task for mentioning it; whereupon Jesus likens him to Satan. What a fracas! But this is not a minor disagreement over details. Jesus’ response shows a fundamental difference of approach between himself and Peter: “You are not minded” (a literal translation) “ of the things of God but those of men,” he says. In other words, “your vision is earthbound.”

You may recall Peter making a similar error at the time of the Transfiguration. So overwhelmed was he by the luminous vision of Christ flanked by Moses and Elijah that he suggested making little shrines or booths for them – “not knowing what to say,” we are told. He wanted to make the scene permanent, to make the temporal eternal. But it was not possible, either for him or for us.

We quite naturally look for stability and a sense of continuity in our lives, and that is desirable: our relationships with one another should not ideally be transient; to be rooted and settled in our homes and lives is a blessing and gives a firm foundation to develop our potential, confirm our attributes and nurture our hearts. Yet, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come,” that is, the heavenly one (Hebrews Ch 13: v 14). How then may we reconcile being in the world, and indeed living fully as part of it, with the need to keep an eye on that eternal country to which we travel? Jesus, in sending the Apostles out into the world on their missionary journey, warns them about this delicate balancing act, telling them to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew Ch 10: v 16). We should be open and clear about our faith without being anybody’s fool – avoiding, as they say, being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly use. “Wise”, I take it, implies being fully clued up but never devious.

An inspiring example of where witnessing to Christ’s teaching in dangerous places can lead is the life – and death – of Archbishop Janani Luwum of Uganda. His episcopal role coincided with the crazed and murderous regime of President Idi Amin. The Archbishop could have decided to keep quiet and say nothing; instead, he knew it was his duty, as a Christian leader, to call out and criticize the excesses of Amin’s regime. So in early 1977 he delivered an open letter of protest against its policies of imprisonment, arbitrary killings and “disappearances” of political opponents, and the wholesale expulsion of Ugandan Asians. To speak truth to power is often uncomfortable and personally detrimental; when that power is autocratic, brutal and vindictive, it can be suicidal. Luwum knew that, and went ahead. He was duly charged with treason and planning to stage a coup, and was very publicly arrested; the next day it was announced that he had been killed in a car crash. All this was 47 years ago; yet it has a disturbing current resonance.

Archbishop Luwum is remembered in our Anglican lectionary as a martyr on 17th February – just over a week ago. His statue is one of those of 20th century martyrs at Westminster Abbey, and his courage, echoing down the years, has given strength and inspiration to many.

Mercifully, few of us – especially in this or other European countries – are called upon to make such sacrificial decisions. But we are called upon to discern the difference between “the things of God” and “the things of men”, as Peter signally failed to do at this point in the story. While being in and of this world, we need also to turn aside, to take time out, especially in Lent, to look to the eternal horizon. As R. S. Thomas puts it:

“It is the turning

Aside like Moses to the miracle

Of the lit bush, to a brightness

That seemed as transitory as your youth

Once, but is the eternity that awaits you.”

(The Bright Field)

For Christians, the direction of travel is not from a fresh east (our birth) to a declining west (our later years); but ever towards the rising sun, which will tear away the veil that separates things earthly from things heavenly and reveal the glories of eternity. Then we shall awake, and with a shock of recognition enter into that new dawn in whose brightness we are held in God’s presence, for ever.