The Rt. Rev. R. Stewart Wood: “Christians and the Culture of Peace”
I’ve had some wonderful teachers over the years, but oddly enough, the ones I cherish most felt the need to flunk me. I’ve forgotten the names of many of those who taught many courses that I enjoyed, but I’ll never forget Noah Foss or Royal C. Nemiah. They were demanding masters of their disciplines. Noah Foss had taught high school Latin from the same text for forty years. There was no disguising unpreparedness! Royal C. Nemaih required anyone who wanted to take second semester of classical Greek to have earned an “A” in the first semester. They expected a great deal of their students. Yet, each communicated respect and confidence that I was much more of a person than my ability or inability to master either of those languages.
I can imagine that each of you can recall such people in your own life experience, whether they were teachers or had disciplines other than teaching. They expected a great deal of you, and yet never withheld their acceptance or affection if you failed to live up to their expectations.
I want to suggest that Noah Foss and Royal C. Nemiah, and their counterparts in your own life experiences, can serve for us this morning as a window through which to understand something more of the gospel and the good news that it brings to those of us who are seeking to be faithful.
Today’s portion of Mark comes at the conclusion of the first half of his narrative of our Lord’s life and ministry. It serves as a kind of fulcrum, or hinge, for the gospel. From here on, Jesus and his disciples will face into Jerusalem and the implications of the ministry that have been his to this point, culminating as you recall in his arrival in Jerusalem, his arrest, the trial, his crucifixion, and resurrection.
I think it’s important to understand that it was not an easy time for those who were the first audience of Mark’s gospel. They were living under the tyranny of Rome, and they had just begun to break away from the synagogues to which they had belonged, many of them for years. Persecution was in the air. So Mark wrote in a way that he hoped would give confidence to these Christians seeking to be faithful under the press of persecution.
This particular episode in Mark’s narrative features one of those unforgettable conversations between our Lord and Peter. Jesus had asked the disciples who it is they understood the crowds thought him to be. They responded, “Some say John the Baptist. Others, Elijah. Still others, one of the prophets.” These perceptions made it clear that people saw Jesus as quite different. Someone who had come with an authority and power different from their own. Surely someone who had been sent by God.
So our Lord turns to the disciples and says, “And who do you say that I am?” Peter, full of the confidence that we have seen in other parts of the gospel, says, “You’re the Messiah, the Anointed One, the One for whom our forbears and we have been waiting, the One who will establish the Kingdom of God.
Obviously that’s a critical appreciation. And as though Peter had stumbled upon an important secret, our Lord challenges them to be quiet, to share that with no one. Then he rehearses for them what is to come. His arrest, the trial, the awful crucifixion, and his resurrection after three days in death.
For the disciples and for Peter particularly, this message is simply too much. It’s neither what they expected of the Messiah, nor is it something they want to have this person they have committed to, to experience. They don’t want to see him suffer. And our Lord, in response, rebukes Peter, calling him Satan. He has substituted human strategies for the divine initiative.
“Deny yourselves,” he says. “Those of you who wish to follow me, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me.” In other words, that which is awaiting me, is awaiting all who will follow me.
It’s a stunning rebuke, and I suspect it has challenged everyone who has heard it from the first retelling by Mark right up until this day. Which of us this morning, paying attention to the gospel, did not consider for a moment our own discipleship, measuring even fleetingly our own self-denial, our own willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ and the message of the gospel.
If it were not for our awareness of our Lord’s patience with the disciples and his deep and abiding love for Peter, that message would be too much for any of us. For, in truth, Peter epitomizes the struggle that faces every faithful Christian. For each of us there are times of strong and deep resolve, and as well, there are times of uncertainty and painfully, there are times of faithlessness. All too often, our deep resolve is followed by the embarrassment, either private or public, of not either being as right-on as we had understood ourselves to be or as committed as we had protested ourselves to be.
Which of us hasn’t been quiet at times that called for self-disclosure and witness? Which of us hasn’t allowed opportunities to deny ourselves and take up our cross, which of us hasn’t allowed such opportunities to pass us by?
