Fourth Sunday of Easter, 2021

Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021 – Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today Jesus tells us that he is the good shepherd and that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is different from the hired hand, he explains, because when the hired hand sees a wolf coming, he runs away. The good shepherd not only stays with the sheep, he lays down his life for them.

If it wasn’t clear before, it should be by now that this is no ordinary shepherd. In fact, “good” is probably an understatement.

I’ve never known any full-time shepherds. It’s not as common of a profession in 21st Century Tennessee as it was in 1st Century Palestine. But I imagine even back then that you’d have been hard pressed to meet one who was willing to die for his sheep.

Therein lies the point. Jesus is no ordinary shepherd. An ordinary shepherd would probably, like the hired hand, have run away. Or perhaps an ordinary shepherd would have sacrificed a weakling in order to protect the pride of the flock, or defend only a particular sheep that, despite his better judgement, he had named.

But the Good Shepherd? The Good Shepherd doesn’t risk his life only for the sake of a sheep that he’s especially fond of. The Good Shepherd neither fights off the beast nor scapegoats a lamb. Instead, the Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life to save the entire flock.

A sacrifice of that magnitude is based on a lot more than affinity or fondness. It requires nothing less than the Love of the One from who all love comes. That Love—God’s capital-L Love—is precisely the Love of the Good Shepherd who says, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”

This is the Love of the God who knows humanity and divinity inside and out. This is the Love of the Shepherd who knows what it’s like to be a sheep, and a sheep who knows what it’s like to be nabbed by a wolf.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is the living, breathing, flesh-and-bone manifestation of a Love so divine, so profound, so perfect that even after 2,000 years here we are still gathered together to celebrate it. But let us be clear. We do not only celebrate this Love because it led the Shepherd to lay down his life for us. We celebrate it chiefly because by laying down his life he took it back up again.

This is the paradoxical promise at the center of our faith: in dying Jesus was raised to new life.

We share in that same death and that same resurrection. When we renew our baptism each year during the Great Vigil of Easter, we are reminded that when we pass through the waters, we are buried with Christ by a baptism into his death so that we might be raised with him to new life.

By virtue of our baptism then, we share in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s important, not because it is some sort of “fire insurance” that saves us from burning for eternity, but because it has real-life implications for how we live our lives now.

In this post-resurrection world, we embody the risen life of Jesus. Here. Now. Today. Tomorrow. Next week. Always.

So not only are we inheritors of Love strong enough to bring back to life that which was three days dead, but we are called to proclaim it. Take Peter for example. In our lesson from Acts this morning we find him in the custody of the authorities after healing a man in the name of Jesus.

Peter says, “let it be known to all of you . . . that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”

These words comprise one of the first sermons ever, in which Peter is testifying to the promise of the power of Jesus whom God raised from the dead. Because Jesus has new life, says Peter, so does this man have new life. Because Jesus has new life, so do each of you have new life. Here. Now.

Peter also says something that a lot of 21st Century Christians have trouble with. He says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Some hear it as exclusive. And indeed, it is hard for us not to when for generations we have heard Christians whose primary means of invitation to the faith is something akin to, “Believe or be damned to the fiery pits of hell!”

But I don’t think Peter’s message is meant to be exclusive. He is merely expressing his sincere belief that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead God acted once on behalf of all humanity for all time. As a result, no human person or entity can claim to have exclusive access to the power of God.

Yes, the claim comes from an unashamedly Christian perspective. It places Jesus’ resurrection as the hinge-point of salvation history. But, at its core, it also means that no person can with authority say, “Unless you believe like I do, you’re damned for all time.” That is not, nor has it ever been, the central message of Christianity.

The keys to death and hell have already been to Jesus given. And he has unlocked the door and thrown the devil out. Been there. Done that. Already taken care of.

God became human, the Shepherd like the sheep, even to the extent of death. By dying he destroyed death and by raising him to new life again, God has brought us all into free and lasting life in the presence of our redeemer. We are now united with God in resurrection life.

That means it’s never not Easter.

That means we are at present filled with the true Love of God.

