In the name of God: shape our understanding and our course. Amen.
I’m reminded of an insurance commercial that was on TV a few years ago. You may remember it. A few women “of a certain age” are gathered in one of their living rooms. The host proudly announces that she’s saved a ton of time by posting her vacation photos to her wall, instead of mailing them out. Clearly, it’s meant as a reference to the Facebook wall, but the camera pans out and you see the pictures literally taped up to the wall in her living room. One of the friends pushes back against her misunderstanding, and the host looks at her defiantly presses an imaginary button in front of her, and announces, “Unfriended.” The friend cries out, “That’s not how this works, that's not how any of this works!”
The thing is, she was applying her experience – her worldview – to what she was hearing about. Her experience and worldview led her to know, concretely, what a wall is. So this new understanding of something so simple as a wall eluded her. There’s something admirable about her attempt to adapt, but even so, she misses the mark.
That’s sort of how I see this story we hear today about Peter. It almost gives you whiplash. Just last week, as Jesus was exploring the idea of identity with the other disciples, Peter was lauded for his answer. He was proclaimed to be “the rock” and he was told that he was that rock on which Christ intended to build the church. Peter would be its foundation, its strong support.
But, as Jesus goes on to talk about what that means – what this church in his name would look like, Peter freaks out a little bit. “God forbid it,” he says, “this must never happen to you!”
You see, Peter was looking at his expectations for the Messiah through the lens of his own worldview and experience. He had been taught from infancy that the people of God who had followed Abraham for these thousands of years, would one day be lifted up and brought out of their suffering by a strong king, a Messiah, anointed by God, to vanquish their oppressors and lead them to freedom. The prophets of God and those who interpreted them had been teaching this for centuries.
It’s easy to get lost in that language that the story attributes to Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan.” It’s harsh and jarring. But I almost hear it like that friend from the insurance commercial. I almost hear it as that same kind of exasperated cry, “That’s not how this works! That’s not how any of this works!”
Jesus had been teaching them all this time and they still struggled to make sense of it.
But, in all sincerity, that sort of gives me comfort, and I hope it does you, too. These disciples struggled to truly grasp the teachings of Jesus, and they had the best teacher imaginable. I’ve had some great teachers, too, and even so, making sense of and following Jesus still feels like a life-long pursuit. So I can’t really fault Peter for getting it wrong. I’ve gotten many of the nuances of this faith wrong before and I’m sure I will again.
But really, the teaching here is this: Look for the unexpected. God’s will is uncovered in ways that elude us. God’s plan is executed, not according to our expectations and our timelines (or even our outcomes), but through the wisdom of God.
Sometimes that makes it feel like the goalposts are moving. I’m sure Peter must have felt that way. He’d finally figured it out. He’d finally gotten the kind of affirmation from Jesus that assured him he was not only on the right track but ready to lead others down it. He was a leader. He was the rock.
But before he could even rest on those laurels, he was reminded in no uncertain terms that he still had a ways to go. There was still more to learn. There was still more about this plan and this faith that he needed to discern.
The funny thing about the insurance commercial is that, even though it wasn’t really all that long ago, it would have zero relevance now. I’d bet teenagers have never even heard of a Facebook wall. Now it’s a “timeline”. Or maybe you’d share your pictures to your “stories”. Or maybe you’d skip Facebook altogether and go right to Instagram, because teens now think Facebook is for old people, so they just go there sometimes to check on their aunts and uncles. And, I’m sure there are other social media avenues that they’re using now that I don’t know or understand.
The point is, the goalposts are moving. We live in a dynamic world. Just as much as we’re called to be constantly growing, so is everyone else. And, if we’re all growing, everything around us is always going to be changing, in one way or another. So when we try to use our understandings and experiences to impose our will (and our expectations) on an unwritten future, we will fail.
Following Christ means being ready for the unexpected.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll have Bishop Hughes with us. And one of the real gifts that comes from a Bishop’s visitation to a congregation is that it spurs us to actively think about ministry outside of just our own context. It reminds us that we are building blocks of a future that is greater than anything any of us could do on our own. It will make us think about what’s next – how we can prepare for the church of the future. But we would be wise to learn from the example of Peter. If we hold too tightly to our own experiences and expectations, we’re likely to miss the mark. Just like the lady in the commercial. Just like the rock on whom Christ built the church.
Even as we build – even as we strain toward what’s next – we have to be learning. We have to be adapting. We have to be growing. In short, we have to be following Christ. And we have to know that that will almost certainly take us to places we’ve never imagined. And we have to know that that’s okay. We have to remember that there, we will find Christ.
In the reading from Jeremiah today, it begins with Jeremiah lamenting that God hasn’t supported him the way he expected. But in the end, God says to him, “they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
Even when we feel vulnerable and not up to the task, remember that. Remember that God has promised to be with us. God has promised to save us and deliver us. Through whatever shifting changes the world may throw at us, knowing that will be enough to keep us on the right track. Amen.