Fr. Bill Carroll – The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2023

Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last Sunday, Mother Vivian preached a great sermon about the Confession of Saint Peter.  In it, she told us that Jesus calls each of us to be a rock.  She was reminding us that we are “living stones” in the spiritual Temple that God is building.  Today, we hear the rest of that story.  For the first time, Jesus predicts that he will suffer and die on the Cross.  But Peter resists that message.  And so, Jesus rebukes him, saying “Get behind me, Satan.” 

The two stories belong together, and they are always told that way in the Gospels.  And every time I preach about this, I am reminded of a book by a political philosopher named Isaiah Berlin–called The Crooked Timber of Humanity.  Berlin stole the title from Immanuel Kant, who once wrote:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing has ever been made.”

Like most of us, Peter isn’t always the best material for God to work with.  We are flesh-and-blood human beings, with many sins and weaknesses.  We need each other’s forgiveness.

Jesus builds his Church out of people like you and me.  Our faith and virtues are real, but they are nothing to brag about.  Every good thing about us is a gift from God.  And there are many, many ways that we fall short. But the Good News is this:  We are children of God.  We have been made in God’s own image and likeness.  We have been redeemed in Jesus, God’s Son.  

And so, even the smallest bits of faith and love are enough for God to build on.  Out of stones like us, God can build a community that defies the ways of sin and death.  Out of stones like us, Jesus is building his Church, and the gates of hell “shall not prevail against it.”

Today, Jesus calls Peter out for resisting the Cross.  For Jesus, Peter has become a stumbling block—even “Satan”—for resisting his costly mission of love.  Because Peter has set his heart on human things, he is not yet ready for the Cross.  It’s hard to blame Peter.  Jesus is contradicting many popular hopes for the Messiah.  He is redefining the role of the Messiah in history.  Instead of a victorious warrior, he is Christ crucified.  He is the Suffering Servant and a different kind of king.  He is God in our flesh.  He is God-with-us in love. 

Like Israel before us, we are a stiff-necked People.  (Have you met us?)  Too often, we forsake God’s commandments.  We abuse the most vulnerable.  And we give our hearts to other gods.  But God keeps on loving us.  Again and again, God sends us prophets, but we keep returning to the ways of sin and death.  We reject God’s messengers.  We mock them and put them to death.  Then, at last, God sends us Jesus, to live and die for us all.

Jesus Christ crucified, whom we see and taste and touch in Holy Communion, is the foundation for the life we share.  In him, we become a community of friends.  In Jesus, we find the meaning of life.  And so, we seek him and serve him “in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

Peter resists this call (we all do) because he is over-impressed by the world’s violence.  We resist the Cross for the same reasons we resist God’s love in every other form.  Because we are afraid.  To us, God’s love seems too weak for the world we live in.  And so, Peter tries to force Jesus back into the world’s ways of seeing and choosing—which are often based on violence and control. 

In today’s Epistle, though, Paul describes the new and better way of Jesus.  He offers us an inspiring vision for loving other people.  For Christians, life laid down for others is the most powerful thing there is.  It is the key to understanding our world and what is most important.  And so, Paul urges us to “love one another with mutual affection” and to “outdo one another in showing honor.”  “Do not lag in zeal (he writes). Be ardent in spirit. Serve the Lord.  (And then he goes on to describe what that looks like)  Rejoice in hope (he says), be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”

That is tough to do in a world like this.  It could get us hurt.  It could even get us killed.  But, in the end, loving like Jesus is the only way to find real life.  It is the only way to find true friendships and everlasting joy.  In place of endless competition for status and power—and against the verbal and physical violence all around us—Paul urges us to outdo one another in love.  For when we compete in loving each other, everybody wins. 

I see it here at Trinity sometimes.  I see it when we feed hungry people and serve our neighbors in need.  I see it when we share one another’s griefs and burdens.  I see it also in our joys and celebrations–when we worship the Lord together–and welcome new members into God’s family.  I see it when we share our faith and teach other people about Jesus and his love.  

We don’t need to look for the Cross.  It’s everywhere.  If we are faithful, it will find us.  The Cross will always find us.  When we tear ourselves away from the things that are killing us, we can experience the Cross.  When we compete in the ways of love, we will suffer plenty.  But we will also deepen our faith.  And we will grow spiritually. 

And so, what Paul said to the Romans, I say also to you.  His words invite us to let the Spirit change us into Jesus and his love.  His words are a summons to live more joyfully–to follow Jesus more closely–to become more and more like him.  For Jesus invites us to share his life, to share his suffering too, and, ultimately, to share his victory over death.

Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.  Do not lag in zeal.  Be ardent in spirit.  Serve the Lord.