That means eternal life begins at the font, not the grave.

Peter is simply inviting us to live like that’s the case. Do you hear the difference? The focus of Peter’s sermon is not what the resurrection is going to for us when we die. The focus of Peter’s sermon is what the resurrection means for us now, as we live.

Jesus’ resurrection changed Peter’s life. And by the power of the Spirit and in the name of the God who made it possible, Peter wants you to know that it can change yours, too. Here. Now.

How exactly?

Well, there are far too many examples to name here. But one that seems especially fitting for today comes from our reading from the first letter of John. It is this: if you happen to find yourself with all the goods of the world passing by someone in need, do not refuse to help them.

You just might begin to get the idea. 

“Why did you doubt?”

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 9, 2020 – Matthew 14:22-33 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

This sermon, which I preached this morning, is a slightly different version of the sermon I wrote as a contribution to this week’s installment of Sermons that Work.

Today we find Jesus’ disciples terrified on the Sea of Galilee. It’s certainly not the first time. The disciples are no strangers to this lake. Even before Jesus called them to fish for people, they fished here for fish, no doubt risking life and limb for a good catch. 

A quick look back at Matthew’s chapter eight reminds us of another traumatic experience they had not so very long ago. You may recall the story. A windstorm arises, so strong that the boat is swamped and it begins to sink.

Scared to death, the disciples yell to Jesus, who is fast asleep in the back. “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” Jesus responds calmly, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he gets up, rebukes the wind, calms the sea, and the disciples are amazed.

Today, however, it’s not the weather that frightens the disciples. They can handle being tossed about by strong winds and waves. Been there, done that.

Today they are frightened by something else entirely—an eerie figure walking toward them on the surface of the sea. “It’s a ghost!” they cry. No, Jesus assures them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

Alas, these comforting words do not quite satisfy Peter, who seeks further proof of Jesus’ identity. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus agrees, “C’mon, Peter.” And Peter goes. But after just a few steps, the wind startles him and he begins to sink, crying, “Lord, save me!” Of course, Jesus does save him, but he also asks him this sobering question, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Jesus’ question is a different version of the same one he asked back in chapter eight. It’s déjà vu right here in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. Make no mistake, these questions are just as much for us as they were for those early disciples.

Why do we doubt? Jesus calmed a storm with his voice, fed five thousand people with only a few loaves of bread, and walked on water. In light of all this, why would Peter—or we—ever lack faith?

Well, right off the top of my head, I’d say: fear. Like the disciples, sometimes storms pop up in our lives and scare us half to death. That’s what storms do. It’s only natural for a dog to hide under the bed when he hears thunder; for a child to cling to her mother when she sees lightning; for the driver to pull over when he can no longer see the road. 

And it’s not just wind and rain storms that scare us. So do the metaphorical storms of our lives. Things like global pandemics, contentious election cycles, horrifying diagnoses, economic downturns, and relational discord can shake us to the core.

In the midst of difficult setbacks like these, it’s not uncommon for anyone to doubt their faith in God. That’s exactly what happened to Peter in today’s gospel, that’s exactly what the disciples did in chapter eight, and it’s exactly what can happen to us.

All Jesus does is ask why. Like any good teacher, he already knows the answer, but he wants us to learn it, too.

Simply put, I’d say it’s because we are human. Fear is, quite literally, instinctual. Humans are wired with a fight-or-flight response. We have this reflex for a reason. When our lives are in jeopardy or—more commonly for us today—when our identity is threatened, we are naturally inclined to react in fleeting ways.

When that happens, we tend to leave calm, rational thought behind, and we often need some assistance getting back to a more faithful frame of mind.

If you took Public Speaking in high school of college, you probably learned how important it is to engage the audience. Speakers have many tools for doing this, but perhaps the most important is the rhetorical question.

Rhetorical questions engage audience members by asking questions that get listeners thinking about their own answers. And as they do, they become personally connected to the subject in question.

