When I looked up the readings for this week last Monday, I wondered how in the world I could ever illustrate my sermon. A good paper immediately popped into my head, but, as you know, there is a big difference between a paper and a sermon. Sermons should help bring His Word to life! How could Peter’s confession ever come to life? Then the week hit me . . . .
Each week, those of us who gather for the Rite 2 Eucharist ask God to “sanctify us that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.” Twice in the last couple years, we have looked at our Eucharist in an instructed manner, but have we examined what it is we are doing when we pray these words? Sure, we wanted to be united. Of course, we want peace. But why in the world would we ask for constancy? Why should we care, and why might we ask God to make us, unwavering in our faithfulness? Peter’s confession, I think, gives us at least three reasons.
I sometimes feel I do Peter a disservice. I feel like I spend too much time highlighting his faults. Peter, Paul, James, and the others about whom we read were those who took up Christ’s mantle and mid-wifed a church into the world. Certainly our Lord birthed the church, but His friends and disciples had to pick up the baton once He had ascended and put His teachings into practice. Yes, this was all done under the providence of God. Yes, this was all empowered by the Holy Spirit. Yes, Jesus knew the men and women He was choosing for these roles. But Peter and the others had a role. We should always remember their faithfulness through which God worked to bring about the church and advance His plan of salvation. But there is a madness to my method. You and I are no different from Peter. You and I have skills which the Lord can use to advance His kingdom, and you and I have moments where we fight Him tooth and nail. We might not be skilled fishermen, as was Peter, but we are skilled. And like Peter, we have chosen by God, redeemed by God, and He has begun amazing work in us. Peter, though, deserves some honor and credit. The lessons that he learns from and the grace that He receives in light of His failures transforms him into an amazing leader, a leader worthy of His teacher’s mantle.
In our Gospel lesson this week, Jesus takes His disciples to Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was renowned for its temples. It was one of those regional towns where one could go to “get right” with a number of gods, be they Ba’al, be Greek gods, or even the Caesars. In the shadows of those gods, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying. The answers that the disciples give should not surprise us. Herod himself worried that Jesus was John the Baptist come again to torment him for John’s unjust death. Certainly people reasonably expected Elijah to return with God’s anointed. After all, Elijah had ascended without dying. Given Jeremiah’s own treatment of the Jewish leadership, it is no small wonder that some align Jesus with Him. Jesus accepts these answers but then forces the disciples to make their own answer: Who do you say that I am?
Peter’s answer is correct. Jesus goes on to affirm that Peter’s faithfulness has resulted in this blessing from God. What Peter has announced cannot be reached by reason. Peter’s pronouncement cannot be handed down through the ages. Yes, Peter has failed at times. Yes, he has sunk in the water and he has thought Jesus a ghost and he has wanted to stay on the mountaintop. But he has also endured. Peter has taken Jesus’ remonstrations grown in his faith. By the time of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, much of the pride and all the doubt will have been tempered out of him. In fact, he will become an amazing instrument of grace. And his faithfulness serves to remind us who calls us and how we are expected to serve Him and of our absolute need for constancy.
Peter’s confession reminds us that we must be faithful in our spiritual perception and reception. Most of us gathered here are blind to the realities which should guide our spiritual development. What do I mean by that? One of the foundational aspects of our faith is His call, His demand upon us, to gather and worship and praise Him. How many of us here make the commitment to make it to worship daily? Weekly? Monthly? Twice a year? We claim to want to be open to His guidance and to be ambassadors for the advancement of His kingdom (to say nothing of the baptismal covenant in our tradition where we promise to gather), yet we fail to find the time to be able to gather on a consistent schedule. Sorry, God, I have to work. Sorry, God, the kids have sports. Sorry, God, I need sleep. Sorry, God, your spokesperson at my church is boring and I can be bored at home! We want Him to change us, we want Him to transform us, but we want these on our terms, not His. How does our gathering change our spiritual perception?
As we read these stories and hear of God’s saving grace, we begin to attune ourselves to His work in and around our lives. Many of you know that a diagnosed, self-medicating, paranoid-schizophrenic walked into my office earlier this week. He was tired, so very tired, and angry. Unlike previous visits, he was more focused on killing himself than focused upon killing others. Do you think it’s painful? Do you think God will forgive me? How can I live with the hurt? What many of you might not know is that his sister was killed over here a few months ago. She was a battered woman. She should have been living at Winnie’s. Her husband/boyfriend ran her over (and backed up several times) because he loved her. This gentleman who came into my office this week hates the neighborhood of our church because the people here allowed this to go on in their neighborhood. All it would have taken, he’s convinced, is one person to have reported the abuse. His anger prior to this has been with the neighbors and the cops. Now, he was tired of fighting.
