This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15 & Romans 12:9-21 & Matthew 16:21-28. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
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They say that to achieve mastery in something, you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. You’d think that after spending more than a decade learning about God, going to seminary, doing ministry out in the world, and trying really hard to follow Jesus – you’d think after all that, I’d have more than 10,000 hours of practice put in. You’d think I’d be good at this by now.
But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.
When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.
For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.
It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.
I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.
I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.
I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.
This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.
For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.
The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.
All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.
And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.
But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.
After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.
The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.
Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!
God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.
Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”
Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”
So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!
Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.
Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.
In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.
I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.
God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?
Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.