This is to say, Jesus is not asking his rhetorical question, “Why did you doubt?” to shame Peter. Jesus is not in the shaming business. Instead, he uses the question to get a frightened Peter to focus on what’s most important. And in the realm of life’s storms, faith is more important than safety, or at least comes before it.

Faith is the foundation of human life, as important as food, water, and shelter. Only after faith is secured can safety add value to living. This is the message of the cross. This is the message of Jesus’ whole life. Faith is what Jesus wants Peter—and all of us—to focus on when storms come.

Jesus’ question prompts us to realize that faith is always within our reach. Even in the stormiest times of life, when we most doubt our ability to make it through, we can remain faithful to God.

It may not be easy. Staying faithful to God doesn’t simply mean going through the motions. It doesn’t mean saying the creed while thinking about a shopping list, or repeating Bible verses from memory. It means for us, just like Peter, refocusing on our commitment to faith itself.

We will not always be perfectly faithful. Doubts will creep in. The important thing is to return to a place of faith that is strengthened and sustained by a relationship with God and nurtured by participating in life in Christ.

You can return to faith by reading scripture, praying, attending worship. Each Sunday when we confess our sins, we admit that we don’t always get everything right, but we repent and recommit ourselves to walking in God’s ways once again.

Repent and recommit. This is the nature of the Christian life.

Peter is a prime example of what it means to live a life of holy imperfection. He has misunderstood before, and he will misunderstand—and even deny—again. But today we see him refocusing on faith (with a little help from Jesus, of course).

Watching Peter’s journey reminds us of our journey, a journey on which we can—and should—choose faithfulness. And a journey on which we, just like Peter, repent, recommit, and focus on a faithfulness that comes from the knowledge and love of Jesus, through whom we experience the grace of God time and time again.

Knowing God

Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 19, 2019 – Acts 11:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Today’s collect has a great first line. “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life.” That phrase has stuck with me since we first read it together at Bible study on Tuesday. 

To know God is everlasting life. That packs a punch. 

It suggests that our relationship with God is not casual. God is not a mere acquaintance or a distant relative. True knowledge of God is not futile or easily acquired. Rather, true knowledge of God is the result of a life spent experiencing God, listening to God, and responding to God. 

Faithful Christians have been doing just that for centuries. In today’s lesson from Acts, the Apostle Peter recounts a vision by which he comes to deeper knowledge of God. 

Peter sees God’s great picnic blanket lowered to the earth carrying animals considered to be unclean. Nevertheless, the voice of God commands Peter to kill and eat. Peter politely refuses, but three times God assures him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”  

After the vision, the Spirit leads Peter to the home of a prominent Gentile where he begins to preach. The Holy Spirit falls on all who are gathered there, just as it had on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. 

Through this vision and the subsequent events God reveals that his kingdom is available even for those outside of Judaism. 

It seems simple enough to us. Jesus came for everyone. Gentile, Jew, slave, free, black, white, gay, straight, woman, man, non-binary. (The list goes on.) But imagine a Jewish believer in Jesus’ time. It would have sounded preposterous that a Gentile could receive the word of God.

Jewish followers of Jesus were uniquely suited to receive the Good News of the Messiah. They were children of Israel, decedents of Abraham. Christ was the fulfillment of what had been foretold by their prophets in their Bible. 

Since the Jews were God’s chosen people, the idea that Gentiles could be included in a salvation they had not-so-long-expected didn’t make much sense. 

Gentiles did not live by the law. Their men were uncircumcised, they consumed forbidden food, and they didn’t perform ritual acts of washing before table fellowship. How could they all-of-the-sudden be a part of the in-group? 

At this point, it’s tempting to draw an unflattering analogy between these early Jewish followers of Jesus and Christians today who refuse to acknowledge that the love of God is for anyone but them. 

It’s been done before. 

“The Jews were too legalistic! They were so focused on their law that they couldn’t see that God was trying to do something bigger and better! Don’t be like them!” 

Let’s not fall into that trap. It would be hypocritical. By criticizing Peter for eating with Gentiles, Jewish followers of Jesus were not saying anything different than what we might say today. 

