Tuesday, September 5, 2023

The elephant in the room

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 17A, preached on Sunday, September 3, 2023.

Whenever somebody begins a sentence “Let me be honest,” the issue is seldom really about honesty as much as it is speaking bluntly, clearly, and plainly.  Throughout their time with Jesus, the disciples could honestly complain that Jesus spoke in parables that became almost riddles for them.  A couple of times we have the disciples ask Jesus to stop speaking in figurative language and to say clearly, openly, and even bluntly what He means.   We heard some of those earlier in the year in the Gospel readings appointed.  On one occasion Jesus was talking about for a little while they would see Him and then not and then a little while they would see Him again.  I think all of us understand the frustration and would join the disciples in asking Jesus to simply say what He means.  

The bad thing is that although Jesus does speak obliquely or figuratively or with hidden meaning about some things, the things of which He speaks plainly no one wants to hear.  What Jesus always addresses plainly and boldly is suffering.  He says what will happen, what waits for Him in Jerusalem.  We heard it today: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  It is no wonder that Peter is upset.  Don't we protect the ones we love?

Who wants to hear such things?  You don’t.  I don’t.  We are protective of those we love.   We can make fun of and ridicule those in our family but the stranger on the street corner will get a fist full from us if he does the same thing.  Peter is not being arrogant but loving.  He is like the parent who fights for their children to get up to bat, to play in outfield, to get first chair in the band, to be given a second chance when the screw up on a test.  We all do it for those we love.  So of course Peter would tell Jesus that none of this is going to happen to Him if he can do anything about it.

However, the disciples are not Jesus’ protectors.  Their job is not to guard Jesus but to accompany Him and learn from Him on this way of the cross so that they know what confess before the world after it has taken place.   That is the part Peter did not get but neither did any of the other disciples.  They were agitated by the calm way that Jesus spoke of His coming betrayal, suffering, and death.  So upset that they did not even hear Him say anything about the resurrection.  God needs our help and so Peter will step up to help Jesus.

We have the same idea.  We need to protect the Gospel and Scripture from the assaults of the enemies.  We need to turn Jesus' ivory tower ideas into practical programs.  Jesus needs our help and if you love Jesus, you will step up to the plate and give Jesus your help.  Except He doesn't.  Jesus is not asking for our help but for us to follow Him.

Jesus was not condemning Peter out of anger.  He was not even offended by the sentiment.  But the sentiment was wrong and so Jesus had no choice.  Mark’s gospel records a detail missing from Matthew’s account.  Jesus had looked around and saw what was on the face and knew what was in the heart of the rest of the apostles and so Jesus did not have a choice.  Peter had to be rebuked – not simply for the sake of the wrong that Peter said but for the rest of the disciples who also believed the wrong.  And then it came: Peter who had only verses before boldly confessed Jesus in a way that only the Holy Spirit could do, now is called out as Satan himself in Peter’s body and mouth.  Though it seems like overkill, it is exactly the right stern warning from Jesus.

The Church cannot be silent in the face of error.  This is not about playing together nice in the sandbox and sharing our toys.  This is about the truth that saves, the heart and core of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  When the Church calls out error, we are not doing it as smug and arrogant superiors who delight pointing out the speck in our neighbor’s eye.  No, we are doing what Jesus did when error threatened the very Gospel itself.  If this had been a private conversation, Peter might have gotten off with a whispered warning but because this was public and people were listening, Jesus had to confront Peter and his error.  It is the same today.  We must be blunt about the truth of the cross and empty tomb because this is the only Gospel that can save the sinner and raise the dead.

Jesus did this in love.  He had invested everything in those who would be His witnesses from Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth.  This is what St. Paul says.  We speak the truth in love.  We call the sinner to repentance in love.  We confront public error with public correction because the world is watching.  This is the hard truth which we do not want to hear.  We would rather let bygones be bygones and smile while remaining silent.  But this is not how Jesus addresses such public error and therefore we will have to man up and learn to do what Jesus did.  There is nothing more satanic than undermining or failing to speak the cardinal truth of the faith – that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinners, suffer, die on the cross, and be raised on the third day.

There is no other way – it is either the way of the cross and empty tomb or we are still in the prison of our sins, still captive to death, and there is no one to save us.  What is at stake is the Gospel here – not some quaint or odd interpretation of an obscure passage in Revelation but the very Gospel itself.  What lies in the balance is not if someone is offended or gets upset but whether they are saved.  Now, to his credit, Peter repents.  Jesus forgives him – and not just this but his three time denial of ever even knowing Jesus as our Lord was being examined on His way to the cross.  This was never about punishing Peter but restoring him and so it is about those who deny the faith.  The goal is not to punish but to save.

There is another thing about which Jesus is painfully blunt.  He warns us that we will suffer as He suffered by a world unfriendly to Him and His saving purpose.  Who wants to hear that?  It is bad enough all our hopes hinge on a God who is not strong enough to avoid being killed by the cross but we have to join Him in denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Him.  Not a few of us would like to tell Jesus “Lord, this shall never happen!”  But if He cannot deny His cross, neither can we deny the cross we must bear as we follow Him.  So all those preachers who tell us about how easy it is to believe and how God just wants to bless us like crazy with everything we could ever want, they must be called out as much as any one who would say the cross and empty tomb are not the heart and center of our faith.

There are many little secrets God has kept from us.  Some of them are more interesting to us than the things our Lord has spoken plainly about.  But none of those hidden things affect our salvation.  The cross and empty tomb are the cornerstone on which the whole house of faith is built.  There are many curiosities we have about why God does what He does in our lives.  Sometimes it seems that if we are Christians our lives ought to be easier and we ought to have more of what the world wants as well.  Because this goes to the heart and core of what it means to walk by faith, denying ourselves and bearing the cross, this has to be addressed.

This is the Gospel: the world is dying, people are evil, and the cross is our only salvation. If it makes Peter or you or me nervous, we are in the wrong church.  We do not protect the Gospel; we proclaim it – without embarrassment or shame or hesitation – for by it any and all who will be saved, shall be saved

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