Sermon given at LH Benefice Service 31.8.14 Readings: OT/Epistle Romans 12: 9-21 Gospel Matt 16: 21-28
Peter was the one who recognised Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah – and Jesus responded by telling him that he, Peter, was the rock on which the church would be built. Yet, here, shortly afterwards, we have Peter being a stumbling block to Jesus!! So let’s put ourselves in Peter’s place for a moment. Imagine if you’d been wandering around with Jesus seeing miracles happening and listening to his amazing wisdom – I think we’d all probably react like Peter if suddenly danger seemed to threaten this amazing person – we’d want to protect him, to keep him safe. We always want to keep the things and people we value safe! Because we don’t want to lose them, to lose the good things they give us! When you stop and think about it, I fear it’s basically a selfish instinct – this desire to protect so as not to lose something we value. And there may be an element of the desire to stay in our comfort zone – we don’t want things to change! But – and it is a big but – Jesus couldn’t accomplish God’s work unless he took the risk of losing his life – God chose to take the full weight of human evil onto himself in order to exhaust it and to open up the way for the world to be re-created. So Jesus challenged Peter as he challenges us today. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If we want to have the abundant life Jesus offers us we will sometimes have to give up things we’ve become accustomed to. These might be pleasures or possessions we’ve enjoyed, but it could equally be old attitudes or habits that are so engrained we’re almost unaware of them! Jesus challenges us today just as he challenged Peter! Today’s passage from Romans reminds me of a poem called Desiderata that was popular when I was young – one friend had a framed copy on the back of her toilet door! Do any of you remember it? It starts like this: Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
I think we ought to have today’s passage from Romans on the back of our toilet doors – it is such amazing wisdom – and SUCH a challenge! And Paul has written it with Jesus’ saving death and resurrection in mind. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. And then comes a verse that for some reason has been engrained on my memory for a long time: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” One of the saddest things about looking back over the history of the last century is to see how often old grievances, buried for decades, can resurface when a political situation changes – I’m thinking of the break-up of Yugoslavia, of grievances that resurfaced in Ireland decades, even centuries, after the original horrors. And sadly, what happens on a national scale can also happen within our own communities, families and friends. How I wish we could all heed this wonderful biblical piece of wisdom: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” I hope you have never been hurt so badly that you have felt the full force of the desire to take revenge – but if you have, you will know how terrible that desire is, how powerful and how awful are the feelings and emotions that engulf you – it is just horrible (makes you feel horrible), and bitterness is so destructive. God created us and he knows us humans inside out!! He knows our capacity to hurt one another – and he’s dealt with the resulting evil. What we need to do now is to take these verses from Romans to heart. God hates sin and evil – it makes him really, seriously angry – that’s why we talk of God’s wrath. God is entirely just – and only he can see the whole picture of any human situation – we can rely on God to deal with the other people in our situation in his own time and way …. God has his own ways of bringing people to their senses and of letting them feel the results of their own folly or wickedness. We need to leave it to God. In the meanwhile one way of combatting our own negative emotions is to do things that will help our own mental and emotional health. We can refuse to allow our own future lives to be determined by the evil that someone else has done. And the key to doing that is the word LOVE. When Paul uses the word LOVE he’s thinking more about what people do than how they feel – in the early church LOVE was often connected quite directly to helping other people rather than necessarily to having warm feelings towards them. So here Paul is encouraging the Christians in Rome to do good things for their enemies – it might make them feel some remorse, it might not – but it will have a positive impact on the Christians themselves – because doing kind things for others focuses us on positive, life-giving stuff, and helps to heal our hearts and minds – as Paul says, practising love is the way to prevent ourselves being overcome by evil – it allows us to overcome evil with good. Desiderata ends with: With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy. repeat Paul says to us: Yes, be careful. And remember that God has taken the full power of evil onto himself and defeated it. So don’t allow yourself to be overcome with evil – let God take your hand and, with his help, overcome evil with good. That is the route to joy, deep joy.