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A Pandemic of Outrage

(A sermon preached at St. Margaret’s church, Winnipeg)
(30 August, 2020)

Tony Harwood-Jones



Last Sunday, the Gospel reading 1 was the story of Peter’s “Confession” – the moment when Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah.  He said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” to which Jesus replied, in effect, “The Holy Spirit has told you that, and it is a wonderful thing.  As of now, although you have been called ‘Simon’ from your birth, your real name, going forward, will be ‘Peter.’”  The word that Jesus used meant “rock,” in their language, so, in effect, he called Peter “the Rock,” or even, if you will, “Rocky.”  And then Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.”

But now, in today’s reading, Peter and Jesus are in conversation again, and, in the Bible the two stories are adjacent: the one flowing directly into the other.  But, whereas in the first one, Peter is called the rock, the foundation of the church; in the very next one, he is called “Satan”!  As we heard just now, when Peter rejected the possibility of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!” 2

So… which is Peter?  The “rock”? or “Satan”?  Or… both?

Let me begin with a biography of Peter:

He was, first and foremost, a commercial fisherman.  He had a boat, or boats – big ones.  You may remember that on at least one occasion a large crowd wanted to hear Jesus teach, and it was such a big group that he needed a pulpit or something in order to be heard by everyone.  They were by the water, so he got into Peter’s boat, which was big enough that he could stand in the prow to deliver his sermon, and be seen and heard by everyone.

So, Peter was a commercial fisherman with an investment in a serious amount of equipment.  He made a living at it, until he decided to follow Jesus.  And there is no indication whether he sold the business, or delegated the operation of it to employees.  We don’t know.

Another fact about Peter is: he was married.  Now, this may trouble some people who hold that the central leader of the church should be a single person, but there are two clues to his marriage in the New Testament.  One – there was an occasion, reported in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 3 that Peter’s mother-in-law was sick, and that Jesus healed her, whereupon she got up and served dinner!  Now, there is only one way that I know of, to get a “mother-in-law,” and that is: to be married.

The second clue that Peter was married is found in Paul, writing to the church in Corinth.  He was discussing clergy salaries – well, they weren’t called that in those earliest days, but it was actual remuneration for the Apostles and other leaders of the church, as they went about preaching the Gospel.  Although Paul himself was quite willing to cover his own expenses, with income from his tent-making business, he very strongly insisted that the church pay the people who were doing the work of the growing church, and he supported this position from the Hebrew Scriptures.  He said these workers have a right to remuneration.  Then he added a reference to married apostles: “Have I not the right,” he said, “to go about on mission business, with a wife - like Peter does?” 4  So, on Peter’s trips, doing church business, travelling about the Middle East, his wife went with him!

Peter was married.  There is no reference to children, but there is certainly a spouse out there, somewhere.  I imagine that if Peter says, “I’m going to be away for a week in Galatia…” the spouse may well have said, “Can I come?”  Or, she might have simply said, “Well, it is the “Lord’s business….,” because we can have little doubt that she understood what had happened, when Jesus came into their lives.

Now, Peter was also the leader of the church, but before I get to that, I should mention one thing, about which we cannot be entirely certain: that is, how his life ended.

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus Himself said to Peter that his end was not going to be fun; that people were going to take him where he didn’t want to go, and the experience was not going to be happy.  Within a hundred years of the resurrection of Jesus, the word grew that Peter was, in fact, crucified, and chose to be crucified in a position that was different from that of his friend and Saviour.  He is said to have felt unworthy of an identical fate.  But there is no actual record of such a death, other than a couple of letters in the very early church, so the matter cannot be known with certainty.

It is also thought that he died in Rome, at the centre of the empire, and many faithful Christians, particularly those of the Roman Catholic faith, believe that his remains are in a shrine in Rome.  But this is something that cannot be empirically proved, so I’ll just leave it there.  It is certainly possible that Peter was a martyr, for many of the followers of Jesus, and several Apostles, were martyrs.

But Peter was “the Rock” – a visible leader, following the Resurrection, and he dominates the first fifteen chapters of the book of the Acts of the Apostles.  He gives speeches – one of which had a thousand people come forward to get baptized.  He also spoke to people who were hostile to him – people who repeatedly arrested him – trying to convince them that Jesus was the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.  He is also seen, in the book of Acts, as presiding at meetings, and in at least one case, in the presider’s chair, he called out some people – Ananaias and Sapphira – who were trying to cheat the congregation. 5

There are miracles attributed to Peter.  In the book of The Acts of the Apostles, we are told that a lame person was healed by him, and a couple of people were raised from the dead!

