My sermon for today can be found on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
One of the things that comes with being a priest in the 21st century is email forwards filled with bulletin bloopers, YouTube videos, and funny anecdotes. I read most of them, unless it’s obvious that I’ve seen it 20 or 30 times before, because you never know where a sermon illustration might be hiding. This week’s Gospel lesson reminded me of one of those emailed stories that takes place on a small, five passenger airplane. While flying high above the earth, the engine malfunctioned and the plane was going down. The pilot came out of the cockpit with a parachute strapped to his back and said, “Folks, there is good news and there is bad news. The bad news is that the plane is going to crash and there is nothing I can do about it. The good news is that there are several parachute packs on the wall back there. The other bad news is that there are only four of them and there are five of you. Good luck. Thank you for choosing our airline, and we hope you have a good evening, wherever your final destination may be. He then gave the shocked passengers a thumbs up, opened the door, and jumped for safety.
Immediately, a woman jumped out of her seat and said, “I’m one of the most prominent brain surgeons in the world. My patients depend on me,” and she grabbed a pack, strapped it to her back, and leaped out.
Then a man stood up. “I’m a partner in a large law practice, and the office would fall to pieces without me.” He grabbed a pack, strapped it to his back, and leaped out.
Another man stood up and said, “I am arguably the smartest man in the world. My IQ is so high I won’t even tell you what it is, but surely you understand that I must have a parachute.” He grabbed a bundle, strapped it to his back, and jumped.
That left only two people on the plane, a middle-aged pastor and a teenage boy.
“Son,” said the pastor, “you take the last parachute. You’re young; you have your whole life ahead of you. God bless you and safe landing.”
The teenager grinned at the older man. “Thanks, pastor, but there are still two parachutes left. The smartest man in the world just grabbed my backpack.”
In today’s Gospel lesson, we find Peter clinging to a backpack for dear life. It is easy to poke fun at Peter because so often in the Gospels, he appears to act like the so-called “smartest man on earth.” Peter is impetuous, always quick with a word or action. In the story of Jesus walking on the water, he is Dumb-as-a-Box-of-Rocks Peter who jumps out of the boat only to sink in terror after a few brave steps. On the Mountain of the Transfiguration, he’s Let’s-Build-Some-Booths Peter, trying to make sense of the amazing sight happening before him. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he’s Sword-Wielding-Maniac Peter, lopping off the ear of Malchus as the soldiers come to arrest Jesus. Later that same night he’s I-Don’t-Know-the-Man Peter, three times denying that he even knows Jesus, let alone is one of his closest disciples. And on Easter morning, as the women tell of what they’ve seen, he’s Run-Forest-Run Peter, sprinting to the tomb to see it for himself.
Today we have Quick-to-Speak-and-Slow-to-Listen Peter, clinging tightly to his expectations of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah, while Jesus invites him to let go and let God. Like I said, it is easy to poke fun at Peter, but if we are really honest with ourselves, Peter’s reaction is probably not that unlike what ours would have been. Think about what has been going on as of late. It wasn’t that long ago that Peter had been invited along with James and John to watch Jesus raise a little girl from the dead. Peter was among the 12 who had been sent by Jesus to preach and heal and performed amazing miracles through the power of Jesus’ name. He was there as Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed 5,000 men, plus women and children. Now here they were, near the northern-most edge of the former Kingdom of Israel in a town called Caesarea Philippi, or in English, Philip’s Caesartown, a city that had only recently been completed. It was built by Herod the Great’s son, Philip II, to honor Caesar Augustus, who was variously called the king of kings and the son of god. It featured a set of grottos and shrines dedicated to the worship of Pan, the Roman god of the wild. With all that he has done and all the excitement surrounding who he might be, Jesus brings his disciples to the boarder with Rome, to a city dedicated to the Emperor and asks, “who do people say that I am?” More importantly, he asks his disciples “who do you say that I am?”
It is here where Peter grabs what he thinks is a parachute pack, stands at the opening, and jumps. “You are the Messiah,” he says. Right there, out in the open, for the entire world to hear, “You are the Messiah.” By that, he of course means that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One who has come to set God’s people free from their oppression at the hands of Rome and to restore the throne of David forever. Peter has galactic expectations of Jesus. That’s where this parachute becomes a backpack. Peter has spoken the right word, but it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Jesus is the Messiah, but by that Jesus means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, AND AFTER THREE DAYS RISE AGAIN. It seems nobody heard that last part, especially Peter. Still clinging to what he thinks is a parachute, he pulls Jesus aside to remind him of where they’ve been, of how much he and the rest of the disciples have given up to follow him, of what amazing things he has done, and that here, standing on the edge of something great, he ought not be talking about his death, but rallying the troops for the great battle that is to come. “Surely you can’t mean what you are saying Jesus, there has to be another way.”
Jesus is clear that there is only one way, to let go of the useless empty parachute we have built for ourselves and embrace the love of God that sustains even in the midst of great hardship. It is the way that God has been going about things all along. Throughout the course of history, God has worked at bringing salvation not through power and might, but through a love that even conquers death. The same God who will save the world through death on a cross made a great nation from 99 year-old Abraham and his 90 year-old wife Sarah. That same God chose to save his people from bondage in Egypt through an exiled, stuttering murderer named Moses. That same God established a kingdom that would bring about the Messianic age through David, an adulterer who sent his pregnant mistresses’ husband off to die in battle. That same God invites us, sinful as we may be, to take part in his plan for salvation by giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel. Like Peter, we are invited to let go of the parachute we think we are holding, the safety net of a one way ticket to heaven, and to risk reaching out in love for our neighbors and in care for the poor and the outcast.
God shows us what it looks like to give up our lives in the life and ministry of Jesus. It won’t always be comfortable. We might end up rubbing shoulders with undesirable people of all sorts. We might be asked to give of our time, talent, and treasure beyond our comfort zone. We might be invited to share the love of God with people we don’t like. Heck, maybe sharing the love of God with someone you do like is scary enough. God promises to be there with you. Those who aren’t ashamed, who refuse to live in fear, who are willing to let go of what we think is a parachute and let God carry us; we will be brought to the joy of abundant life beyond our wildest imaginations. And like it was for Peter, all we have to do is let go. Let go and let God. Amen.