“How can Baptists be Christians? They only do communion twice a year, and when they do do it they use grape juice! It’s unconscionable! It’s not biblical! It’s simply not done!”

Have you ever noticed that no matter what denomination they belong to, Christians tend to find Jesus firmly aligned with their beliefs, as if they have the market cornered on Christianity. 

Christians get stuck in an either/or mentality. They see things as mutually exclusive. If you don’t have Eucharist every Sunday, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t only offer baptisms on major feasts, then you’re doing it wrong. If you don’t perform “last rites” immediately before death, then you’re doing it wrong. 

When we engage in that kind of exclusivity we miss the point. Just because we have chosen to follow Jesus in a particular way, doesn’t mean that all the other ways that people follow Jesus are wrong.

There are, of course, some ways of following Jesus that are wrong. If your idea of following Jesus involves speaking hate, or excluding people who are different from you, or taking it upon yourself to damn others to hell, then you are absolutely wrong. But just because some ways are wrong, doesn’t mean that every way but ours is wrong.

God did not send Peter a vision to tell him that Jewish food laws were irrelevant or that the old covenant was thereby invalid. God is simply telling Peter that knowledge of God is not limited to people who observe the food laws or practice circumcision. 

In the Episcopal Church we do certain things in certain ways for certain reasons. God is not calling us to abandon our rituals of common prayer. God is calling us to understand that God is not exclusively limited to them. 

That’s right, Gentiles can also experience God. And for that matter, Baptists can, too! God is bigger than the Church. One set of rules or guidelines simply cannot capture all knowledge of the divine. 

That’s okay, dear ones, because God continues to reveal himself to us, and each time he does he invites us into a deeper knowledge of him. 

It might be in the form of the Holy Spirit guiding the General Convention to affirm the ordination of women or the sacredness of same-sex relationships. 

It might be in the still, small voice that encourages our bishops to stand up against senseless gun violence and the laws that perpetuate it. 

It might be in any number of things. Maybe even in something that happens to you this week. 

Some say this is sacrilege. They say that everything we need to know was given to us in the Bible. The Bible may contain “all things necessary to salvation,” but that does not change the fact that God continues to help us interpret it.

I think some folks are scared that if we say that God still speaks to us that it will negate the things that God has already revealed. That’s simply not the case. 

The fact that God continually guides us into deeper knowledge of our sacred texts does not mean that the texts have reached their expiration date. It means that God’s help is required in order for us to continuing mining their depths. 

Deeper knowledge of God comes as a result of our participation in the life of God. Sure, there will be times along the way when we realize that we don’t know God completely. That’s a good thing. 

It keeps this faith thing interesting. 

It reminds us that God is God and we are not. 

It keeps us coming back again and again to meet God in prayer, scripture, liturgy, and sacrament. 

In other words, it keeps us in eternal life. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me! 

Show yourself to be alive

Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2019 – Acts 9:36-43 – Trinity, Winchester

During the Easter season we hear quite a bit from the book of Acts. Acts chronicles the early days of the Church, the first communities of faithful disciples, and the early apostles, like Peter and Paul, who led them. 

Speaking of, you may remember that the official name for Acts is “The Acts of the Apostles.”

An apostle is one who is “sent out.” Just as the first apostles were sent out to proclaim the resurrection, Christians continue that work today. That’s what it means to believe in “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” which we confess each Sunday in the words of the Nicene Creed. 

Our Church is apostolic because its members are sent out into the world to bear witness to the power of resurrection and to the glory of the Risen One.

In our tradition bishops are said to be apostles of the Church. As Episcopalians, our bishops (men and women, black and white, gay and straight) are living, breathing reminders of the apostolic faith.

They represent the corporate nature of our faith. Administratively, liturgically, and pastorally, they remind us that the church is bigger than our parish. Most of all, they are the chief witnesses of Jesus Christ in our communities. 

You also share in the apostolic faith because you are a witness to the living Christ, the Christ who not only was raised, but the Christ who is risen, this Jesus who is among us now.

