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Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year

Absolutely Clear

Let me make this absolutely clear ... 'absolutely clear'?  

I realise that as soon as you read this opening line, there is a risk that you will stop reading any further! Whenever I myself hear this phrase used (and we seem to hear it more and more often these days from those who wish us to believe what they tell us) I become immediately suspicious that the resulting obfuscation with which we are about to be presented will have exactly the opposite effect, making everything we hear absolutely unclear!  

Jesus, on the other hand, would have assumed that whatever he taught could not be misunderstood, providing we listen carefully to what he is telling us. In Matthew 16, Jesus 'began to make it (absolutely) clear to his disciples that he was to suffer grievously'. None of the evangelists records Jesus as actually saying 'Let me make this absolutely clear ...' and yet Peter remonstrated vehemently, we are told, with the Master at what he had just heard him say, about his impending death. 

Clarity could be regarded as one of Jesus's great attributes when he gave instructions on how to be a good disciple. 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself, take up his cross and follow me'. What could be clearer than that? And yet so often there is a temptation to misinterpret Jesus's words, or more precisely, to try and adapt Jesus's words to what we think he should have said or what we would have preferred him to have said.  

Peter fell into that category, as he didn't like what Christ had said, because the implication for him (and for us) is that if we are to follow Christ we must prepare ourselves for a life of self-denial, self-renunciation – a far cry for most of us who would prefer a more liberal approach to life. Peter was absolutely clear who Jesus was, as he stated in the preceding paragraph of Matthew's Gospel: 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' 

But when it comes to reconciling this declaration with Jesus telling them that he must suffer grievously and must die in order to be raised on the third day ... this is just too much. And, if we're not extremely careful, we can fall into the same trap. Nothing stands in the way of our ultimate salvation as much as our own 'cosy' Christianity, the sort that wants to be a follower of Christ on our own terms, preferably without the 'nasty bits' of suffering, death and self-sacrifice.  

Tom Wright, in his commentary on this part of Matthew's Gospel, likens it to Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in the Looking Glass', in which he created a mirror-image world, where to get anywhere, you must go in the opposite direction!

Christ's teaching is a bit like that: If you want to be a follower ... renounce yourself!

If you want to save your life....be prepared to lose it!

The Sermon on the Mount spells out the apparent contradictions.

Society tends to take the Peter approach: 'You can't do that!' To be a success, you must be strong, not weak; rich, not poor; aggressive, not meek.  

If Christ had been in Croydon in the recent troublesome, disruptive times, to whom would he have addressed his remarks .... to the rioters, to the peace-loving citizens, to parents, to teachers, to police, to politicians, to priests? Would he not have spoken to everyone, reiterating what he said to the crowd in Caesarea Philippi ... 'When the Son of Man comes, he will reward each one according to his behaviour.' And that's pretty well absolutely clear, isn't it?

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