Sermon: Stumbling Peter, Encouraging Barnabas

Sermon preached at Christ Church, MD in La Plata & Newburg, MD on September 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17) Year A, RCL: Exodus 3:1-15; Ps. 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I wonder: Have you ever considered which of Jesus’ disciples you might be most like?  There were twelve of them; thirteen, in fact, if you count Matthias, chosen by lot to replace Judas Iscariot.  So, you have options.  Something is known about each of them, but not always fully for all of them.  Except for Judas, all are remembered through Feast Days in the life of our Church.  Check the Church calendar!  You can learn more about the disciples through several different books: Lesser Feasts & Fasts; Holy Women, Holy Men; or the latest iteration, A Great Cloud of Witnesses.

For the longest time, I resonated strongly with Peter when he was first called by Jesus.  Several years ago, I truly ‘dropped my net’ to follow Jesus (leaving a 26+ year career at VISA USA, the bankcard company, and excellent salary and benefits), not knowing where or to what it would take me.  I sensed that God was calling me into something new, but I never imagined (though others seemed to know, and tried to tell me) that ministry of a different kind, shape, and way, was what lay ahead for me.  

Now, as I more clearly understand my call, I can see how Christ bid me come into a new vocation to share the Good News and to mirror God’s Love to this broken world, just as Peter did.  While I continued to wrestle with my own humanity, as did Peter, I explored what it meant to be a pastoral presence with others.  I know that I am not perfect because I often fail, just like Peter did.  

Just last week, the Gospel told us that Peter confessed that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) and afterward, Jesus began to reveal the ultimate purpose of his ministry.  These words proved hard to accept, even for a disciple whom Jesus had called a “rock.”  When Peter fails to grasp Jesus’ words about suffering, our Lord tells his disciples they will find their lives in losing them.  

But that impetuous Peter presents us with a great ironic contrast by following his holy confession with a horrible suggestion — that Jesus NOT go to the cross to suffer and die for us.  This was the opposite of a divine disclosure, and it came from Peter’s own mind and emotions.  Jesus made it clear that this time it wasn’t God behind Peter’s words as he said, “Get behind me, Satan!”  But then Jesus continues the “rock” analogy with his next words, translated as an “offense” or “hindrance.”

The more accurate, literal translation is “stumbling block.”  Peter shifted from being a building block one moment to becoming a stumbling block in the next.  What’s the difference, since it’s the same person?  Well, it’s the motivation or power behind him.  When Peter is inspired and led by the Holy Spirit, he’s a building block.  But when he’s led by the enemy, he becomes a stumbling block!

Jesus calls Peter Satan, the one who opposes God.  Ancient Israel knew no supernatural power of evil.  In the book of Job, Satan is in God’s throne room, goading God and accusing the righteous.  By the time of Jesus, largely through the influence of Zoroastrian neighbors, Jews had come to believe that personified evil, like the medieval devil, tempted persons to immoral behavior.  Yet Christian theology has always resisted the popular dualist idea that there is a good god and a bad god, and that human life is the battlefield between God and the devil.  

According to the New Testament, evil, although still present, has already been conquered in Christ’s resurrection.  Satan is behind us!

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).  I don’t know yet if Christ Church has a parish mission statement (I checked the website); If you do or don’t yet, you might consider these words of Jesus from today’s gospel text.  How would this look at the top of your parish website or on the signboard out in front of your church?  It’s not the most inviting or attractive mission statement — ah, quite the contrary.  It could repel people from the church.  Yet here it stands as Jesus’ call to those who would follow him.  

That believers are to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus has been a commonplace message throughout Christian centuries.  But I find, as one who claims to follow Jesus, that I must be careful with what I say or do to affect others’ situations, for what I do or say may be taken differently than I had intended.  I shudder to think just how many things have been done or said over the past week that intended to offer comfort, but instead inflicted even more pain in the path or wake of Hurricane Harvey.  I’ve seen so many – ‘Why didn’t you leave in time?’  I was heartened to see how many gave care to their four-legged companions, even as more creatures of all sorts arrive here and are up for adoption.

All those who have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever have been marked with the sign of the cross, and in the mystery of the resurrection, this cross is our way to eternal life in Jesus.  I’ve had the opportunity to look quickly through the September edition of “The Leaf,” and I see notices for nursing home services, noonday prayer, something called Angel’s Watch Dinner, and a call to help in the Food Pantry, just to name a few.  Perhaps you already know that the cross we’re called to carry may be someone else’s that we willingly help carry.  

