Take Up Your Cross, Peter

A Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 50:4-9; St. James 3:1-12; St. Mark 8:27-38


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.

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Saint Peter by El Greco

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.

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Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio

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.

Amen.

 

Nevertheless, She Persisted: The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman

A Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: St. James 2:10-17; St. Mark 7:24-37


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came to feed the children of God. Amen.

We’ve seen something like this before.

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The Syrophoenician Woman, 17th. century Coptic manuscript

Jesus is staying at a home in the area near Tyre when a woman comes to him, asking that Christ might cast a demon out of her daughter. There’s a familiar pattern for healing stories and exorcisms like this. There will be some little exchange, the disciples will get annoyed, onlookers will scoff at the entire situation, and Jesus will tell the woman that she has great faith and the daughter will made well. Standard enough fare for the Gospels.

We see these healing narratives over and over again. So much so that we get used to them and, to be honest, we stop paying attention until the end. “Oh, hey. Jesus healed the person with…what was it this time? Another leper? Leprosy! Jesus healed the person with leprosy. Yea. Alright.” They get a little boring, we lose focus, and the details often evade us as long as it’s a happy ending.

Usually, any sort of disturbing details are floating just under the surface; they demand a close reading of the text to really get at the real point of the story. But not this time. Today, one point of the story grabs us by the collar and slaps us in the face. A Gentile woman approaches Jesus and she needs help. She follows the social conventions of the day, coming to him in a home and throwing herself at his feet. She’s trying to follow the cultural norms for approaching a teacher with a request. And Jesus of Nazareth compares her to a dog. Continue reading “Nevertheless, She Persisted: The Faith of the Syrophoenician Woman”

Saint James, Law, and Gospel

A Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: St. James 1:17-27; St. Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, our Perfect Law Giver. Amen.

If we’re being honest, we’ve all known someone like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading: quick to chime in with an accusatory question and judging “side-eye.” In contemporary speech, “Pharisee” is synonymous with exactly this type of person, an arrogant and legalistic disciplinarian slavishly devoted to a strict interpretation of the rules quick to render an unrequested verdict.

“Your disciples eat without washing their hands? Bless their hearts.”

“Oh. You let your children watch that movie? Aren’t you worried that it might corrupt their young mind?”

“You listen to that kind of music? I shouldn’t be surprised. ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ as they say.” Continue reading “Saint James, Law, and Gospel”

“Receive What You Are”

A Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. John 6:56-69


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Living Bread of Heaven. Amen.

A few weeks ago, we found ourselves in relatively safe territory. Jesus miraculously multiplied a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish to feed over five thousand people, a sign of God’s abiding provision. It’s a familiar story, even if it pushes us to trust in God in a way that not even the disciples Philip and Andrew could.

But as we quickly learned, that was just the prelude, and Saint John’s discourse on bread quickly took a turn towards the obscure. Soon and very soon, Jesus and the Jewish leaders were debating the finer points of Moses, mana, and the Exodus, what it means for bread to come from heaven and give eternal life, and our Lord boldly proclaimed, “I AM the Bread of Life.” And if that wasn’t difficult enough to understand, he then pushed it further, inviting us to feast on his flesh and to drink his blood. Predictably, the Jewish people – for whom cannibalism and consuming blood are decidedly not kosher – were disgusted by this invitation. (And they were not alone: the Romans, too, would later accuse the early Church of practicing cannibalism.)

This teaching is difficult. Who can accept it? Continue reading ““Receive What You Are””

Bread of Life, Flesh of Christ

A Homily for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. John 6: 35, 41-51


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who gives us the Bread of Heaven, his flesh. Amen.

I have to admit it: I’m disappointed. The facts of history are not nearly as interesting as the legends.

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Zwingli

During the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss theologian, were at odds with each other over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Those of you who studied the Catechism as part of your Confirmation will well remember what Luther wrote: the Sacrament is “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ….” Zwingli, by comparison, said that the bread and wine merely represent the Body and Precious Blood of our Lord, that Holy Communion is nothing more than a memorial.

To unite the disparate factions in the face of imperial pressure, Prince Phillip of Hesse brought the two feuding theologians together to the city of Marburg for a conference to hash out their differences. Continue reading “Bread of Life, Flesh of Christ”

The Bread of Life

A Homily for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; St. John 6:34-35


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Bread of Life. Amen.

