Sermon: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (31 August 2014)

Preached by Dr Richard Davis at St Ronan’s Presbyterian Church, Eastbourne, Lower Hutt, NZ, 31 August 2014

Lectionary Readings

  • Exodus 3:1-15
  • Matthew 16:21-28
  • Romans 12:9-21


I think that it’s fair to say that our culture values busy-ness. Being busy is valued as a good thing, almost without consideration of what someone is busy doing. Sometimes we ask people if they are keeping busy, with the hope that they are. One of my favourite bumper stickers reads – “Jesus is Coming! Look Busy.”

Jesus is Coming, Look Busy

Being busy is just one aspect of a culture that favours action, we are supposed to getting things done and being active, we have to fix things and do things. The flip side of this is that we are overly suspicious of ivory tower intellectuals who don’t seem to be doing things.

This affects the church too – it is not enough to pray, you must DO something, as though prayer is not an action. I’m not arguing against action, but sometimes we need to make room for the action of God; we need to let God be God. And we do this by living as God’s creatures, and refusing to act as a god.

Our story of Moses’ call this morning tells us one story about God’s action. In response to the cries of the oppressed Israelites, we are told that God listens and God acts. Creatureliness demands that our actions need to take account of Gods actions.

What strikes me about this passage is Moses readiness to be addressed by God. God simply says I have heard your people crying out. And God affirms that God will deliver his people. Having heard the people’s cries from their state of oppression God will take action and deliver the people into a land of milk and honey.

It is important to note that Moses is not the deliverer, but still plays an important part in the story. Deliverance is God’s initiative alone. This is especially important to remember is a time of election promises. No politician or activist can take the place of God and be our true deliverer. Sure their policies affect our lives, but we should be cautious of claims of political parties to offer what we can only receive from God.

Moses takes his role from God’s initiative, preserving his place as a tool of God in the liberation of his people.

In our Gospel reading we see the apostle Peter, the first Pope, deny the words that Jesus speaks about his forthcoming crucifixion. Peter rebukes him with the words “God forbid it! This must never happen to you.”

Jesus responds by saying “Get behind me Satan”.

It would have been hard for Peter to continue to argue with Jesus after such a hard rebuke. In fact, Jesus had the last word here. And we can imagine that Peter would have been feeling fairly sheepish.

Jesus’s rebuke accuses Peter of setting his mind on human things and not divine things. But what is more human than being whipped and crucified at the hands of the authorities?

Peter’s human focus here may be that he thought that he had could forbid Jesus’s torture and death? There is perhaps evidence for this view in Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested. Remember that at the time of his arrest, one of Jesus’s companions (unnamed in Matthew’s gospel) strikes a centurion with his sword.

If Peter, in saying “God forbid it”, does have God’s action in mind, it is God invoked to rescue Jesus for human satisfaction. Rather than follow Jesus’s own guidance, Peter appears to be following his own desires and uses the name of God in order to get what he wants – Jesus ongoing presence and the avoidance of Jesus’s suffering.

Such desires must, in Jesus following words, be denied. Here again the initiative remains with God. We sometimes have to accept the tough lessons that God teaches us through doing things that appear foolish in the eyes of the world.

It is notable that Peter took Jesus aside to talk to him. This make Peter’s views private ones, not fit for public announcement. Peter clearly thought highly of his opinion as to what God wanted for Jesus. But Jesus did not accept this counsel as private, his rebuke was to Peter, but his teaching that followed was for all the disciples, including us. We must be prepared to take up our crosses in following Jesus.

Peter’s rejection of Christ’s anticipated suffering is a lesson in in how we reject the notion of a suffering Christ. And in turn we reject our suffering as Christians. We can be tempted to want a messiah on our own terms and the easy satisfaction of a Christian life free from pain and suffering. But God’s acceptance of suffering for us, should lead, if we are true disciples of Christ, into accepting suffering for God’s Kingdom.

Jesus is no longer around to rebuke us for our foolish words and mind’s orientation toward human things. But we have got his Word and we have his church. In polite society we may not rebuke each other, but we can challenge each other – in love – to think more divine thoughts and to live out the commands together in a community of reconciliation. In a world of revenge and hurt we can be a community of light in the darkness.

When we come to our reading from Romans, we perhaps get to one of the most foolish passages of all. Here in this passage full of advice for Christians, we are commanded do and avoid many things, but the emphasis lies where God is mentioned once – in the commands for Christians to renounce vengeance altogether.

At every point in this passage from St Paul we are told to emulate God. We are to love and bless people just as God loves and blesses people. Like God, we are to embrace the good and despise evil.

