A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
March 26, 2017: The Fourth Sunday of Lent
Unfortunately for Peter, his legacy as a follower of Jesus has fallen victim to something that we all face: people may forget your success, but they will always remember your failures. This makes Peter an easy target for those of us who stand on the Easter side of Jesus’ life. On this side of the resurrection, we can easily point back to the moments in Peter’s life when he failed as a disciple. There are the many times when Peter tried to convince Jesus that all the talk about suffering and death was unbefitting of a Savior. There are the many times when Peter came desperately close to understanding the true nature of Jesus, only to trip and fall before taking the final step. And then there is the notorious scene in the courtyard where Peter denied knowing Jesus while Jesus stood trial for blasphemy and sedition just a few feet away. When the moment came for Peter to stand with Christ or fall with the crowd, Peter fell with the crowd.
At the crossroads, Peter was asked whether or not he knew Jesus. Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. There is really no way of telling what might have happened if Peter had said, “Yes, I know him.” Maybe the folks in the courtyard would have arrested Peter, too, thrown him in prison, and murdered him as they murdered Jesus. Maybe he could have shared the Good News with the crowd, rallied support for Jesus, then stormed the house of the High Priest to set Jesus free. Maybe the folks in the courtyard would have written Peter off as another fanatic. It’s hard to say, but we do know what denial did to him; it wretched and twisted his very being, until he could do nothing but rush from the courtyard weeping bitterly.
Now, instead of punching at Peter for his failure in the courtyard, let’s think about this question: What does it mean to say ‘yes’ when we are asked whether or not we know Jesus. This is a crossroads we come to often. It may be as simple as explaining our faith to someone; it may be as complex as having to make a difficult moral or ethical choice. It may be something in between. In any case, when we say, “yes, I know him,” our declaration has significant and holy consequences for our lives and for the life of the world. What does it mean to say ‘yes’ when we are asked whether or not we know Jesus?
First, it means that we are committed to the way of love. A lawyer asked Jesus a question one day to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything Christ did in his life he did in response to these two commandments: love God and love your neighbor has yourself. Healing the sick, challenging the legalism of the religious elite, brokering peace between ethnic and religious enemies, sheltering the needy and raising the dead—all of it was done along the way of love.
When we say that we know Jesus, we are taking on the way of love with a promise to God and one another that we will practice love as Christ did. To be certain, this love is not always fluffy, it is not always warm, and it is not always easy or pretty. In fact, the way of love in the footsteps of Jesus is complicated, irrational, and not always acceptable in the eyes of the world. But it is freedom. It is freedom from hatred and fear. It is freedom from self-doubt and self-loathing. It is freedom from the need to always be right and it is freedom from the need to get even. Love is only love when it is freely given and unconditional. This is how God loves each of us: freely and unconditionally. God loves us not because we have earned it or done anything to deserve it, but because we are God’s beautiful creations. When we love God with everything we have and love our neighbors in the same robust and unconditional way, there is no darkness that can overcome the light.
Second, saying that we know Jesus means that we are committed to the way of forgiveness. One of the most profound stories in all of the Gospels is found in John 8, where a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery is brought out before the men of the city. While the woman stands before the crowd afraid and ashamed, the Pharisees debate with Jesus what should be done. Even though the laws of Moses allow the men of the town to stone her for her sin, the men want to know what Jesus thinks they should do. Instead of answering them, Jesus bends down and writes something with his finger in the sand. The Pharisees continue to push and push Jesus for an answer. Standing back up he says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” When the crowd hears Christ’s answer, they silently leave Jesus alone with the woman. He says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”. She replies, “No one, sir.” And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
At one time, we were the woman standing before the crowd: you, me, and every other follower of Jesus. At one time, we were guilty of great sins against God and one another and deserving of severe punishment. But we were forgiven by Christ on the cross and in the empty tomb and given the same charge, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Since we have been forgiven by Christ, we are called to the way of forgiveness. Like love, forgiveness is complicated, irrational, and it doesn’t always make sense to those who stand by and watch. Yet, it is the very essence of life for those who declare faith in Jesus. Like a ship that is tied to a dock during a storm, we are tossed and thrown and slammed against that dock daily—by the denial of friends, by the betrayal of loved ones, by scorned love, and broken promises. Forgiveness cuts the ropes so that even though the storm may rage on, we will not break against the dock. And forgiveness is not just about what it does for me, either; it is also about what it does for others, too. How many times have you seen a person dragged out before the crowd to be stoned? Saying ‘yes’ to Jesus causes us to bend down and write in the sand in challenge to anyone who thinks they are sinless. Forgiveness of others just as we have been forgiven sends the angry crowds away in silence.
