Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Sometimes, distant as we are from the people who were inspired by God to tell the biblical story of faith, we over-spiritualize things. We don’t fully appreciate the real struggles that people experienced as they listened to God and walked with God. The prophets, the apostles, it’s almost like they weren’t real people like us. But they were.
Listen in more contemporary language to what Jeremiah was really saying to God one day:
Oh God, have you forgotten me? I am being persecuted; I might even die.
And the insults! Ouch! Do something about my enemies! I’ve been all for you, God.
Remember how, in the beginning, you touched my mouth and placed your own words there?
I became your voice. They even named me “Man of God”
I never got invited to celebrations; I was so serious for you, God.
I called everyone out for their misbehaviors, just as you said to.
But for what? No one listens anymore. I’m in pain here, God!
You weren’t straight with me. I thought you’d always fill me up, but I’m empty now.
To which God replied:
I’m going to let this pass, Jeremiah.
The door is open when you’re ready to come back and serve me.
But you’ve got to put this all behind you.
I’m going to forget what you just said.
So that you can fill your mouth with better things again; with my words.
Oh yeah. People are going to listen to you, trust me.
And you’ll be ready. I’m hardening you for the confrontation with them.
I’ll be with you, I’ll bring you through this.
Believe me, I’ll pay the price that it’ll cost for you to go up against the terrible ones
–the ones who have no moral conscience and act without scruples.
No one will dare to touch you.
Let’s call Jeremiah’s situation “failing faithfully.” He knows his call – to be God’s prophet. But even those with a very clear sense of the work God has set them to do, sometimes lose sight of it. This is why the church has long commended the practice of discernment. It’s stepping back to take a longer look at things. Yourself, God, the world.
In the course of discernment even failure becomes an opportunity to seek and know God again, to find grace, and to start over if necessary. Jeremiah says harsh things to God, yes. And Jeremiah was humble enough to tell us honestly both what he said and what God said in return. Which thankfully ended on a note of grace. And, since the prophecy of Jeremiah goes on for another thirty-six chapters, (plus one final chapter which confirms that Israel’s refusal to listen to God ended up with their exile) we know that he got his prophetic mojo back.
As far as prophetic faith goes, the content of Paul’s letter to the Romans today sounds like a recipe for sainthood. Were the Roman Christians really doing those things? Were they loving genuinely, hating what is evil, holding fast to what is good, appreciating one another, competing to honor each other? Were they full of zeal, spiritual enthusiasm, and ready to serve at a moment’s notice? In a word, no.
The Christians in Rome were trying to be faithful to Jesus. But they were frequently failing. Day in and day out, they experienced suffering; felt the burden of financially supporting poorer Christians in Jerusalem, and strangers in all kinds of need. There was a lot of strain on their community and there were times of real internal division both socially and spiritually.
These verses in Paul’s letter are actually evidence of the community’s struggle to be faithful.
The apostle recognized the signs of sagging spirits. But he never let up.
Instead Paul urged them onward. They were not to seek vengeance when they were clearly wronged. Let God have the last word. You do good at all times. And by doing so you will fuel another kind of fire – God’s holy redeeming fire that purifies all evil.
Paul’s mission was to remind the Roman Christians of the call they received in baptism. How they made their covenant to follow Jesus and serve the world in his name. Remembering that call and continuing to discern God’s will in their lives, would help bring the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s good advice that hasn’t lost its currency over time. Right?
Peter also experienced a situation of failing faithfully in his denial of Jesus’s passion prediction.
And so soon after being commended too! It was just last week that we heard him rightly calling Jesus the Son of God and Messiah. To which Jesus responded with the heady honor – on you Peter, the Rock, the church will be built.
Turns out that rocks can be two different things. Rock can be a foundation, strong and immovable. Or, it can be a stumbling block – a real impediment. You know how some people go from rags to riches? Here Peter goes from riches to rags. Jesus even called him Satan. That’s pretty strong. Satan is the name of the evil one, but it’s also a word that means “preventer” or “adversary.” Peter wanted to save Jesus. He was stuck in human thinking.
Jesus told Peter to “get behind” him. It’s appropriate to hear this two ways – get out of the way, and follow me. Here, as in the story of Jeremiah, there is a theme of grace running through Peter’s faithful failure. He needed to stand down, to take some time to discern again the call of God’s heavenly kingdom in his life. So that he would be ready for what was about to come in Jerusalem.
Jesus ended on a challenging note. He was bound to go to Jerusalem and the cross. It’s the same word as Peter and the disciples “binding” sins. The call of Peter and the church was (and is) to do as Jesus did – to seek and follow, so that the will of God be done, on earth as in the kingdom of heaven. And never to be an impediment to God’s way, which is to save by love for all.
The end of all this Jesus said, is to see the Kingdom of Heaven in this life. In fact, some would not die before seeing. It’s true that some did see it in Jesus’s baptism, some in Jesus’s transfiguration, and others in Jesus’s resurrection. Perhaps you have seen God’s Kingdom too. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.