Sermon for Pentecost 13 2017

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As you may remember from last week’s Gospel, blessed Peter—who seemed to have made a career out of getting Jesus’ message wrong—finally got it profoundly right, and was granted authority. He was made the rock upon which the Church would be founded and was given power to bind and loose: that is, to determine the disciplines by which the Church would govern her children.

Well, as it turns out, poor Peter doesn’t get an opportunity to relish in Jesus’ affirmation of him. He doesn’t have time to get chuffed about being made the chief apostle. In this morning’s Gospel reading—which takes place within the same conversation as last week’s—Peter is knocked down a few pegs.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his own crucifixion is a natural one: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” he cries out. To all appearances, Peter wants nothing more than for his Lord, whom he loved, to avoid suffering and death. We should feel the same for those whom we love!

This seems to make Jesus’ reply a bit less than sensitive: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” The parallel in Mark’s Gospel is even more shocking. Jesus uses precisely the same words, but Mark, usually the most austere of the evangelists, embellishes the story a bit by noting that Jesus words were meant as a “rebuke”. The Greek verb is “epitimao”: the same word used in the New Testament for when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus, here, quite literally demonizes Peter.

The Jesus of scripture and of history is not the “warm, fuzzy” fellow we, who care so much about affirmation and pleasantness, have made him out to be. He’s not “sensitive” in the cheap way we polite, contemporary Westerners use the word. He’s not worried too much about hurting feelings, even the feelings of one extremely close to him, if it means getting the point across. The point is important enough that it had to be grasped. Indeed, it is the most important point of all: namely that the path we Christians tread is the surest way to suffering and sacrifice if we’re really living up to the name “Christian”.

“If any man would come after me,” Jesus says, “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 will find it.” We all have a cross to bear, but once again, our polite, comfortable “Christianity”—which, I contend is not the Christianity of Christ—cheapens the sense of Jesus’ words. One’s gouty toe or noisy neighbor or laundry-avoiding spouse is not one’s “cross to bear.” Those are irritations, no doubt, and we can face even greater difficulties than these which, I would humbly submit, are not “crosses to be borne” either. You see, they leave out the operative phrase in Jesus’ explanation of the crosses we bear: whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. There is an element of volition missing from the “gouty toe” or “noisy neighbour” situation. We gain our souls by choosing to lay down that which really burdens us: self-satisfaction and egoism and the need to control others. The crosses we bear—selflessness and loving sacrifice and the call to serve Christ in all persons—turn out not to be very heavy burdens at all. In fact, they are a great deal more like life-preservers, lifting us out of a sea made putrid with the jetsam of human pride that we might be pulled aboard the ark, which is the Church as Christ intends her to be.

In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reminds us how heavy that Cross may seem, but if we think about it for any length of time, we’ll recognize it’s quite the opposite. Perhaps the hardest-seeming requirement for Christian faithfulness is found in this morning’s epistle:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…  Beloved, never avenge yourselves… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

It seems like a heavy burden to live this way, but nothing could be further from the truth. How heavy a burden it is to hold on to anger, to live with resentment for our enemies, and how great a relief it is to let that go, to bear the Cross of self-abnegation and forgiveness rather than the yoke of bitterness!

What Peter forgot is that the twin idols of “comfortable living”—security and enlightened self-interest—are a great deal heavier than we can handle; that even what seems at first blush to be genuine concern can be a mask worn by those idols. Naming the idols which we clutch more closely than the Cross of Christ can be more than a little uncomfortable. We may feel the Eye of God, which alone can pierce our souls, can cut rather than comfort. In the end, though, permitting God to root out of our hearts that which really weighs us down, will sting only for a little while. We will then find that Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light, that the Cross, borne with confidence and humility, becomes a part of us, an essential appendage, whose weight is so close to us that we cease to notice it and which grants us a life more abundant than we ever believed possible.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.