He was recognized by Paul himself, as “The Leader.”  It seems that Paul assumed a division of labour between himself and Peter.  Paul saw his own primary calling from God as preaching the Gospel to non-Jewish people, the “Gentiles,” around the Roman Empire.  In the Letter to the Galatians, 6 he says, in effect, “everyone accepts that Peter is called to be leader among the Jewish Christians, while I’m called to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles.”  You can even sense, when he says this, that Paul sees Peter as far more important to the church than he himself was – for, of course, at that point, all twelve Apostles, and the majority of Christians, were Jewish, whereas, by comparison, there were only a few Gentile converts that Paul had brought into the Body of Christ.

So, Peter was “The Leader.”

But he was also a flawed human, and that is as clear as day, in the Gospels.  There is the almost funny story – the miracle story – of walking on water.  Jesus appears to the disciples walking on water, and Peter calls out, “Can I walk out to you?” to which Jesus replies, “Sure, come on!”  So, out of the boat gets Peter, and, for a while, the impossible seemed to happen, with him walking on the surface!  But he began to have doubts, and be frightened, and down he went!  Jesus pulled him up. 7

Then, there was the most dreadful thing of all: his denial, when Jesus was on trial!  “Nope!  I don’t know that guy!”

Peter was weak, fearful, and willing to lie in order to save his own neck.

And there is this fascinating thing, also in the letter to the Galatians, where apparently both Paul and Peter were at the AGM of the Galatian congregation.  Paul says that he called Peter out, in front of everybody: “You!  Peter!  You’re a hypocrite!  When you were here, and the other Jewish Christians were not here, you ate with Gentiles, which you know is forbidden in Judaism!  But as soon as the Jewish Christians came, you backed away, and you pretended as though you always and consistently follow the Jewish law.  Hypocrite!” 8

I don’t know whether I would have wanted to be at that Annual General Meeting!

So, Peter is a mixed bag.  He’s a person with a towering personality… who was flawed.

So we come to the words in today’s Gospel: “Get thee behind me, Satan!”  in other words: “Out of my sight, Satan!”

As we read last Sunday, this same Peter is “the rock” on which Jesus planned to build his church!

What is very important for modern Christians to know – especially those who think that being active in church is not an essential part of being a Christian – is that Jesus, the Son of God, the exemplar of God’s personality and nature, 9 deliberately built an organization.  He called twelve people – mirroring the “Twelve Tribes of Israel” – and trained them, sending them out on practice missions, 10 after which they had “verbatims” of those missions, wherein we can imagine them saying, “when I did this, that happened, and when I did that, another thing happened….” with Jesus commenting and giving guidance.  Quite clearly, he was training them for running an organization after the Resurrection.

And it’s in last week’s Gospel that we get Jesus saying, “I’m going to make you, Peter, the rock-like foundation on which this project of mine is going to be built…”

The building of the Church was central to Jesus’ ministry, and he chose Peter to be at the core of it.  Indeed, what we are taught, through the Scriptures, is that the Church – you, and me, and the folks listening to this sermon over the Internet – we are the “Body of Christ,” doing Christ’s mission in this world today.  Some of us are the fingers, some the toes, some the eyes, some the ears, some the thinking part – we are the Body, together.  We are one body, which does Christ’s ministry in the world.

And the granite rock on which this was started, is… a “Satan”!?

Well, you remember what the conversation was: Jesus said, “I know that I am going to be viciously hurt and killed.”  And Peter, who has just said, “You’re the ‘Messiah,’ the Son of the Living God,” now says, “No way!!!  This cannot be allowed to happen to you!”  To which, Jesus says, “Out of my sight, Satan!”

Think of it: Peter wasn’t doing something evil, he was caring and compassionate!  He wanted to help!  He wanted to protect!

But, if he had had his way, the salvation of the world would not have happened.  His good intentions had in them the potential for disaster.  And yet… his motive seemed so good!

