I would like each of you to imagine that you are a ship. You can be a sailing ship, with three or four masts and square sails, perhaps built to take tea from India and China to Europe. You can be a cruise ship like the ones we see in Sydney, huge floating hotel with all sorts of luxury. If you like you can be a naval vessel like the one’s tied up at Cockatoo Island. You can be a ferry, a yacht or a little rowing dinghy. They all have one thing in common. They all have to be taken from the water, inspected and if necessary repaired. If this is left undone then the ship will soon be in trouble, masts will collapse, engines will break down; the ship could even spring a leak and sink. However, if you look after your ship, it will remain useful, durable, smart and safe.
The season of Lent is a time when Christian ships like us have the opportunity to be hauled out of the water, inspected for damage or decay, repaired, repainted and launched again at Easter for another year’s worth of living.
This is one reason that it is a good idea to take Lent seriously and slowly. It is good to stop doing the pointless things that just waste money or waste time, but it is also good to stop doing something which is important to us so that we can take a look at our lives. The most important thing in the life of a ship is to sail from one place to another, but it has to stop sailing and even be taken out of the water to make it fit and ready to sail again. Lent is a reminder to Christians that we need to stop and make sure our lives are in order.
Today’s reading have three important questions hidden in them. The story of Abraham asks, “What does it mean to have faith?” That is explored in Genesis and Paul’s letter to the Romans. The other two questions come from the Gospel. Firstly, “What does it mean to be Christ?” and then “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Our first reading tells how God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai. A covenant was originally an agreement between a powerful nation and a weak nation. Here it is an agreement between God Almighty and two humans. The Lord said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” It is as if we had taken our little boat down to the sea and the sea says to us, “I am the sea, I could sink you in a moment, but I will make you a promise. Row your boat carefully and honestly, and I will make sure you get to New Zealand.”
Abram and Sarai had their whole lives changed by that promise. They themselves were changed so that they needed new names. Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah. For Abraham and Sarah, having faith meant a relationship of trust and care with the Creator of the world, a new relationship with each other, (they were to be parents of un-numbered descendants), a new meaning to their lives and new names. In other words, faith changes everything. As Christians, we should expect our faith to do the same. By faith we know that we are made and loved by the Creator of all that is, we know we can trust the Lord God to keep us in his heart. By faith we find our lives changing to be more like the one who loves us. By faith we can trust each other, and by faith we are changed for ever. The name we are given at our baptism is a sign of the new life that is in us.
The other two questions arise in the Gospel. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
So Jesus begins to tell them what it means to be the Christ. The Christ must suffer many things, and be rejected by the authorities and be killed and after three days, be raised again. Peter was horrified. Surely the Christ was to be worshipped, honoured and adored, not killed and buried. And as so often in the Bible we find that God does not work the way we expect. Human beings want to be worshipped, honoured and adored. I do not think that anywhere in the Bible will you find God or the Christ asking to be worshipped, honoured and adored. The Christ came to be rejected, killed, buried and raised. When we get to Holy Week we will follow Christ through his rejection, his death, burial and resurrection. That is the answer to the question, “What does it mean to be Christ?”
The final question is the hardest because we want to be Christians – I hope we do. Christ warned St Peter to think like God and not to think like a human. Humans desires worship, honour and adoration but God does not desire that. The sacrifice of a broken heart and a willing spirit is what God wants. Jesus says, “Deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me?” This means give up your selfish desires and ambition, and live a life which lives and loves and cares until it breaks its heart and dies. That is the way the Christ lives and that is the way Christians live.
At the beginning I asked you to think of yourself as a ship. Now imagine that ship setting out to sea. The waves are huge, twice as tall as the biggest cruise ship or tanker or tea clipper. We have to be very careful to stay afloat, using every bit of our sailor’s skill and cunning.
But Christ asks us not to conquer the ocean waves, or to triumphantly go all round the world in record time. What we are asked to do is to look around us for those who have no boat at all, no faith and no hope. We are asked to let God look after our own journey to salvation or paradise and help those who don’t know where to go. It means looking after other people so that we can all travel together. It is as hard and painful and annoying and frustrating as carrying a cross, but it is the best way to go.