Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet, M. Div.
I wonder if you have a favorite story from the Bible, perhaps something you learned in Sunday School years ago, or a story you encountered as an adult that revealed something important about God. The old testament passage for today comes from the Exodus story, a story that was the central defining story of God for Israel, a story celebrated every year at Passover.
The Christian church recognizes this story for its continued importance in helping us understand who God is and what God is doing in our lives. Within this story, we learn that God hears our cries, God desires justice, and God raises up people who will step into the moment and lead by following God’s sometimes strange, but faithful, direction.
We see God delivering a people from oppression, and giving them a place and a purpose. Moses asks what name he should give the people for their God. He receives the name “I am” and the Exodus story, as it unfolds, continues to answer the question of who this God is. This story captures our imagination and awakens awe in a God who hears, delivers, and establishes a people.
Imagine a four-year old Peter, seated at the Passover table with his family, consciously hearing this story for the first time, and then again and again as he grew up. Then imagine Peter as a young man looking around him and taking in the realities of occupation, seeing the Roman soldiers stationed in public places, hearing from his parents about the oppressive taxation, learning how to keep his head down and survive by doing what the authorities ask, and without challenge. What might the Exodus story have meant to him within that context?
Holding the Exodus story, and the teaching of the prophets that proclaimed a coming Messiah, what might Peter have been looking and hoping for? Perhaps he could feel acutely the suffocation of being under the thumb of Rome.
It is possible that at some point along the way Peter’s understanding of the Exodus narrative, and the promise of a Messiah, got tangled up with assumptions and habits that were part of the culture of the Roman Empire. The Empire modeled the importance of power and control, of physical might and achieving security through domination. Peter may have resented these things, and yet secretly hoped for the day when he and his people would come out on top. Perhaps he imagined that the God who hears, delivers, and establishes a people would send a Messiah to defeat the Romans and reestablish Israel as a military and economic powerhouse.
Last week we saw Peter’s breakthrough moment, when he voiced his recognition that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus blesses him, helps him to understand that this had been revealed to him by God, and says that Peter would become a rock upon which the church will be built, and will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven. But then Jesus starts talking about suffering at the hands of the chief priests and scribes, being killed, and then being raised on the third day.
Peter is confused by this and takes Jesus aside and says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” His breakthrough moment is followed by a moment of blindness, something that Todd gently alluded to in last week’s sermon, acknowledging that our spiritual journeys tend to involve profound experiences of breakthrough encounters with truth, but also moments where our minds seem to bounce off the very surface of the truth.
Stories we love from scripture, stories that reveal something about God, can over time get tangled up with certain cultural assumptions that blind us to truth – or to what God is doing around us. For Peter, the Exodus story and the Messianic prophecies had gotten tangled up with assumptions embedded in the culture of Empire. Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about suffering, death, and resurrection; and Jesus rebukes Peter for voicing the temptation to find oneself through power and influence rather than through alignment with a new kind of kingdom. Peter has gotten the Messiah part right, but he struggles to understand the kind of Messiah that has come, and the kind of kingdom this Messiah is building.
Jesus tells Peter that he is setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things. I think Jesus is differentiating empire from kingdom. If an empire is informed by scarcity and seeks to secure a future through control and might, the kingdom of heaven is informed by abundance and believes that the promises of God are available now. If the empire is defined by what people can see and respect on the outside, the kingdom of heaven is defined by the joy of discovering what God has planted within you – and then letting that flourish. While the empire fears suffering as weakness and something to be escaped, the kingdom understands that suffering can be part of our freedom, particularly freedom from ways of living that constrain our souls.
Jesus talks about trying to save one’s life only to lose it – to lose one’s life to patterns of survival and external approval, to lose one’s true freedom. And Jesus indicates that stepping out of that pattern of survival to follow him, may bring suffering, but it also results in an aliveness that is designed for us to know and to inhabit.
It is a different kind of deliverance, and a different way of establishing a people and giving them a place. God still hears, delivers, and establishes a people, but Jesus expands his disciple’s understanding of how wide and inclusive that deliverance is intended to be. Jesus is the New Story, the story that helps Peter see the familiar Exodus story in a new way, and helps him disentangle it from cultural assumptions.
Jesus is coaching Peter to fall in love with the freedom that comes when we cease to live in ways that constrain our souls.
Both Moses and Peter occasionally seem to try God’s patience. They ask endless questions, they blurt things out, they misunderstand. However, God is continually meeting them where they are, sometimes challenging them, sometimes revealing his glory in a new way, and very often, taking deep pleasure in seeing them mature and grow gradually into deeper understanding. I love this aspect of God’s character.
For much of my teen and adult life I worked really hard to avoid making God impatient with me. I felt I owed it to him to be low maintenance. But I think part of losing one’s life to find it involves humility – the humility to see who we are as we are, in all our glorious and clumsy manifestations, and to recognize that God takes pleasure in us as we grow in understanding.
I recently came across something Thomas Merton wrote that draws on language from this passage:
God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself.
A word will never be able to comprehend the voice that utters it. But if I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to the thought of Him I was meant to embody, I shall be full of his actuality and find Him everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere. I shall be lost in Him: that is, I shall find myself. I shall be “saved.” (from New Seeds of Contemplation)
That kind of losing of oneself requires sufficient humility to be satisfied with being no more than a partial thought of God’s expression, but it also requires sufficient faith to trust that even that partial thought is thoroughly woven into one’s being. If we but bravely embody it, God’s presence will expand within us. And the world needs its inhabitants to bravely bear the partial thought we have each been designed to express.
Peter’s partial thought may have been “You are the Messiah.” He couldn’t quite comprehend what kind of Messiah, but as he over time embodied that thought more and more, he became someone who could feed the lambs Jesus asked him so intently to feed, and to proclaim the Messiah with conviction.
In Peter’s case, taking up a cross and following Jesus wasn’t just a dramatic metaphor. Peter would suffer, and he would tend to a young church that suffered as it came into being. He would write to a congregation of exiles and say, “Even if you suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts worship Christ as Lord.”
(1 Peter 3:14-15)
Peter matured into a rich understanding of who the Messiah really was and the importance of that for humanity. And Peter would, in the end, die on a cross. So, although commentators love to criticize Peter as arrogant and misguided in this passage, I take great comfort in knowing that Peter grew into the partial thought born in him.
What is the partial thought that is embodied in you?
What are you doing to cultivate that thought, to let God disentangle it from cultural assumptions, so that it can flourish and live vibrantly through you?
And finally, where does your partial thought seek out all the other glorious, partial thoughts embodied around you, so as to create, over one’s lifetime, a beautiful paragraph of proclamation and invitation to the world?