In today’s passage we encounter a model for our Christian witness in the Apostle Peter. Yes, Peter was eventually Bishop of Rome, but before that he was just an ordinary believer, called by an itinerant Rabbi who once bid him, “Follow me.”

Tabitha, the only woman referred to as a disciple in the entire New Testament, is dead. In the wake of the tragedy, the other disciples send for Peter. He comes quickly, finds the widows of Joppa in mourning, clears the room, and kneels in prayer. After summoning Tabitha to “get up,” he “shows her to be alive.” 

The disciples send for Peter in their time of grief because he is a comfort to them, and he represents a link to Jesus. But while the disciples may view Peter as a link to Jesus, Peter doesn’t come to Joppa to bring Jesus with him. In fact, when Peter arrives, he finds the Spirit of Christ already there. 

In the fragrant oils used to wash the body; in the bitter tears the mourners shed; in the very clothes the widows wear, symbols of the love and life of their dear friend Tabitha, the Risen One is already present. 

That’s how it often is, isn’t it? In times of sorrow, when we gather at the bedside of an ailing family member or at the funeral of a loved one, God is already there. 

The vicar may come to anoint a sick parishioner, but she does not bring Christ with her, she comes to show us that Christ is already there.

The bishop may come to preside at the funeral, but he does not bring Christ with him, he comes to point to Christ where Christ always is. 

The mourners may come in droves from all around to give their condolences, but they do so not because they alone can bestow Christ. They do so because Christ calls them to where he already is. They do so to continue the work of resurrection.

Likewise, by raising Tabitha, Peter continues the work of resurrection. Peter shows us that Jesus is with us. Resurrection was not a one-time event; it is a continuing reality available to us all, even today.

As sweet as that sounds, there is always more work to be done. Just because we know that Jesus is always present, doesn’t mean everybody does. In fact, a lot of people don’t, so you need to tell them.

You are sent out to proclaim Christ. It’s your job, not to bring Jesus with you wherever you go, but to call attention to Jesus where he already is. 

That’s hard work, primarily because there are people in the world who think the Church is dead, who think God is dead. They look around and see a world torn apart by school shootings, capitalist greed, and rumors of war. They say things like, “If God is good, then God must not be around anymore.” 

I’ll admit, it seems those people have a point. Some days even the most hopeful among us are assaulted by this world’s convincing ubiquity of despair. As long as we stay silent, that’s exactly where folks are going to stay. We must not stay silent. We must not stay silent because we are Christians sent out to continue the work of resurrection.

Even in the freezing cold winter of the soul it is our duty to turn over every rock and leaf looking for life and saying “Show yourself to be alive!”

There are even those in this very community who accuse this very church—Trinity Episcopal Church—of being dead. For whatever reason some folks have it in their head that we have gone astray. 

They say that we are not real Christians. They say that we don’t believe in the Bible. They say that we associate with sinners. They say that we are trying to spread certain “agendas.” They say that we don’t care about Jesus as much as we care about politics. They say that no one even shows up here on Sunday morning. 

We know that none of that is true, but their words make it clear that we have more work to do. The good news is, we have the eternal power of the resurrection to help us do it.

Just like those early days of the church when Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, these are crucial times for our parish, and our Church, and indeed Christianity itself. It’s going to take each one of us, sharing the Good News of the resurrection, to show this town, this nation, and this world, that we go on living in spite of it all. 

Maybe that’s why God raised Tabitha from the dead. God knew that there was so much to be done that he wasn’t quite ready to spare another disciple just yet. Maybe that’s why he sent Peter to say, “Get up.” 

Maybe that’s why he sent Jesus here today to say, “Get up, and show yourself to be alive.” 

Easter Sunday 2019

Easter Sunday – April 21, 2019 – Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; John 20:1-18 – Trinity, Winchester

Easter is a day on which we typically don’t pay much attention to our scripture readings. Like Christmas, we already know the story. We come wearing bright colors (and maybe dressed a bit nicer than usual) to sing glad hymns and shout “Alleluia!” My job is to remind you to never underestimate the power of scripture, no matter how familiar you may think it is. 