So now, as you let Fr. Tim go (Yes, some, if not all of you, still have work to do in that area.  I know!), you now welcome me and Mother Patty Alexander as your supply priests during this liminal time of transition and search.  So again I wonder: Which Peter are you more like?  Are you a building block for the Glory of God in this part of the vineyard known as Christ Church (La Plata/ Wayside)?  Or might you be a stumbling block for not trusting enough to set your minds on divine things rather than worldly?  Rest assured -- I’m just going say that you all are building blocks, okay?

I told you at the start that I had identified strongly with Peter.  Like Peter, I am a simple man who desires to follow the example Christ has put before us.  Like Peter, I was thrust into positions of leadership which sometimes surprised me and at other times invoked panic within me.  Like Peter, I often said the first thing that came to mind (and that's not always helpful when you're really trying to be pastoral).

I could see God was challenging me to further explore the 'roots' of my faith, to claim my own sense of belonging, and to actively engage in and with community, to better understand and respond to God's purpose in my life.  I know that when I surrender myself and allow God to abide within me and work through me, I am gifted with whatever it is required to be that servant of God, whom Jesus sought and called.  Like Peter.  And I readily acknowledge that Chrissie, my wife, Heart Of My Heart, is my Andrew.  She's the one who brought me back to the fold, and has always encouraged me to consider what others have been saying to me about new ministry.  That's a lot to lay on her, but I believe she can handle it.   

But during my time in seminary, I was urged to consider whether a different ancestor of the faith might better fit as my model for ministry.  His name was Barnabas, whose name means 'Son of Encouragement;' he, also, was a disciple of Christ, and later an Apostle.

I learned about Barnabas at a seminar sponsored by the Episcopal Church Foundation when I began considering life after graduation from seminary.  The opening guided meditation on Barnabas, "Son of Encouragement," struck a chord deep within me.  To offer support, confidence, or hope to someone else; to provide assistance and advice to others in order that they will do or continue to do something.  That is to help stimulate an activity, state, or view to develop; to encourage, embolden, hearten, to foster, and even to instigate (in a positive manner).  It caught me by surprise, but that was not the end of it.

Several days later while talking with my field education mentor at St. George’s in NW D. C. regarding my long affinity towards Peter, he challenged me, saying that his experience of me was less like Peter, and more like Barnabas.  He cited instances, one after another, where he saw me being an encouraging presence: to individual parishioners, the whole congregation, the vestry and other groups, including my lay committee; during Bible classes I led, and with him personally.  He specifically noted my early efforts to revive and re-energize a lapsed parish ministry with a new vision for lay pastoral visiting.  Afterward, he handed me some photo-copied pages from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints for Saint Barnabas the Apostle, whose Feast Day is June 11th.  Wow!  Now that's what I call a 'God-Wink' if I ever felt one!  

We are introduced to this man Barnabas in the Acts of The Apostles.  "There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement").  He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet."  This introduction begins the work of mission and ministry by Barnabas for the church.  It was Barnabas who brought Saul/Paul to the apostles who were afraid to receive him, declaring to them how, on the road to Damascus, Paul had been convicted by the Lord to end his persecution of the church and to boldly preach in the name of Jesus.  Later, as missioner to Antioch, along with Paul, Barnabas worked to establish the Christian Church.  All that we know about Barnabas comes from the letters of Paul (Galatians, Corinthians, Colossians) about how he continued his journeys to spread the Gospel.

So now I see that I am less like Peter and more like Barnabas.  My 'dropping my net' way back when as Peter was now related to me as Barnabas 'selling my field' and giving my profit to encourage the work of ministry.  

When we lean on the Lord and His understanding (Proverbs 3:5), God can use us, to build the Kingdom through us. When we speak and act (or react, as Peter did) on our own understanding, we can become a stumbling block. The gospel passages from last week and today in Matthew are a warning about not being a stumbling block, but even more so, offer us encouragement to have open minds and gracious hearts to hear how God speaks to us, here and now, to support, help save, and to build.

As unlikely a candidate as Peter was to lead a religious revolution, when Jesus called him as a disciple, his life as a ‘fisher for people’ changed dramatically and irrevocably.  Peter became not only the most prominent of Jesus’ disciples, but also, later, stood as the leader and principal spokesman of a fledgling Christian church.  From Galilean fisherman to confessor, denier, proclaimer, missionary, bishop, and martyr, Peter had made an astonishing journey with Jesus. 

Whether you are like Peter, a rock on which this Christ Church (in La Plata/at Wayside in Newburg) is being built; or if you equate more with Barnabas, as an encourager in this parish church and for this community, seeking to share the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Love of God; you are already commissioned as followers of our Lord, and leaders in this place, to do Good Works.  I now happily join you in this work. May God bless and keep us in it and through it.

AMEN.


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