However, at one point and one point only, we are not to emulate God. Vengeance remains the prerogative of God alone. This is an important biblical theme – God is only one who can rightly take revenge. We are commanded to love our enemies and forgive them, leaving vengeance to God.

This is a powerful idea and one central to the testimony of Scripture – it is not the role of creatures to take on the Creator’s role. Vengeance is off limits to humans, we must avoid playing God in visiting revenge on those who hurt us.

To many this is a ridiculous idea. But it only appears ridiculous because it is a completely radical idea. But it is not as impractical as many would suggest it is.

This week I watched a moving film about forgiveness. Entitled “Amish Grace”, it depicts the true story of the response to the 2006 school shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. School shootings are very common in the USA, so common that only the worst ones are reported here. This shooting was not exceptional, but the response to it was completely unprecedented and has been the subject of a movie and several books. What made this event remarkable was the response of the Amish community. They immediately forgave the killer.


Amish Grace


The story is one of a lone gunman who wanted revenge against God for the death nine years earlier of his infant daughter who died after only 20 minutes of life. He entered a single room Amish schoolhouse and after letting the adults and boys escape, shot all the girls, killing five, of them and wounding five more. He then shot himself.

[It may seen strange, even illogical or irrational, to kill children in revenge against God. But it only appears that way because we have forgotten that Jesus himself tells us that our measure of how we treat God is how we treat children. Recall his words “Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:36-37). To kill children is to kill God.]

Within hours, the Amish community, even while still grieving the loss of their children and grand children visited the distraught widow and father of the gunman and forgave the killer. They expressed support in practical ways for the gunman’s children and even went to his funeral, when he was shunned by the wider community.

The movie is about these acts of forgiveness and doing good, which one mother in the movie finds it especially difficult to offer. She is right – forgiveness is not easy, but for the Amish, they couldn’t do anything else. By practicing forgiveness in their community in little ways on a daily basis, they were able to forgive when it seemed an impossibility.

The shooter, Roberts, harboured thoughts of revenge of against God for nine bitter years and this revenge ultimately consumed him and lead him to the unthinkable – murdering innocent peace loving children.

Contrast this with the response of the Amish for whom revenge was never an option, and for whom forgiveness and doing good to the family of the killer came instinctively. Forgiveness was not as abstract thing dissociated from doing good. It was, like our Romans reading, embedded in a range of commands to avoid doing and thinking evil while doing good and leaving room for God to judge both their murdered children and their killer.

I don’t know how I would react if my loved ones were gunned down. I fear that I would want revenge. But such thoughts deserve the rebuke of Jesus – “Get behind me Satan”. Revenge perpetuates the division and hurts of the community – it forces people apart and feeds on the anger we hold in our hearts.

Desmond Tutu is his book No Future without Forgiveness writes, “forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss which liberates the victim.”[219] We cannot be free if we allow feelings of revenge to enslave us to the perpetrator of our pain.

Some might say that it is ‘natural’ to seek revenge. That is human nature – is it only natural to want to seek to hurt those who hurt you. Perhaps the Bible’s realism is that it acknowledges the need for forgiveness in place of the common desire for revenge This can be a comforting thought to those who wish to give in to vengeful thoughts. They can justify revenge by saying that is just a part of who we are in our very essence. How convenient.

Christians know better – we know that we cannot be asked to do things by God that are impossible without God’s strength. God love and grace empowers us to leave revenge to God. As we have seen, Jesus rebukes the “natural” reaction of Peter to hearing of Jesus forthcoming persecution.

Instead of revenge, we are commanded to do good. This may heap burning coals on the enemies head, but again this is not our doing. The feelings generated by acts of love are not within our control. Sometimes our loving acts are rebuffed; sometimes they are embraced. But in both cases we can be sure we have done the right thing. And such acts can be transformative.

What encourages us in holding these commands and positions together is the support we have in each other. We need each other in the church to encourage us and perhaps even in extreme situations, rebuke us. And we need to do this regularly. Sunday worship and other church gatherings are not simply social gatherings, but a time for Christians to practice living together in community. It offers us a chance to be retuned for God.

I’m not a musical person, and the only musical instrument I own is a didgeridoo. The good thing about a didgeridoo is that it never needs tuning, you simply blow into it. But even doing this well takes a lot of practice. Didgeridoos are difficult to break and have no moving parts or strings. Other musical instruments need to be tuned on a regular basis. Christians are like these more complex musical instruments, we know the notes we are meant to make, but we are easily influenced by our surrounds to begin to make discordant notes. Regular worship is one practice we have to retune us in line with tuning fork of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

Part of this retuning is to remind ourselves of our creatureliness. In recognising our status before our Creator, we are reminded of the need to let God be God.