Each of today’s readings gives us a sense of the fullness of the eternal life into which we walk with the Risen Christ, this day and all the days of our lives. 

From the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter’s brief message of God’s peace in Jesus Christ. Peter tells us that we carry on as witnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

From 1 Corinthians we hear Paul working out one of the Church’s first theologies of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”

Paul tells us that just as we die daily in our sin, we are also continually raised by virtue of the fact that we have been baptized into the life of Christ, who claims ultimate victory over sin and death.

From the Gospel according to John we hear an account of this very morning involving Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. 

I commend to you each of these readings (and the psalm!) for further study. However, this morning I want to focus on this rich gospel account.

It reads to me almost like a game of human pingpong. Back and forth, back and forth. To and from the tomb. Stay with me here…

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. Startled that the stone has been rolled away, she runs away from it. She tells Peter and John, who decide they need to see it for themselves, so they run back toward the tomb. 

They find the tomb empty, as Mary said they would. They see the linen grave clothes lying inside, but there is no body. Then they go, you guessed it, away from the tomb, back to their homes. 

Somewhere in the course of these events (the scripture isn’t clear) Mary makes her way back to the tomb as well. 

All three of these characters have different reactions to what they observe at the tomb. The gospel tells as that, after seeing the grave clothes, John believed Jesus had been raised. That’s remarkable, really. He had no gospel account to clue him in. It was all unfolding right there before his very eyes. 

We’re not quite sure about Peter. Maybe he gets it. Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps he has some more thinking to do.

Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t get it at all, which is totally understandable. Thinking his body has been carried away, she remains at the tomb to cry and lament the fact that she has lost Jesus, her Lord, for a second time. 

At this point, some of us might be tempted to identify with one of these biblical characters. You know, the sort of thing we do with Mary and Martha when we hear the story of Jesus visiting their home in Bethany. We tend to ask ourselves questions like, which personality is analogous to mine? 

There’s a danger in that, I think. It limits your perspective on the story. In fact, I think we can identify with all three of Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel. 

We are all John. We are all Peter. We are all Mary Magdalene. 

We are John when we see something, and believe it. We are John when all the puzzle pieces finally fall into place. “Oh, I get it now.” We are John when we arrive on Easter morning without one shadow of a doubt that Jesus is risen. 

We are Peter when we are unsure. Sometimes it just takes a little longer to sort this stuff out. I am reminded of a young girl, maybe about four years old, who went to church with her grandmother one Easter morning. Her grandmother explained to her the Easter story, including Jesus’ death on Good Friday. “Then, on Sunday morning,” the grandmother said, “he came back to life!” The little girl glanced up with a look of pure innocence, and said, “Yeah right!”

Finally, we are Mary when our grief overcomes our ability to make sense of eternal life. When someone we love dies, grief often overcomes our senses. We don’t have the ability to perceive what’s right in front of us, even if that something is the presence of God. 

Friends, we are all in different places on our Christian journey at different times, and that’s okay. Even on Easter. Whether you run toward the empty tomb with an open mind, or run away from it in disbelief. Whether you need to take a break and come back later, or if you just need a little more time outside to cry. The good news is, the Risen One is always by your side.

Although you may not always perceive him, he is there waiting to call your name—even when you least expect it—and to give you the confidence you need to run from the tomb one final time proclaiming the living God. 

First, follow

Second Sunday in Lent – February 25, 2018 – Mark 8:31-38

I had the privilege of preaching at St. Mark’s in Little Rock, AR a few weeks ago. I was honored to receive the Anne Kumpuris scholarship from the parish, and I am thrilled that the parish hosted me. You can watch the sermon here. 

Let’s take a moment to set the stage for today’s gospel. In the scene immediately preceding today’s Gospel, as Jesus and his disciples enter Caesarea Philippi, it becomes clear that there is confusion about who Jesus actually is.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They reply, “A prophet. John the Baptist, Elijah.”

“And what about you? What do you think?” Jesus asks.

Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

“That’s correct,” Jesus says to Peter, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Don’t tell anyone.

