homily for February 25, 2018
Peter is wise in the ways of the world, and works well for him, up to a point. Yet the soundest of worldly wisdom is still rooted in the world, and not in heaven. Peter’s conflict with Jesus is the inevitable flareup that happens when good old common sense comes into full contact with the foolishness of the cross.
Peter’s problem – his spiritual problem– is that for all its soundness, the wisdom of this world anchors us on human things rather than on divine things. Worldly wisdom helps us to thrive and succeed according to a set of values that we rarely question, and it’s often about gaining status and power and security as we get grow in years. When that security is threatened – as it was with Peter, when Jesus gave him a glimpse of what this is really about – then we often react by clinging even more forcefully to ways that feel safe and familiar, perhaps even time-tested.
Yet when we hang our lives on the ways of this world – grasping for all those things that we tell ourselves make our lives better –in a way we are surrounding ourselves with the very things that hasten our own death.
Kallistos Ware tells us that “death has both a physical and a spiritual aspect, and of the two it is the spiritual that is more terrible. Physical death is the separation of man’s body from his soul; spiritual death, the separation of man’s soul from God.”[i] If we quietly believe that the passage of time is about upward mobility rather than seeking God in the humble soil of our hearts, then we are sadly misled. Instead of gaining life we surround ourselves with artifacts of lifelessness, with things that do not give life but in fact steal it from us.
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
But what, then, is life? If anything, we gain from this teaching the mystical paradox at the heart of our faith. If we cling to means and security, we lose everything that matters. If we empty ourselves as Jesus did, completely, giving ourselves for others and for God, then we gain our lives. The path to life is not found in security, but in vulnerability. The path to life is not through power, but through suffering. Life is found not in status and wealth and being held in high esteem, but in humility and poverty and sometimes even pain.
The drive to be successful and secure is a powerful temptation that leads us to trust in ourselves rather than in God. And it’s insatiable: we feel a relentless pressure to push against the ceiling of what we already have, to gain even more of those things that might affirm our value…and what’s worse, we rarely question this. That’s what worldly wisdom is all about.
Yet the life of the spirit is found below, moving gracefully beneath us as we toil atop a ladder. Life is not found in grandeur; it is found in simplicity. Life is found in the deep and heartfelt love we have for one another, a love that calls us to sacrifice and give of ourselves so that others can be fulfilled. Life is found in songs of praise and thanksgiving. Life is found not in the hard-heartedness of power and privilege – quite the opposite, those are the seeds of our own death – but in the loving work of reconciliation and justice.
And life is found, we see, in suffering. Returning to the paradox, Jesus tells us that if we are to seek life, we will find it in the things that the world shuns. We disrupt the pattern of worldly temptations – temptations which often wear the sheep’s clothing of common sense – by denying ourselves, by taking up our cross, and by following Jesus.
Clifton Black reminds us that “in the economy of the gospel, the only way to be made whole is to let go of everything society reckons most valuable. There is no benefit in gaining the entire world…if in doing so one forfeits’ one’s deepest soul. [ii]
Following Jesus to the cross means knowing the reality of suffering. This is precisely what Peter cannot handle. Peter doesn’t want to suffer. He doesn’t want to give up his life, he wants to save it & even make it something important.
Yet Jesus said to Peter, You don’t understand because you are still anchored in the world. Rooted here, cannot grow and you will not find life. But I want you to gain your life, to set your heart on the eternal, not just for yourself but so that others may become who my Father created them to be.
Peter is so afraid of suffering that he is willing to challenge Jesus on this, and even to resort to violence to prevent it from happening. Later, in the garden of Gethsemane when the guards come for Jesus, what does Peter do? He reaches for the nearest weapon he can find, in this case a sword, and ostensibly to protect his Lord but really to ward off suffering, Peter slices off a guard’s ear.
Do you realize what a tragedy this was? With one reckless act of violence, through his trust in a sidearm over the grace of God, Peter ended the Jesus movement. It was over, right then and there. With one slice of a blade, everything was lost. In an instant of violence, a movement of love and grace and relationship became an insurgency. This was to be the end of it, and Peter’s trust in worldly things assured that Jesus of Nazareth would fade into history as just another religious dissident.
You see, that is what we do when we place our trust in the ways of this world, because the worldly things we trust become instruments of our own death. Money and security seem like a safety net, yet can very well be our downfall. But instruments of violence will always signal death, no matter how we spin it. We must never place our trust in violence to bring life.
Gun violence is a uniquely American sickness. It endangers the innocent while it sabotages our ability to talk about what life really means. Dean Andrew McGowan of Berkeley Divinity School (my seminary) said over the weekend that “Gun violence…mocks and competes with the power of God to save and sustain. The forces that cling to (it) imagine violence as protection, and that infinite potential violence would somehow lead to peace, but this can never be true.”[iii]
Those who seek to save their lives, will lose them. Peter used violence to prevent suffering, but tragically ended up assuring that the world would know Jesus as just another instigator with a well-armed guard, if Jesus was remembered at all.
Except. Except. Except Jesus would not allow the work of salvation to be defined by fear or sabotaged by an instrument of death. Thanks to Peter, the situation became hopeless, but because this was Jesus, it wasn’t hopeless at all. Because what happened? Jesus reached up to the guard, and if you have lost all hope, take heart – Jesus places his hand over the ear of the guard and restores him to wholeness. Peter’s recklessness was redeemed. Jesus brought the movement back from the edge of collapse and restored the presence of grace.
Those who are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus, will find life. Those who cling and strive and push to save their lives will only surround themselves with death, yet those who give everything will become vessels of salvation. The paradox at the heart of our faith puts us in sharp conflict with the wisdom of the world, yet it connects us to an infinite source of life at the deepest heart of our being.
I’ll close with a thought from Mother Maria of Paris, an Eastern orthodox saint who died in the French resistance during the second world war. She wrote of what happens to us when we can break from worldly things and instead set our hearts on the eternal. It doesn’t actually take much. She wrote, “I think that anyone who has had this experience of eternity, if only once; one who has understood the way he is going, if only once; who has seen the One who goes before him, if only once – such a person will find it hard to turn aside from this path; to him all comfort will seem ephemeral, all treasure valueless, all companions unnecessary, if amongst them he fails to see the One Companion, carrying his Cross.”[iv]
Put down the things of this world, and you will gain everything. Take up your cross. Follow me, and together we will find life.
Homily for Feb 25, 2018, The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, The 2nd Sunday in Lent, Year B, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.
[i] Ware, The Orthodox Way, 79
[ii] C. Clifton Black, Working Preacher
[iv] Ware, The Orthodox Way, 85