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Loaves and Fish, Church of the Multiplication

When last we saw Jesus, he was taking a leisurely stroll across the waves after feeding the five thousand. According to Saint John’s account, Jesus had taken the disciples to a remote location, but the crowds followed them, as they are wont to do. With a sly look, Jesus asked the disciples where they could find food to feed five thousand people; Philip pragmatically pointed out that six month’s wages wouldn’t be enough to feed so many people, and Saint Andrew found a kid with five loaves and some fish – before quickly reminding our Lord that such a small meal was nothing compared to the size of the crowd. Of course that didn’t stop Jesus: he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it out to eat. And not only did it feed the entire multitude but they had twelve massive baskets of large chunks left over. As Jesus retreated further away from the now-sated crowds and his disciples sailed back across the lake (with Jesus miraculously following on foot), the multitudes were left with a burning question. They gave chase, and this is where we pick up today: the people have once again pressed in around our Lord and the disciples, and the people want to know what all this means! Continue reading “The Bread of Life”

“What are they among so many people?”

A Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. John 6:1-21


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who abundantly provides for our every need. Amen.

Last week, the lectionary did something a little weird: it skipped over the main event. Remember, if you will, the disciples came back from their big trip and the crowds swarmed around them; so many people flooded the area that the disciples “had no leisure even to eat.” To get away from the people, Jesus and the disciples sailed to a secluded place, and the crowds followed them. Even though the throngs put a damper on the whole “quiet spiritual retreat,” Saint Mark said Jesus had mercy on the crowd because “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” and then…nothing happened. The text skipped forward something like twenty verses and the disciples were back in a boat! It left us with a big unanswered question: what happened?!?! What did it look like for Jesus to shepherd the flock, to “have compassion on” the crowd?

Today, Saint John chimes in sort of like Paul Harvey: “And now…the rest of the story.” Continue reading ““What are they among so many people?””

Sheep with a Shepherd

A Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Mark 6:30-34


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Christ the Good Shepherd, Dura-Europos

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Good Shepherd. Amen.

When we last saw the twelve apostles, they had been sent out two by two on their second mission trip. After a rough trip to Jesus’ hometown, he sent them out to do exactly what he had not been able to do among his own kin. And immediately after they went out, we heard about John the Baptist’s violent end at Herod’s hand. The apostles’ mission was perilous and by no means a guaranteed success. They were sent out with no food, no money, no change of clothes: only each other and a (difficult) message. Failure was a very real option.

Today, we join them on their return. By all accounts and despite all odds, things went well. Verse 13, which we read two weeks ago, tells us that the Twelve “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” And verse 30, at the outset of today’s Gospel, depicts their reunion with the Lord: they “gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.”

Imagine their excitement; the twelve just worked wonders! They’ve glimpsed the Kingdom of God erupting into this world! They’ve received a foretaste of the Feast to come! Continue reading “Sheep with a Shepherd”

From the Beginning, with the End in Mind

A Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Text: St. Mark 6:14-29


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who claims those whom the world has rejected. Amen.

To my mind, one of the most satisfying feelings in the world is re-visiting a story and making new connections. I’m sure many of you have a favorite book or movie: one to which you return frequently and are always surprised to find some new detailed contained within suddenly grab your attention.

A good tv show or movie is worth watching once. We all know what a beach read is – a bargain book that you take with you on vacation. It might be worth reading once while listening to the waves and trying to keep an eye on the dog or the kids.

But a truly great movie or book is worth revisiting time and time again. Each time through, some new detail emerges, a new theme grabs your attention. The second, third, tenth time through, you’re still catching subtle foreshadowing, shades of irony, jokes that are set up three episodes before the payoff, plot lines discretely seeded in the first pages that culminate in the final chapters. Notes that start subtly but soon dominate the score, meaningful echoes that play out at different levels. Continue reading “From the Beginning, with the End in Mind”

The Prophet in the Hometown

A Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ezekiel 2:1-5; St. Mark 6:1-13


 

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sends us out as prophets proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Amen.

No prophet ever, upon receiving God’s call, jumped for joy. “Woohoo! I get to speak truth to power and tell the people how their actions have afflicted our Lord! Where’s the King? I wanna go tell him his actions cause God grief. But first, let me go tell the landowners that the Lord plans to cut them down. I wonder, when I flee into exile, if I’ll go longer without food or water. I can’t wait to find out.” Continue reading “The Prophet in the Hometown”