Finally, when we say ‘yes’ to Jesus we are promising to live in service and sacrifice. Turning again to Jesus’ own words, in Mark’s gospel he calls the crowd with his disciples, and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are making a commitment that we will daily take up our cross and follow after him. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are acknowledging that in order to find life, we must give up the life we have. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we take to heart the truth that we might acquire everything the world can offer—fame, riches, popularity, and power—but lose our our very soul in the process.
More so even than love and forgiveness, this is the most difficult of all the practices of discipleship. It is the most difficult because it requires us to abandon the comfortable, the easy, and the quick ways we so often find pleasure, joy, and happiness in life. Where we find joy so often in what we have, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that, Jesus points us to simplicity as the source of joy. Where we so often find pleasure in physical relationships, the food we eat, and how we spend free time—and again there is nothing inherently wrong with those—Jesus orients us to God’s love as the greatest pleasure in life. And where we might find happiness in our accomplishments, our successes, and the status we achieve, Jesus links our happiness with how we contribute to the accomplishments, successes, and status of our neighbors. To take up a cross and follow Jesus is to give up everything we use to define who we are, all of our preconceived notions and ideas, all of our judgements and assumptions, to follow the one whose highest calling was to give life to the world and give it abundantly.
I’ve heard it said a lot lately that we are at a more dire, more depressing, more perilous time in history than ever before. While I certainly think there is some truth in that, we are no more surrounded by darkness, oppressed by sin, or confronted with evil than all those who came before us in life and faith. The difference is that circumstances have changed, human thought has progressed, and new and more complex challenges are being presented to us. We are facing the challenging debate about health care, who deserves it and who doesn’t, who should pay for it and who shouldn’t, what should be included and what should be stripped away. We are facing the challenge of a world that continues to shrink, where we come face to face with people of different religions, different ethnicities, and different ideologies on a daily basis. We are facing the rise of religious and ideological extremism that is not limited to one region of the world or another, that is similarly not limited to one religion or another. We are grappling with a country deeply divided along party lines and a world community that is seriously questioning centuries of conventional wisdom. Schools are failing, companies are going bankrupt, governments are being rotted away by corruption. This is to say nothing about the infiltration of violence into every sphere of life, or of how the worldwide church anymore likes to talk about the stuff of faith instead of doing the stuff of faith. If we think too long about any of these, we might all just stay home until Jesus comes back.
This is where our declaration that we know Jesus will have a profound impact on the world. Some say that in all of these things, people of faith and religious institutions should stay out of it, keep away, stick to our worship and books and rituals. I politely disagree. And I politely disagree because what the world needs is not more people who deny their faith in the public square; the world doesn’t need more people who deny that they know Jesus. The world need more people who will boldly stand up for Christ and all he came into the world to accomplish. When it looks like care for the sick and dying, the poor and the dispossessed, will be stripped away, people of faith must speak up and practice the way of love, not just for those who can afford it, but for all. When various groups of people are turned away, put out, or left for dead—this goes for people of different faiths, different colors, different life expressions, and different politics—people of faith must practice the way of forgiveness, recognizing that not one single part should be used to judge the whole. When division threatens, when children are denied the ability to learn, when darkness is on the rise, people of faith should not retreat, but should instead take up a cross, bear the burdens of others, and practice Christ’s peculiar way of life and sacrifice. People of faith should not run from division, but speak healing into it. People of faith should not do anything based on age or ability, but rather embrace the young and the old and everyone in between. People of faith should not stay silent in the face of evil, but should stand in its ways and say, “No more.”
So I ask you today, do you know him? Do you know the One who came into the world to show you the fullest expression of God’s love for you? Do you know the one who gave water to a woman at a well, healed a man on the sabbath, and overturned tables in the temple, all in opposition to the ruling elite? Do you know the one who forgave his persecutors, remained peaceful when he was assaulted, and told his followers to turn the other cheek? Do you know the one who ate meals with sinners and tax collectors, with people of bad reputation and bad living? Do you know the one who loved the world so much he was willing to die for it? Do you know the one who took on your sin, paid the debt you could not pay, then set you free to live for Him? He is none other than Jesus Christ, and today he is calling you and me to boldly declare that we do know him, and he is depending on us to spread his message throughout the world. Will you say that you know him and stand with him, or will you deny him and fall with the crowd?
When the time comes, and it certainly will, may God give us confidence and strength to say ‘yes’. Amen.