A Sermon preached on 25th February 2018, Lent II, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenGenesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
I’m certain most of you will know the saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It has never been true. Words can hurt even more than sticks and stones!
You may find this hard to believe, but I used to be small for my age. While at secondary school I suddenly shot up … and so my nerve/muscle coordination took a while to catch up. I was therefore not good at sports, especially catching a ball, and my arms went all over the place leading to the nickname: “Unco” for uncoordinated. I did not like it. Did or does anyone else have a nickname they did not like?
I think we can be sure that the words “Get behind me, Satan” really hurt Peter. What did he do to deserve this? What Peter always does well. He put his foot in it. It turns out that though just before this episode he had correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, it was still the traditional idea of a Messiah as a triumphant, martial, powerful, Jewish superhero figure, one who would lead an army of people able to throw the Romans out. And one able to distribute positions of power and privilege in the new order that would follow.
Peter’s mistake was, as Jesus puts it, to set his mind on human, instead of divine things. But in Jesus’ abrupt and even unfair response we see his own human nature shining through. He is impatient, and Peter has touched a nerve. Jesus calls him Satan, who in the Jewish tradition is not the devil in charge of hell as he became in Christianity, but someone who tempts and tests. When Jesus was in the wilderness he was tempted and tested by the devil, and one of those temptations was to become the traditional type of Messiah. It is still an attractive option compared to undergoing great suffering, being rejected, and getting killed.
But if he Jesus was tempted by Peter’s impetuous intervention, it was only for a moment. Instead he tells his disciples and a crowd that have gathered to listen that if they want to follow him, they will have to imitate him – in self-denial, sacrifice, and faithfulness. Jesus’ path must also be their path.
But coming to Peter again for a moment. Do you know what’s so great about Peter? That he is such an idiot. That makes him so much easier for me to identify with. Jesus gave him the new name of Peter, the rock. And – in Matthew’s Gospel – tells him “you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:18) How wonderful that the rock on which our church is built is a man who makes mistakes, who has doubts and who knows fear. A human being in other words.
And the same goes for the great Jewish Patriarch Abraham and Matriarch Sarah. In the passage we heard this morning they receive a promise and as a sign of that promise are renamed. Abram becomes Abraham, or “Father of nations” and Sarai becomes Sarah, or “Princess” as she too will give rise to nations and kings will come from her. But just look at what they got up to before this event. They both lied, Sarah mistreated her servant Hagar, and their reaction to God’s promise and commission is to burst out laughing: God, you must be joking! They are anything but perfect. Which is good news for us. God chooses those who are not perfect to follow God’s path – to “walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1) or to “take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Abraham and Sarah did nothing to deserve their new names, nor to earn their role as father and mother of a multitude of nations. This happens not because of who they are, but because of who God is.
Simon the fisherman had done nothing to deserve his new name of Peter or to receive his prominent position within the group of disciples or as their leader after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. This happens not because of who he is, but because of who God is.
But when Abraham and Sarah and Peter were called, when they were given a task by God, one that exceeded their capabilities, they still followed and they still trusted that somehow God would make it possible or make them able to do what seemed impossible, and that as our friend Peter will find out, God will not forget or reject them when they make more mistakes and err from the path they have promised to follow.
Now, in Lent, when we tend to focus on our weaknesses, on where we have fallen short, on what we consider to be our imperfections, it is very good news to know that none of these things, real or imagined, can stand between us and God. The good news is that we do not have to deserve, and we do not have to earn, God’s love. Just as the Messiah was not supposed to be a heroic warrior or a superhero, so we who follow him are not supposed to be superhuman, just human. God can still do great things with us.
I am not saying that following Christ is without demands. We heard Jesus formulate them –self-denial, sacrifice, willingness to change, and faithfulness. But none of these are about becoming more than human, they are about becoming fully human. It is those desires that separate us from one another, that we are called to deny. The life God wants us to lose, is the one devoted to self. The life we will gain is a life in relationship. The cross that we are called to take up when we follow Jesus, is a sign of God’s love for us: nothing to be ashamed of, on the contrary it is something we can carry with joy.