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The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B)
13 September 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 50:4-9
Psalm 116
James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18
Mark 8:27-38

One of the first things I learned about dog training is that the adage, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is actually wrong. (From being a parent I have learnt that “monkey see, monkey do” is also wrong, but that is another sermon). Dogs, those wonderful creatures with whom many of us share our lives, the only creatures to have fully integrated their social structures with human life, are capable of learning, capable of growth, throughout their whole lives. Dogs that have been abused as puppies and then who have spent months in shelters can, through patience, good instruction, and love become fully integrated members of the special human-dog pack that our families form.

Many human beings grow up convinced that you can’t teach a dog new tricks, convinced that that applies to us as well. We grow up thinking that learning, receiving wisdom, being taught is something only for the young. What’s more, we think not only is it for the young, but it only is effective among the young. Nothing can be further from the truth. We humans are learning all the time. We learn from our encounters in the world. We learn from our relationships—our casual encounters with strangers in the street, our lasting friendships, and all the shades in-between. We learn by engaging with the world of ideas and sharing what we learn with others. We learn from living life in community.

As members of an intentional Christian community, as members of the Church, as members of a Church (this church), we are being schooled by Scripture, the Sacraments, and our traditions. As members of the Church, we are—or at least are called to be—open to growth and change, the growth and change that really good teaching and learning make possible. We are called to learn together how to become the very body of Christ. God does not believe that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Isaiah was certainly not a boy when he was called to be a prophet (1). He was called as an adult, most probably from his ministry as a priest, and formed by God to preach repentance to Israel, to speak truth to Israel, truth that it did not want to hear. In this morning’s passage, we see that for Isaiah, learning is the ideal example of what it is to be in relationship with God. He tells us that

Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God helps me.

It sounds like Isaiah was one of the good pupils, the ones who sat in class and listened, took notes, did well on the tests. It also sounds like God is one of those teachers who really cares about his pupils, who stands by them, helps them through difficult tasks, but does not do the students’ work for them. Isaiah listened and knew his duty to God was to face up to the difficult challenges that lay ahead and that he had the support he needed to get the task done. Isaiah, no longer a child, was willing to be taught by God, our greatest school-master, so that he might live as he was called and serve our God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus—that divine school master and great rabbi—offers the disciples, his adult disciples, the central lesson of the Gospel. He begins his lesson with a question, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples offer their answers. Jesus then asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter, seemingly the perfect student (he and Isaiah might have been competing to become Head Boy) answers correctly with, “You are the Christ.” Peter may have gotten the answer correct, however he did not fully understand what it really meant. Jesus, the good teacher, knows this as well. This is why he goes on to explain to his disciples exactly what it means for him to be the Christ, the anointed, the chosen one of God. He tells them

that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.

Jesus teaches that the Son of Man comes not on a chariot at the head of a procession or of an army, but that he will suffer and die and be raised from the dead. This Christ will share in the anguish of his people and will triumph over it. He will participate fully in our lives and will show us that death is nothing in the face of God’s promise of redemption.

Peter, however, does not like what he hears. Mark even tells us that he “began to rebuke” Jesus. On the one hand, good for him for standing up to the teacher. On the other hand, perhaps he is going to show us that you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks, perhaps he is going to stubbornly hold onto his old views in the face of a new and challenging lesson. Jesus does not give up on his message, he rebukes Peter back and

called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?”

Jesus explains the full weight of his suffering, death, and resurrection. He explains that all true discipleship has a cost. That following the hard life lessons of our most important, most trustworthy, teacher will not be easy. He explains hat we are called to a life in which we follow the Cross, follow Jesus to the foot of the Cross, take up the Cross at a cost to ourselves, and share in Jesus’ resurrection. This is the lesson we are taught over and over again from childhood into adulthood. This is the lesson Jesus teaches his adult disciples and the lesson that he expects that they, that we, will take into themselves, unto ourselves.

For most of Mark’s Gospel it seems that those who taught us about old dogs were right. The disciples do not really want to hear these hard lessons. They do not want to believe what they see and hear and experience. While the powers of the Cosmos learn Jesus’ lesson (as we learnt last week from the story of Jesus healing the deaf mute), the disciples keep getting it wrong. But that was not the final answer. The disciples may have messed-up the mid-term, but they aced the final.

Jesus, like the great teacher Isaiah recognised, kept up with his lessons—he predicted his passion no fewer than three times in this Gospel, he showed himself Transfigured before them, he healed the sick, he taught the people, and he fed the people with the bread of life. Jesus kept teaching until he fulfilled his own prediction on the Cross and the disciples followed him—well, most of the way.

In the end, in the life beyond the text, in the life of the Church, the disciples got it. In the end, like the Centurion at the Crucifixion who exclaimed, “truly this man is the Son of God,” the disciples took to heart the lessons of Jesus’ teaching and spread his story throughout all the world. Those disciples spread the story of the Son of God who suffers with his brothers and sister, who teaches and who healed, and who, despite the worst that man could do to him, triumphed in glory over death, shone white as raiment.

This is the season for (mostly) young people to be headed back to school. William, in fact starts school for the first time next week, so it is a bit on my mind. Those of us who are not heading back to the classroom—as pupils—this term can take comfort, be confident that we still have a teacher in Christ Jesus—through his Word and Sacraments—who is schooling us daily on how we may go into the world and love our neighbour, how we may, in our several occupations, bring the Gospel of Christ into a world in need of its truth, how we may take up the Cross and follow him, even to the foot of the Cross.

Andrew Charles Blume+
John Henry Hobart, 12 September 2009

(1) Yes, I know that the passage chosen as this morning’s lesson forms part of Second Isaiah, written a couple of hundred years after First Isaiah and the account of the prophet’s call. Indeed, we have no account of Deutero-Isaiah’s call. Nevertheless, Temple, Church, and Synagogue have combined these accounts under a single heading as they represent a certain unity of vision. I speak, therefore, of the Canonical Isaiah, rather than the historical Isaiah.

©2009 Andrew Charles Blume