Yet, it is this very same Peter, this very same Peter that grows into the confident evangelist we encounter in the Acts of the Apostles, one capable of proclaiming boldly the gospel in the face of arrest and finally martyrdom. He, who abandoned Jesus at the very time of his arrest, denying his even knowing him three times, is none the less entrusted with leading this community of disciples after the Resurrection and Ascension.
Now I think there’s plenty of good news in that story for each of us, whatever our struggles to be faithful. Especially if you’ve come here this morning for more than solace or pardon alone. If you’ve come for strength and for renewal. You and I, and every other baptized person, are called to be faithful, called not only to proclaim the Word but to be a doer of the Word.
Today’s reading from the Letter of James counsels us to do more than talk, much more than talk. Like Elisa Dolittle in “My Fair Lady,” God expects us to live the gospel we proclaim. “Don’t talk of love; show me. Don’t talk of love; show me.” Show me in your responses to those with whom you live and work. Show me in the responses to the community, whatever its agonies, whatever its concerns.
Those of us here this morning and Christians the world over are challenged as were those earliest disciples to enflesh the love of God for those with whom we live and work. We are to incarnate God’s love even as did Jesus. That’s why St. Paul calls us “the body of Christ.”
St. Teresa said it something like this: “God has no other eyes with which to look on the world but our eyes; no other ears with which to hear the cries of the world, but our ears; no other hands with which to reach out and offer support, but our hands; no other lips with which to speak words of forgiveness and healing and restoration, but our lips; no other feet with which to accompany those who are confused and struggling, but our feet.” That’s what it is to be the body of Christ, to be a disciple in the midst of this world, called to enflesh the love of God with those with whom we live and work and have our being.
So we’re called to work for justice and peace in the work place, in our homes, and in the marketplace. We’re called to struggle to see that no one is left behind and the provision of public education that equips them for life’s challenges. And decent healthcare. We are to work tirelessly on behalf of those who are anyway exploited or persecuted. Whether we embrace their life style for ourselves or not. We are to be there for them as Jesus was for those who were isolated and excluded in his own time.
So discipleship is a demanding vocation, a job that seems endless, with few opportunities for rest. It is clearly no vocation for the faint hearted or afraid. What makes it possible is the appreciation that it is service rendered in the companionship of an understanding and loving Savior whom knows us better than we know ourselves.
Once, during my seminary days across the river in Virginia, I found myself confessing day after day the same litany done that ought not to have done, and things left undone that I ought to have given myself to. And I decided I could no longer receive until I had gotten some control over that litany and become more of what I understood God expected me to be. A wise and caring classmate several weeks later, after hearing my explanation for not coming to the Communion rail, reminded me that staying away from the doctor when one is in need of medicine is counter-productive. That classmate had it right and understood better than I did the nature not only of God’s call for us to be faithful, but God’s willingness to be there in the midst of our unfaithfulness to support us as we begin again. This Jesus we seek to follow knows our struggles and loves us in the midst of them.
Years ago, I listened with delight as Father Martin Bell entertained many of us in a coffee house at the General Convention in Houston. This was in 1971. He sang poems that he had set to music. The refrain of one goes like this: “God loves me just the way that I am. I turned out just right. But I’ll sing it again just in case I forget, for strange as it seems I might.” God loves each of you just the way that you are. In the midst of your struggles to be faithful God is present to sustain you, to support you, to strengthen you, to enable you to reinvest yourself in the ministry to which you’ve been called.
In a few moments, we will confess the failures of the past week. And then hear the good news of our forgiveness, not given grudgingly by God, but given extravagantly. And remarkably, we’ll be invited to the Table for a meal to be shared throughout all eternity with all who have sought to be faithful. God loves us even as God loves those we are called to serve in God’s name. We are to give ourselves unhesitatingly for the work of the Gospel, enfleshing God’s love for those with whom we live and work, but always in the confidence that we are loved in the process, even when we make a mess of it.
May you and I each live and work in that confidence so that one day all the world will know it is cherished of God. May it be so. Amen.