A Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who bids us take up our cross and follow him. Amen.
Saint Peter is hot-headed and impulsive, eager to step out in faith but fast to fall short, in equal measure profoundly faithful and unruly. And it kind of makes you wonder, given some the guidelines about teachers that James and Isaiah put forward, would either of them have called Peter as a pastor to their congregation?
The readings from Saint James and the prophet Isaiah give us a short glimpse of just some of the requirements for those called to lead God’s people. Teachers should have the ability to sustain the weary with a word, open ears, remain steadfast. They should tame their mouths, uttering blessings rather than curses. And, James is quick to remind us, those called to leadership as teachers “will be judged with greater strictness.”
Impulsive, quick to speak and faster to act, Peter might be exactly the type of person James had in mind when cautioning that not everyone is called to be teachers. Think back to the first two chapters of Saint James’ epistle. What about showing partiality? Peter – and all of the disciples – tend to be obsessed with where they will sit in the Kingdom, hoping for places of honor.
Peter certainly lets his tongue get the best of him; and, as Saint James implies, Simon Peter’s speech often drives his actions. If the tongue is the rudder of the ship or the bridle in the horse’s mouth, steering the entire person to-and-fro, then Peter’s tongue often leads him into trouble.
Let’s revisit Jesus walking on water. Thanks to some odd choices by the lectionary, it was sort of tacked on to one of the readings about bread. After the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples hop in the boat and sail off while Jesus stays behind to finally get some peace and quiet. During the night, he walks out to meet them on the sea. In all of the versions, the disciples see him and lose it. And who can blame them? But let’s look at Saint Matthew’s telling of this story, which gives us the extended “director’s cut.” Peter says, Lord, I see you out there. Call me to you, and I will come. Jesus calls him, Peter hops out of the boat and gets a few steps. But then he starts to sink. His reaction is not to start swimming for the boat but to cry out, “Lord, save me!” It’s a dynamic portrayal of both faith and doubt, the two qualities that really get to the heart of who Peter is.
Or consider the events of Maundy Thursday. When Jesus warns that the one of the disciples will betray him, Peter confidently blurts out, “Even if I must die with you, I will never betray you.” But we all know what happens next: Peter falls asleep while he’s supposed to be praying, he cuts off someone’s ear, and then, standing outside the trial, he thrice denies he’s ever met Jesus.
Peter’s time following Christ on earth is marked by these highs and lows, often in quick succession. He goes from being the shining example of human faithfulness to a cautionary tale about human presumption, from first among the apostles to the type of person that James so sharply rebukes.
Today, we see this move in its sharpest focus and most immediate contrast.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” The Christ, God’s anointed, the one Israel has been waiting for, the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, Moses, Jacob, and David.
This is Peter’s moment to shine, his best moment in the Gospels. If we turn again to Matthew’s “director’s cut,” Jesus takes a moment to recognize the significance of this scene:
Blessed are you, Simon….I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven….
But then Jesus turns his attention towards Jerusalem and the cross. Suffering is coming, and those who would follow Jesus, who would follow the Messiah, must be prepared to take up their own cross.
Peter emphatically declares that it will not be so, taking the Messiah aside to scold him. “Lord, how can you say such things? We’ve seen you work wonders. You’ve cast out demons, walked across the waters, calmed the stormy seas. We’ve seen you raise the dead and walk unscathed through lynch mobs. How could anyone ever harm you? You’re going to waltz into Jerusalem and bring about Israel’s deliverance. But if you keep up all of this talk about suffering, people are going to start walking away. You’re embarrassing yourself so just stop it, ok? Stop.”
From affirmation to denial in only three verses.
Peter’s scolding draws forth its own stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus tells Simon Peter to focus not on earthly kingdoms but the Kingdom of Heaven, not human greatness but God’s power. The Messiah tells the Rock and the rest of the disciples that they had better get used to the idea of suffering.
What Simon Peter, the wobbly rock, didn’t understand is what Isaiah spells out: the perfect teacher is the suffering servant who is beaten and betrayed but relies on God. To follow the Lord, then, to truly and fully understand what it means that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Most High God, is to take up your cross, to face down suffering while steadfastly trusting in the Lord.
We’ve seen the examples of how Peter failed in that regard: his violence at Gethsemane, his denial of Christ in the early hours of Good Friday. His words in the second half of today’s Gospel uncover that part of Peter most likely to turn away, most likely to trust in humanity rather than God.
But we also know that, after hearing Mary Magdalene’s testimony, Peter was among the first to the tomb. And we’ve heard his bold proclamation in Jerusalem fifty days later at Pentecost. Throughout the rest of his life, we saw him imprisoned as he lead the Church. Peter became the first bishop of Rome – but this was not a position to be exploited. He didn’t enjoy the spoils of later popes. Being a bishop in the first century was dangerous, and eventually Peter’s ministry led to his own death. The Tradition has passed down the story of Peter’s eventual martyrdom. He who rebuked Jesus for preaching the way of the cross would eventually take up his cross and follow Christ. The one who denied the Messiah to save his own skin would eventually die bearing faithful witness to the Gospel of our Lord.
Beloved, we all experience that same tension that marked so much of Saint Peter’s life: the desire to live faithfully but also the tendency to focus on human things rather than the divine. As the service ends today, we will hear our charge:
Go in peace. Serve the Lord.
We’ll shout back, “Thanks be to God.” But how far will we make it before we turn our attention away from the Kingdom of God back to the ways of the world? How long will it take before we revert to that oh-so-human tendency to seek fame, fortune, and power? How long before your favorite vices begin to dominate your life again? How far out of the boat do you usually get before you start to sink back into your old ways? How long after confessing that Jesus is Lord do you begin to deny him?
We’ve been around long enough to see what happens to people who follow Jesus, who truly follow him. We know that for many of our brothers and sisters, following Christ has cost them their lives. But even here, even in a time and place where we can worship freely, we face the temptation to abandon the way of the cross and to focus on human things. We face the temptation to trade the true faith for one that bestows political power, to view our sisters and brothers as obstacles to be overcome rather than people to be loved, to harbor old grudges, to amass wealth at the cost of our neighbor. And to endure these temptations, to truly follow God, is costly. In a world where might makes right and poverty is a sign of failure, valuing humility, the poor, the outsider – to seek the Kingdom of God rather than human power – brings about scorn and mockery.
I’ve asked this before, but what do our neighbors really think about our food pantry? What do they think of us for who we invite over on Monday mornings?
We could pack this place, could have a much larger budget, have the finest vestments if we proclaimed a message of political power or health, wealth, and prosperity. We could be quite popular if we preached Christ without the cross. And it’s so tempting to chase that popular acclamation; we could gain the whole world. But that’s not the Gospel of our Lord. Christ instead calls us to pick up our cross and lay down our lives.
Dear friends, our crosses are heavy and painful. They’re terrifying. It’s so tempting to just set them down, to focus on human things.
In the face of temptation and fear, though, we know this: it is the Lord who helps and vindicates us. When we begin to sink below the waves, we can cry out like Peter, “Lord, save me.” When our crosses become too heavy, we have this assurance: Christ has already carried his cross, suffered death, and risen victorious. In this, we are set free to follow him. As the trials and tribulations of this world oppress us, we know that Christ has left us his Body and Precious Blood to nourish us, to forgive us, to give us the strength to endure, to bear the weight of the cross.