Clippesby Church and Countryside Norfolk Background-page-doubled monthly-header October-ver copy copy Stepping stones 2017

Making stepping stones

Matthew 16:21-end

 

Isn't it strange that princes and kings

And clowns that caper in sawdust rings

And common folk like you and me

Are the builders of eternity.

 

To each is given a bag of tools,

A shapeless mass and a book of rules;

And each must make, ere time is flown,

A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.

 

This is a short poem from the book “Verses I Like” by Major Edward Bowes. What caught my attention in these lines, not that they are witty or that they rhyme but the fact that we are ‘builders of eternity.” We are given “a bag of tools, a shapeless mass and a book of rules.” in this poem we are reminded that we have a choice on what we can make. We can make ‘a stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.’

 

In his book If This is a Man a Jew called Levi tells of his incarceration in the Auschwitz concentration camp.. It is hard to imagine the level of suffering that Levi and his fellow prisoners endured – harder still to comprehend how such cruelty could be needlessly inflicted on people by other human beings. As Levi wrote: “I am constantly amazed by man’s inhumanity to man.” He tells how they were kept like “slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult”. Yet one of the truly remarkable things about the book is the human dignity and generosity which survived even in the midst of such horror. For Levi, it was embodied by a fellow prisoner who gave him food out of his own rations and additional clothing to protect him from the biting cold.

 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus breaks the news to his disciples about the horror and suffering that lies ahead – both for himself and for them. Until now the disciples’ lives have been extraordinary. Each has been chosen by this amazing, charismatic man to be a privileged part of his closest group of followers, witnessing at first hand his ministry of miracles and teachings, and no doubt at times basking in reflected glory, enjoying their celebrity status.

 

But now Jesus warns them of impending doom. The news that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering and be killed appears to come as a total shock to the disciples and, as so often, it is Peter who speaks for them all, when he says, “God forbid it, Lord!” Such an assertion, contradicting Jesus, is typical of Peter’s forthright character. It is particularly surprising here, however, since just a few verses earlier he declared Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”.

 

Jesus, who is now perhaps seeing his calling with ever greater clarity, has a sharp and shocking response: “Get behind me, Satan!” Could this be an insight into Jesus’ own trepidation at the suffering ahead?

 

The revelation that Jesus must suffer appears to have struck the disciples like a hammer blow, and his next words, if they grasp them, must be deeply chilling: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. The disciples, who have been thrilled to follow Jesus, suddenly understand that the cost of their commitment has risen dramatically. It is not just Jesus whose life is at stake. In the long run, of course, most of them did pay the ultimate price for their faith.

 

Our reaction to suffering might initially be like that of Peter and the other disciples – a mixture of shock and denial. So how do we cope with suffering – be it someone else’s or our own? Jesus has left us an example of how to cope. When he was approaching his own death he prayed and stayed strong in faith and firm in resolve, even in the very darkest of times. Then we have the disciples' example to be thankful for, and we can empathise with them in their shock and denial, and take comfort from their human frailty when we ourselves quake in fear.

 

But such responses are useless unless we resolve to be a force for good in the world. We may despair sometimes, when we hear the news on TV or the radio or, increasingly, through social media, that there is so much suffering in the world. Sometimes it seems overwhelming. In his kindness towards Levi, even in the midst of such great suffering and horror, the prisoner who gave Levi his food demonstrated that small acts of kindness are much greater than the sum of their parts.

 

Here we are witness to Peter being brought down a rung or five from his loftily position.  In this text there were two phrases that caught my attention. One was stumbling block, which is what Jesus calls Peter. Four verses earlier he was the rock on which the church would be built and now he is a stumbling block for Jesus. Jesus renames Simon Peter, it means rock, but how Peter lived out his life would depend on whether he was a stumbling-block rock or a stepping stone rock.

 

The other phrase that stood out  is“Never, Lord.”  I am sure that when we say ‘never’ God laughs and says “just wait and see.” At the beginning of ministry training we were asked to share our ‘calling to ministry’ stories. People stood up and told their story. Over and over we heard people stand up and say that they ran from God for most of their lives. “Never, Lord. I’m not called into ministry..” But God’s will is stronger than ours and God usually wins in the end. Where we see trouble, the unknown, or a dead end, God just sees opportunity.

 

Peter closed his ears as Jesus told him what would happen to him in Jerusalem. He missed the part where Jesus says he will rise again in three days. As Peter tries to squash the painful reality of the crucifixion he misses out the glory of the resurrection too. If we close our minds off to the reality of what God is calling us to do then we too will miss out on the glory that waits on the other side.

 

A stepping stone is used to move a person from one place to another. It  takes us over rushing water or mud, and can safely move us to the other side. Jesus gives us directions “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

 

Isn't it strange that princes and kings

And clowns that caper in sawdust rings

And common folk like you and me

Are the builders of eternity.

 

To each is given a bag of tools,

A shapeless mass and a book of rules;

And each must make, ere time is flown,

A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone.

 

 

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