At that point, today’s Gospel begins. Jesus immediately tells his disciples that he will undergo extreme suffering and rejection.

That’s right. Immediately after Jesus affirms that he is indeed the Messiah, he tells his followers that he will suffer and die.

“I am the Messiah, and I will die.”  Those two things do not fit. Jesus’ followers have just confessed that they believe him to be the Messiah, and then he tells them that he is going to be attacked and killed.

We get it, but for Peter, this is shocking news. It just does not add up. Peter pulls Jesus aside and scolds him—“Don’t say that, Jesus! It doesn’t look good! “The Messiah doesn’t come to die! He comes to reign!”

Peter’s confusion is understandable. Jesus is not the type of Messiah that Peter, or any of the rest of Jesus’ disciples, have been expecting. The Messiah they are expecting and the Jesus who stands before them do not match.

The Messiah their ancestors died waiting on would never forecast his own death. The Messiah they expect is a warrior who will destroy their enemies before their very eyes, not someone who will submit to Roman imperial authority. The Messiah they are looking for will come in a triumphant blaze of glory to usher in the new age, not to die a criminal’s death outside the city walls.

Jesus needs to get his disciples to understand their tradition in a new way. They have long-expected a Messiah, but this Jesus before them doesn’t exactly match their expectations.

Jesus has made some progress with them so far. After all, Peter was able to identify him as the Messiah. Even though Peter got the answer right, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he understood the question.

We have all been there. If you have studied a language or taken a math class you might know that just because you answer correctly doesn’t necessarily mean you really “get it.”

Just because you fill in the blank with the appropriate verb conjugation, or write the correct number on the line, doesn’t mean you really understand why those answers are correct.

Likewise, just because Peter answers that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, that doesn’t mean that he understands all that it entails.

Peter and the others still have some learning to do.

That’s fine. We all do.

John and Debra have been married for 18 years. They have two children. John is a very successful accountant, a partner in his firm. Other than at church on Sunday, the family doesn’t get much time together. But John always tells them that he loves them. That’s sort of his thing. He always tells his wife and children that he loves them.

When he wakes up he says, “I love you.” Before he heads out the door he says, “I love you.” He works late nearly every day. On Saturdays when he inevitably misses soccer games and dance recitals he texts, “Good luck today, I love you!” On Valentine’s Day he sends his wife flowers and a card with this message. “I’m sorry I can’t make the reservation. I love you.”

John is very sweet, and it is clear that he knows the importance of telling his loved ones how he feels, but his wife and kids cannot help but think, does he really get it?

Just because you tell someone all the time, that doesn’t necessarily mean you really know what it means to love someone. Just because you write a sweet note, draw a perfectly shaped heart, and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” with the biggest smile ever doesn’t mean you really know all that love entails.

Just because you confess Jesus as the Messiah doesn’t mean you really understand what it means.

I remember as kid listening to my father talking to a traveling salesman who was selling a cleaning product—some sort of polishing solvent. This was the best product on the market, you understand.

This product could clean anything! This product was second to none!

“Well, what does it do.”

“This is the premier product on the market.”

“How does it work?”

“You won’t find a product as good as this one.”

“Yes, but what is it exactly?”

Just because you know something is the best, doesn’t mean you really understand all that it has to offer.

“You are the Messiah, Lord!” says Peter. “Don’t tell people you’re going to die!”

“No!” says Jesus, “You don’t get it yet, Peter.”

He even says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We tend to focus a lot on the “Satan” part of that phrase and not as much on the “get behind me” part. Satan means “accuser.”

Let’s not be more dramatic than we have to be. Focus on the “get behind me” part.

Jesus says, “Get behind me. You don’t get it yet. I’m in charge here. You need to get behind me and start paying attention.”

Well, behind Jesus is a pretty good place to be. It’s from there that we follow him.

“Peter, you don’t quite get this yet, so get in line. Get behind me. Let me be the leader now. You just keep following. There will come a time when I will be gone and you will have to lead, but right now, it’s my turn.”