Now we get to the point of this sermon:

There’s a Pandemic, right now, out there, in our civilization.  And, it’s not a virus.  It’s not a disease.  It’s what I call, “A Pandemic of Outrage.”  I’ve spoken of it before, in this church – but it sticks with me that there is a severe problem today, where everybody is outraged at everybody else!  There is outrage about Donald Trump; there is outrage about Justin Trudeau; there is outrage about mask-wearing; there is outrage about police encounters with Black folks; there is outrage by armed white folks about rioting, and looting, and burning; there is outrage against science and medicine; and there is outrage against those who are outraged against science and medicine.  There is the mutual outrage of “progressives” versus “social conservatives” – “progressives” loudly protesting against racism, and proclaiming the virtues of reproductive choice, gender fluidity, and assisted death.  They treat “social conservatives” as deplorable, stupid, even evil.  “Social conservatives,” feeling disrespected, dismissed and unheard, become angrier and angrier, even to the point of doing violence.

ALL of these have some element of “doing good.”  Racism is evil, and so is looting and burning.  “Progressives” want the world to be a better, and safer place.  And, “social conservatives” see good things being undone.

But, if we hold up this Pandemic of Outrage against the moral injunctions of today’s epistle, we might have to recognize that we, like Peter, may need to be called out for something evil.

St. Paul wrote: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, but hold fast to what is good.  Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another is showing honour….”

“But… but… but,” say some people, “that paragraph was addressed to the Christians in the Church – in the church of Rome!  It’s Christians who are to love one another, and outdo one another in doing good!”

“Yes,” Paul would reply, “Do not lag in zeal; serve the Lord; be ardent in spirit, rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering; persevere in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints” (which are the other Christians).  And then this: “Extend hospitality to strangers…” (which is the very first thing he says about something outside of the church).

Still, even if we acknowledge that Paul’s words are primarily about Christians’ attitudes towards other Christians, we find that those words can be very intensely applied to attitudes in North America today.  There are Christians today who are on the Republican/Conservative/Donald Trump side of the political spectrum, and other Christians, who on the liberal/progressive side are outraged at them!  A feeling which is quite mutual, I have to say, as Conservative Christians are appalled by, and totally disparage progressive Christians.

The next paragraph in today’s Epistle reading, now speaks clearly about those who are outside the Christian body: “Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse them; rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep; live in harmony with one another.  Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly…”  And may I add, “with the ‘deplorable’?”

“Do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, so long as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord’.  So, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they’re thirsty, give them a drink.”

Then Paul shows his humanity, in what he next says – and I would call him out on this, if I were at an AGM with him: “for, in being nice to them, you heap coals of fire on their head!”  He is quoting the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, so I can’t fully berate him for this.  But, he goes on, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Now, I’m one of those that believes that there are some kinds of evil that need to be stopped.  If ever there was a ‘Just War’ on planet earth, it would have been World War II, for Nazism and the Holocaust had to be stopped.  Child abusers must be stopped.  Looters and burners must be stopped.  But can we do that, and feed them, and give them a drink?  And love them?  And listen to them?  Challenge them, yes: “Why are you doing that!??”  But, definitely, stop them.

How do we prevent ourselves from fighting fire with fire?  Greeting bad behaviour with more bad behaviour!?  That is not our calling.  Because, even with the best of motives, calling out people whom we see are wrong, and getting ourselves into the Pandemic of Outrage, we might be like Peter, and with a good motive, put darkness and evil into play.  Jesus says, to me, and to you, “Out of my sight, Satan!”  And I don’t want to be out of his sight.  I want to do good, to the bad.



~ ooOoo ~


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© 2020, Tony Harwood-Jones

You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.


FOOTNOTES

(These footnotes were not read as part of the sermon, but are here to assist with discussion and reflection)

1  Matthew 16:23
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2  Matthew 16:13-20
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3  Matthew 8:14-15, Mark 1:30-31, and Luke 4:38-39
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4  1 Corinthians 9:5. The exact quote is, “Do we [apostles] not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”  “Cephas” is the Greek version of the name, “Peter” – so here it really looks as though Peter did much of his work, in the first decades of Christianity, accompanied by his wife.  And, apparently, others of the Twelve Apostles also travelled about with their spouses!
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5  Acts 5:1-7
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6  Galatians 2:7-9 – loosely translated here.
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7  Matthew 14:25-31
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8  Galatians 2:11-14 – also very loosely rendered.
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9  Re: “…exemplar of God’s personality and nature,” Jesus himself is reported to have said, “He who has seen me, has seen the Father.”  (John 14:9)
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10  Luke 10:1-17
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