Our conversation turned, however, when I pointed out the stuff in the entrance. As you all know we help Winnie’s as much as possible. What you may not know is the neighborhood’s response. In the days and weeks following the murder, our neighbors have come to visit. This is Iowa. This is a neighborhood with a church. We should be safe here. How can God be present and loving and allow this to occur? Over and over I have had these kinds of conversations. The result has been a commitment on the part of our neighbors to help save others. They are too late for our visitor’s sister, but they will do their best to make sure it never happens again. Everything in the hall came from outside my flock to help other abused women in memory of your sister. From the moment he heard those words out of my mouth, the conversation changed. Seeds that had been planted in his youth about God’s redeeming love began to germinate. Is this why you gather your people every week? It is part of it. Why else would you gather? To thank Him for all that He has done for us. You know. He’s seemed so far away from me for so long. Do you think maybe it’s me that drifted from Him? And do you think He’d take me back knowing who I am today and where I’ve been? You can fill in the rest of our conversation.
Part of why we pray for constancy, however, is so that we can recognize His hand at work in our lives. That is not to say that we ignore our lives. Yes, we go to work like others to pay our bills. Yes, we have good things and bad things happen in our lives. Yes, we have neighbors that we like and dislike. Yes, we can catch bad diseases. Yes, we can get fired. Yes, we can become addicted. Yes, we can even become so selfish that we destroy our relationships. The difference is that, usually over time, we become attuned to recognizing His grace and power in our lives. And that attunement allows us to look for the hope that He gives us. If He is the messiah, the kingdom has come near. We need only to look for it where we are. Perhaps He will use us and our condition miraculously to reach others. He might cure a disease that thwarts doctors, He might bless us with a winning lottery ticket, He might give us the opportunity to say “I am sorry” to one we have hurt, He may even use our faithfulness in the midst of suffering to speak directly into the suffering heart of another. As long as we are attuned, we have His hope. It’s when we drift away that our cares and disappointments are used by the enemy to convince us that He really is not close, that we really are not worth His love or time.
We also pray for constancy, however, because we need to get to know Jesus on His terms rather than our own. Peter’s confession follows the Jewish leadership’s demand for a sign. Jesus knows their hearts (and the number of signs He has already given) and so refuses. And a simple fisherman gets the honor of proclaiming Jesus the messiah rather than the chief priest or others who should have known. The “wise” in the world are made to look very foolish, indeed. It is a trap into which we can all fall. How many of us made the mistake in our youth (or early spiritual journey) of picturing Jesus as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Savior rather than the Jewish messiah that He was and is? How many of us have convinced ourselves that He would be just like one of us, were He to appear in our midst. That He’d understand the pressures of the world, that He’d know our stress and bless who were are rather than remake us in His image.
This point was driven home at our Ward 2 meeting yesterday. The question of the homeless came up. They stink. They look terrible. They are kinda scary. Can’t we ship them out? I pointed out the dearth of facilities in our area and the fact that all the homeless have names and stories. The priest speaking against the dehumanization of the homeless tempered the discussion for a bit, but only for a bit. After the meeting, I was asked repeatedly to assert that God would ascribe to this group’s plan or that group’s plan to deal with the homeless in our midst. He’d agree with my plan, right Father? Imagine their surprise when they, at least those that claimed to be Christian and followers of Jesus, had forgotten the basics in His eyes. A few obstinate wanted to know if I thought He’d agreed with my plan once the homeless had been fed, given a place to wash, given a safe place to sleep, given medical attention, and given time to be known. But most went away sheepishly because they wanted Jesus on their terms rather than His.
Related to the constancy in attunement and in knowing Jesus on His terms is our need to live with His cross as both instruction and invitation. For those of us who accept Him as the messiah, the Son of the living God, whose death reconciled us to our Father, the cross is a reminder of the cost of our salvation. When we reflect upon His offer to us, His willingness to die for us, and His love of us to see us safely through, we cannot help but fall to our knees in thankful joy and adoration. You would do that for me? His offer reminds us of His demand to follow Him and to bear crosses of our own to His glory. And our crosses are not meant to be born seasonally. They are not picked up in Advent and Lent as devotions. Rather, our crosses are gratefully accepted in our daily life and work as the means through which others learn of His saving offer. Our crosses are, in a sense, the tools of our lives. When we are asked why we serve for seemingly no benefit to ourselves, why we are joyful in the midst of hard times, and how we can sing alleluia even in the face of our own death, we know that we have served Him well and extended His invitation to others. Better still, we rejoice as we recount to those who have asked it of us the account of saving grace within us. At those blessed moments, we know we have lived into our baptism, truly died to self, and have been raised to life in Him! In those wonderful moments we know ourselves to have been sanctified by Him.
Who do you say that He is?