Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17, Year A)

'Now for most of us, who have been raised from childhood in the Christian faith, this is what a Messiah does. He dies and is raised from the dead. What could be easier to understand? But we’ve heard this Scripture so many times that we cannot possibly understand what a shock and a scandal this must have been to the disciples.'

Sermon – Pentecost 14 (Proper 17A)

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III

St Stephen Lutheran Church

September 3, 2023


Do you know Jesus?


Thousands of motorists traveling outbound on the Parkway West are asked this question every day. It is festooned upon a banner which is placed atop a building adjacent to the highway. Most people probably pass it without a second look. Some see it and say ‘yes.’ Some people see it and think, ‘No, and I don’t care to.’ I wonder whether anyone has driven by it and said, ‘Gee, it’s a sign.’


Do you know Jesus?


Maybe a good answer to this question would be, ‘Yes, but not well enough.’ I think that everyone in this room could answer that question in this way. We can never know Jesus well enough, for the simple reason that the knowledge of Jesus is inexhaustible. The very last words of St. John’s Gospel are these: Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.


Simon Peter thought he knew very well who Jesus was. You remember in last week’s Gospel when Jesus and his disciples were traveling in the region of Caesarea Philippi, and he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is? And they answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ But he asked them, ‘And who do you say that I am?’


Peter had been called by Jesus, he had walked with Jesus, he had listened to his teaching, he had seen his healing. He had been saved by him from the storm and from drowning. He had brought the loaves and the fish to him for blessing, and distributed them to the great crowd, who ate and were satisfied. And he knew who Jesus was. No one had told him, no one had to tell him. And so Peter says, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.’


Do you know Jesus? Peter and the other apostles can answer ‘yes.’ But they do not yet know him well enough. After warning them not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.


Now for most of us, who have been raised from childhood in the Christian faith, this is what a Messiah does. He dies and is raised from the dead. What could be easier to understand? But we’ve heard this Scripture so many times that we cannot possibly understand what a shock and a scandal this must have been to the disciples.


The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one.’ In Greek it is Christ, which is why we call Jesus ‘Jesus Christ.’ A Messiah, or Christ, does not suffer and get killed. He makes others, God’s enemies, suffer and get killed. He is the one who metes out justice to God’s enemies, who drives them before him like leaves in front of the wind.


But Peter and the disciples don’t know the end of the story yet, for the very simple reason that they’re in the middle of the story. And so, Peter tells Jesus that he is wrong. He doesn’t do it in front of the others, of course. He would never embarrass the Messiah like that in front of the others. At hearing his words, however, Jesus says to him, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’


Now Peter is not Satan. But at this moment he is acting according to a satanic principle, that suffering and death are to be feared and avoided  above all other things. That is the principle which causes many to live life according to their own golden rule, ‘Do unto others before they do unto you.’ This is the mentality which sees other people as potential enemies, burdens not to be borne, lepers not to be touched. Finally, and this may be reading into things a little more than I usually like, Peter may be blinded by his love for Jesus. Not only does he not think the Messiah can suffer, but he does not want him to suffer. This is, I think, something we can relate to. We do not want those we love to suffer, and we are willing to countenance almost anything so that they don’t. This is how our spiritual enemy, the Satan, uses and corrupts even the greatest of God’s gifts to us, turning them against us so that even our love for others becomes enslaved to the fear of suffering and death.


Simon Peter knows Jesus, but not well enough. He cannot know Jesus, he cannot proclaim Jesus Messiah, until he knows him in this way, as the Crucified. If we know Jesus only as the great Sage, the dispenser of wisdom for living; if he is only the Miracle-Worker, the Faith-healer, we do not yet know him well enough. Only in knowing him as the Crucified One can we know him as our Savior and the Savior of the world.


Now Jesus tells his disciples, who have been following him, that they need to take up their crosses and follow him if they are to become his disciples. It is almost as if they have not yet been disciples, until they know him this well. Of course, it is not that there is a cross lying by the side of the road, each measured to fit the individual disciple, the right size and weight to make life a little more burdensome. No, it is the other person whom the Christian must bear and bear with. Since Jesus has forgiven the sins of Christians, Christians bear and forgive the sins of their neighbor. Since Jesus has lost his attachment to the life of this world for the sake of the Christian, Christians are called to lose their attachments to the things of the world for the sake of Jesus.


In Paul’s letter to the Romans, from which we’ve heard today, he gives guidance for the new life in the Spirit which God gives us. He has told the Romans, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may know what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’


Most of these injunctions are agreeable to us, love, show honor, etc. But one in particular stands out; the command to bless those who persecute us. Christians are people who renounce the idea of revenge as another Satanic principle. By living in the spirit of revenge, we show that we are in thrall to suffering and death. The only way we can distract ourselves from suffering and death is by causing it to someone else. We show that we do not believe that God in his wisdom and mercy will be a far better judge than we can ever be. It is not that we are to deny that we are wounded, nor are we called to lie about who has wounded us. But we are not to brood on wrongs, nurse grudges, constantly condemn others, and with words or deeds return evil for evil. To renounce these practices and instead pray for those who do us wrong is one way of cross-bearing. It is to leave aside that which keeps us from following Jesus and instead to walk in his ways.


Do you know Jesus? It is clear that the answer is ‘Not well enough.’ But the good news is that Jesus knows us. He knows us, and he loves us so well that he went to the cross for us, bearing our sins and the sins of the whole world, in confidence that even suffering and death could not separate him from the life which was in his Father. And we know that he has called us to our crosses, by which we share in the life of Jesus, and that in following in his way we shall know him more and more, until the day when all the world is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. X