The Reverend Kathleen Killian
February 28th 2021
Lent 2B 2021
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
As I was preparing my sermon this week, my first thought about these words of Jesus to Peter and the disciples was—well, of course! Of course Peter was thinking about human things because, to state the obvious, he’s human! Living in the world, we can’t help but think on human things, and aren’t we supposed to? Indeed, I spend a good deal of time preaching about the humanity and Incarnation of God and its profound and wondrous flesh and blood meaning.
But this morning, Jesus, who will die on the cross for all humanity, rebukes Peter in the harshest language—Get behind me, Satan!—an unequivocal indictment for thinking human thoughts and not the thoughts of God, or as varying versions of the Bible translate: for only caring what people think are important; for seeing things from a human point of view and not from God’s point of view; for not being on the side of God and having only human concerns in mind.
Just prior our gospel passage, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, after which Jesus reveals to the disciples what being the Messiah is going to mean for him, that he must undergo great suffering, be rejected and killed, and after three days rise again, speaking openly and plainly about his coming passion.
Peter listens but doesn’t hear. He takes Jesus aside to set him straight: Lord, there’s to be no suffering, rejection, and death. You’ll ascend to David’s throne and free the Jews from Roman oppression. We’re following you, the Messiah, to the crown not to the cross!—which to Peter, the disciples, and all of first-century Palestine meant only one thing: an all too painfully human and tortuous death.
What Peter and the disciples didn’t grasp and couldn’t know except through Jesus’s teaching was that the journey toward new life in Christ begins in death, Jesus’ own, and ours:
If any want to become my followers, Jesus says to the crowd, let them deny themselves and take up their cross. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.
Several weeks ago, in my sermon on the Transfiguration of Jesus, I suggested that during this Lenten season we carry with us two questions: who is Jesus? and who I am in Christ? The answer to each question is determined by the other—they cannot be unrelated—as our discipleship is contingent upon the messiahship of Jesus, whose faith lays claim to our own. For Christians, the cross is the primary symbol of our holy covenant with God, and stands at its center. We live and move and have our being within its boundary and promise.
Taking up the cross, Jesus’s cross, is our return of such promise to disarm our hearts of violence, hatred, bitterness, bias, bigotry, misogyny, or complicit inertia and indifference. Taking up our own personal cross means that we are one-hundred percent responsible for our thoughts, words and deeds and cease to shame, blame, and scapegoat others for our inadequacies, fears, failures, and sins. And here is where I began to make deeper sense of Jesus's rebuke of Peter and all of his disciples.
As humans, we naturally love human things, things that are by nature mortal and finite. We seek fulfillment through them: a job well done, a product produced, a measure of progress towards success and completion. But too often, these human things become an end unto themselves and idols of our misdirected hopes, dreams, and desires; an end that presupposes their infiniteness, even though we know otherwise. Like Peter, misguided though willful, we become obstructionists to the new life that God is calling forth and leading us towards.
When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, he set his mind on divine things and turned to the Father, away from the human things of pride, power, and possessiveness; hunger and satisfaction, worldly ambitions and its kingdoms of domination and greed; hedonism, egoism, and materialism. Like Jesus, our participation in the life of God is not first one of mountaintop glory but an act of offering up our humanity in the desert of our certainties and self-sufficiencies, plunged into the baptismal waters of death and birth.
Ours is a sacrificial pilgrimage for the sake of Jesus; to lose our lives, deny the self, and take up our cross is to allow ourselves to be brought into existence anew: God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, as Paul writes in this epistle to the Romans. To set our minds on divine things is to be humbled and wrought by God’s wondrous love. But let us be clear: the world of “human things” is not something to escape—salvation is to the real. God’s unified and incarnational presence imbues all of creation and its creatures, for God so loves the world that he gives his only Son.
As if in affirmation of this, I heard these words in a dream this week: The Timeless is in love with the Finite. God is not simply tolerant of us; God is not bored, annoyed, or angry, but in love! With us! and with all of creation! We are assured that there is everything right and good about humanity, while acknowledging our never-ending need for divine mercy and deliverance; for deep down in the heart of things, deep within our human hearts is the desire for freedom—from so many things—but in the end from the tyranny of mortality and the finite self. Yet as long as we place “human things” and not the cross at the center of our covenantal relationship with Christ, we might just gain the whole world but forfeit our life. But as Jesus asks: what profit is there in this?
During our sacred Lenten pilgrimage, we as individual Christians and the church are called to ask some difficult questions: in what ways have we set our minds on only human things? Have we failed to listen and to love God by not embracing God’s offer of new life? Have we checked the cross at the door because it’s just too bothersome and cumbersome? Earlier this morning when we confessed our sins against God and our neighbors—and ourselves—we acknowledged “with faith” these questions and their answers.
But we need also to confess the signs of divine growth and renewal and celebrate them with gratitude and joy! God created a world of sacramental of signs and hope if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. We heard of one such sign last week: the rainbow of God’s everlasting covenant with humanity and creation. Though human things are not God and can never be, the Holy One is always at work through them, in the darkness of our sin, doubt, and confusion, our fragility and imperfectness. All is caught up into grace, whose work is to make us dependent upon “divine things" in the right way (paraphrased from Rowan Williams).
As Abraham and Sarah were, we are drawn by faith across the seeming divide between the time-bound and the Timeless and into the humanly impossible; like Abraham and Sarah, we can by faith believe God’s Word: God’s promise that all things are possible in Him. As our psalmist sings: To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him.
Let us pray from our Collect of the Day: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, O God, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.
* This part of the sermon was inspired by a most excellent article in the Anglican Theological Review by Jonathan Jameson: Erotic Absence and Sacramental Hope: Rowan Williams on Augustinian Desire. The *paraphrase of Rowan Williams is from the article.