Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pentecost 12, 2014: Ardent in spirit

Lectionary: Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

What a rich lectionary we are blessed with today! After three weeks of not preaching, I’ve been feeling a bit over-inspired all week.

The letter from Paul to the Romans is flush with good advice on how to live in Christian unity and I really wanted to preach on this, especially given that we’re having a congregational meeting next Sunday on this very topic. But try as I might, this was not the sermon God let me write for today.

There are, however, two terms Paul uses that I’d like to discuss before we go the sermon God did choose. Paul instructs the new Christian community in Rome to “Hate what is evil…” (Gk: evil is what causes pain or sorrow, what is cruel toward self and/or others).

Paul also tells them to be “ardent in spirit” also translated as ‘fervent in spirit’ as they serve the Lord. (Gk: ardent is more an image like boiling water). Please keep these in mind as we delve into the richness of today’s gospel from Matthew.

In today’s reading, Jesus makes his first prediction, and it isn’t a pleasant one. Jesus says outright that he will “suffer greatly at the hands of the Sanhedrin, be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

Modern Christians are accustomed to viewing the elders, high priests, and scribes as Jesus’ enemies, but for the disciples, these people were the defenders of their faith, their trusted leaders. How could Jesus say they’d do that to the Messiah?

They were so focused on the suffering and death part, it’s as if they didn’t even hear the part about being raised on the third day. Peter certainly seems to have missed that part because he pulls Jesus aside and says “God forbid it!” God forbid what – the resurrection?

But really, who can blame them? How could anyone have envisioned the resurrection? How could anyone have envisioned that the salvation of the world would take a path that seems to go very wrong, according to earthly standards anyway.

The thing is, it is exactly in those moments that we realize God is most present, redeeming all things! That’s the whole point of the story in the book of Exodus! God says, ‘I have observed the misery of my people… I have heard their cries, I know their sufferings, and I have come to redeem them.’

Now the Christ is giving his disciples a heads-up: the path is going to seem to go very wrong, but the divine plan is at work. So believe. Stay with me, and keep going.

That’s why, when Peter reacts out of his habit, out of the vision of redemption to which he is bound, Jesus breaks the bondage in Peter using some very direct language: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And the teacher’s pet falls down in dishonor.

It is one of my great regrets that the translators made this word a proper noun : Satan, with a capital ‘S.’ It isn’t. It’s just a noun, a regular noun with a lower case ‘s’ and it means: tempter, distractor, adversary.

Over time in our Christian narrative, artists, like Botticelli interpreted the works of authors, like Dante Alighieri (“Inferno”) and ‘satan’ morphed into Satan, a human-like being with horns, cloven feet, a tail, and an evil expression on his face to match the evil intent in his heart.

Please remember, the story of Lucifer, the fallen angel, is a legend. It is not Scriptural.

So in the gospel story, Peter is just Peter, who, at this moment, is ‘satan’ to Jesus, because he is reacting from a vision of redemption that is too small, too restrictive – too human.

We all do that. We’re all ‘satan’ for Jesus sometimes. At some point in our lives, we all shrink the wildly extravagant, loving plan of God’s redemption to a plan that better fits the vision to which we are bound – a vision created from our intellect to soothe our discomfort, or one that fits the prevailing cultural opinion to ensure our belonging.

In the end, it’s a human vision and it is evil, that is, it is causes pain and sorrow to ourselves and others and is a stumbling block to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

God’s plan of salvation, as given to us in our Scriptures – Old and New – is salvation for the whole world. Wherever we limit or shrink that, we are being ‘satan’ to Jesus.

Whenever we judge a person or group to be unworthy of the grace and mercy of God, and exclude them from full participation in the body of Christ, we are ‘satan’ to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

Whenever we steal someone’s hope or judge their suffering according to earthly standards, we have become a stumbling block to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

Whenever we measure the success of the institution of the church chiefly by its budget or membership numbers rather than it’s ardent spirit, it’s boiling passion for justice and love, then we are ‘satan’ to Jesus and his continuing work of redemption in the world today.

The world is an effective tempter – a ‘satan.’ It promotes a perspective of independence and self-sufficiency. Then when we try to surrender ourselves to the will and care of God, it can be a struggle. But the truth is, we don’t have the means or wherewithal to save ourselves. No amount of rules following, or earthly successes, or human effort can obtain it.

In his book “Rediscovering Holiness” J. I. Packer says, “Only at the point where the insufficiency of natural strength is faced, felt, and admitted does divine empowering begin… the key to God’s strength is our own weakness. Through humble dependence on Jesus Christ we find the strength to put off our old life and to grow into our new one.” (“CITE,” )

That is the moment of our resurrection – as individuals and as a church. When we confront the restrictive, egocentric ‘satan’ of our humanity and surrender to the limitlessness love and mercy of the divine within and all around us – only then do we truly live.

We re-discovered this recently through our ministry of the Shepherd’s Table. We started this ministry with nothing but an ardent spirit, a boiling over of hope, love, and zeal to serve the Lord. No money had been saved up or set aside.

We began our journey in faith and were awed by the powerful, abundant provision of God. Food would appear out of nowhere. Many of us experienced real spiritual renewal witnessing the miracle of this ministry.

Somehow, over time, the ministry became work and not a miracle of faith. The work became harder and the joy faded into worry.

Then we hit that wall in June – the “insufficiency of [our] natural strength,” as Packer put it, and by God’s grace we remembered that it’s God’s ministry and God will provide for it – and that God will use us to do that if we open ourselves, “give to the needs of the saints and associate with the lowly.” We become ‘satan’ to Jesus when we think we’re doing it ourselves rather than God doing it through us.

The good news is, Jesus didn’t banish Peter for being ‘satan,’ did he? That moment didn’t mark the end of their relationship. In fact, it marked the beginning of Peter’s spiritual maturity – a deepening of his relationship with Jesus. This was a process which happened over time – just like it does for us.

Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man would come in glory and “repay everyone” for what had been done. Many interpret this as a threat of punishment, but the Greek translates “repay” as a giving of self… Jesus promises to come and give of himself which is why those standing there would see the kingdom before they died. We all will – if we believe and set our minds on things divine.

The path of life that leads to our spiritual maturity will inevitably lead us to suffering and death, just as it did Jesus. It will also lead us to new life, resurrection life, because Jesus has already established that path. This is the gift Jesus gave us. This is our good news.

So whether the path we’re on at the moment is one of joy and light or darkness and death, we believe that we are walking in the presence of God, according to the will of God, and for the glory of God whose redeeming love never fails us. We believe that when we stray from the path which we will, Jesus will come, give of himself, and show us the way to go.

And St. Paul has given us some great suggestions on how to reset our thinking and actions to get us back on the path of life.

So on we go, together, in faith, ardent in spirit and bound in the love of Christ. Amen.