Follow me, Peter, so that you can see difference between the one who you expect and the one who I am. The difference between the Messiah so long expected and the one who I embody.

Follow me and I’ll show the difference between the things you expect, and the things that God has in store. “For now, you don’t need to tell anyone who I am; you just need to follow me, Peter.”

That, brothers and sisters, is the gospel’s call to all of us. Follow.

Lent can be a disorienting season. Even in the midst of the challenges, Jesus calls us to follow him.

When you don’t understand why bad things happen, what are you to think?

When you want to throw up our hands after 17 kids get murdered, what are you to do?

When you lose a loved one, what are you to know from that experience?

Those questions, and so many more, can be answered first by following Jesus.

When bad things happen, we grasp at answers, we seek out solutions. We think if we can identify an answer, then we can solve the problem.

The truth is, having the right answers is not enough.

But Jesus does not call us to right answers, he calls us to follow.

Understanding and finding answers is good, but it is not where we start. Jesus calls us to discover why his way is the way. How do we do that? We follow.

We follow him all the way to Easter.

Follow Jesus.

Follow him into Jerusalem and learn what a parade for real king looks like. Follow him to the Mount of Olives and learn a lesson from a fig tree.

Follow him to Gethsemane and learn what it means to sweat blood. Follow him all the way to the cross and learn what it means to weep and wail and cry.

Even when you don’t know why.

Stand there. Behold the blackened sky.

Stand there. Watch him die.

Stand there. For three days. Wait on the Lord. And early one morning, it will be clear enough.

They remain examples

Thursday, June 29 – Feast of St. Peter & St. Paul – 2 Timothy 4:1-8

Today, June 29th, we gather to celebrate Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It is not January 18th, when we commemorate Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah nor is it January 25th when we commemorate the so-called “Conversion of Paul.” No, today we remember these two great leaders of the Apostolic Age because they were persecuted and died as martyrs.

Clement of Rome wrote to the Church in Corinth, “Because of jealousy and envy the greatest and most upright pillars of the Church were persecuted and competed unto death.”

It’s hard to say it much better than that. Peter and Paul were good at serving as witnesses to Jesus Christ. The fearful leaders of the empires of this world didn’t know what to make of their zeal for their God. Faced with the stark reality of a group of followers proclaiming a Lord who lifts up the lowly and casts down the mighty, earthly authorities killed these apostles in an effort to ensure the continuance of their own power.

Both Peter and Paul took their place in glory as examples of God’s endurance, and today as we remember them because they glorified God in their death we can also learn from the example of their lives.

“I solemnly urge you:” writes the author of the second letter to Timothy, “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

Proclaim. Be persistent. Convince. Encourage. And rebuke.

Proclaim the message with persistence in good times and bad—whether surrounded by the Spirit’s rush on Pentecost, after your second trial, during the growth of the church in Rome, or during your seventh stay in prison. Encourage and convince—take heart, ask questions, and burst into doxology when necessary.

And yes, even rebuke. “For the time is coming,” says the writer to Timothy “when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Yes friends, we’ll have do some rebuking. It’s tricky to challenge those who wish to distort the faith, but luckily Peter and Paul show us that it is possible. Even they had differences of opinion. Their disagreement over the appropriate mission to the Gentiles is well known.

Paul wrote about his meeting with Peter in Antioch in his letter to the Galatians, saying, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong … he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when [men from James] arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”

These saints help us see this good news: that rebuking doesn’t mean leaving someone behind, writing someone off, or breaking a relationship. Amid the strong words of bitter disagreement these two who seemed on the surface so different—a cosmopolitan Jew and a rural fisherman—kept always in common their unwavering commitment to Jesus, and they remain examples for us.

They remain examples of the importance of never losing sight of what binds us together even when our hermeneutical lenses or exegetical interpretations are at odds. They remain examples for us—no matter how we vote at General Convention or what we think of a certain church canon—of our one, sure foundation, the Lord of the Church. And they remain examples for us of the peace that passes all understanding, that peace that guards our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ our Lord. So may it ever be.