What is a savior for?

We’re starting off the program year this Sunday, with one of the toughest Gospel stories. This encounter between Jesus and Peter on the road, it’s not easy to read. The story is tough because it centers around the identity of Jesus as savior. Specifically, this Gospel causes us to ask: Why do we need a savior?

That’s not a popular thing to say when you’re reading the Gospels. It’s not popular to sympathize with the chump in the story. As a character, Peter is often set up as the fall guy. Peter sinks when he tries to walk on water. Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crows. Peter wants to build houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter gets things wrong more than he gets them right.

But today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke of Peter. “Get behind me Satan.”

And I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run. They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come him, so he escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asks, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Jesus is nervous about what people are saying about him.

So when Peter identifies him as the messiah, the savior, when Peter gets something RIGHT for a change, it’s a little harsh I think, that Jesus doesn’t celebrate. Jesus is always frustrated by people getting things wrong. But Jesus tells them to keep his messianic identity to themselves. I think Jesus doesn’t want to start the revolution, not yet. He isn’t ready for what is to come. He doesn’t think the disciples understand the danger if the news gets out that Jesus is the savior.

So Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming. Jesus paints a pretty ugly picture about what is about to happen. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.”

Rebuking Jesus doesnt go well for Peter. “Get behind me satan,” those are tough words. But I sympathize with Peter’s wishes that life were easier. I sympathize with Peter’s wishes that Jesus wouldn’t go to that suffering place.

This “take up your cross” language, it’s pretty difficult to sell. We don’t like to be told we are going to suffer. It’s a peculiar reality that we live with today, but the more we are able to alleviate suffering, the more desparately our culture tries to avoid pain.

At the 8:00 service this morning, Lisa Hummel read the letter from Paul that begins: “Not many of you should become teachers.” She herself worked for years as a teacher, and we laughed about the lesson because we’ve talked at length about the difficulties teachers face. “Not many of you should become teachers.” Paul knew something there. Teaching is hard work. Teaching, involves suffering.

We don’t like to talk about the suffering that is required to do a job well. We often ask each other at work “How are you doing?” And don’t we feel a pressure to say, “I’m doing well.” Is there not a constant pressure to appear that we have life all together? That we’re happy? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s good to be happy, but culturally, I worry that we pressure people to always appear cool calm and collected, and that pressure is a way of avoiding the reality of suffering. If you want to know what Jesus meant by “take up your cross” ask a teacher. Ask someone who has made sacrifices to do something they love. Ask someone who has suffered because they believed in something.

Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years, which is a bit incredible because she calls herself a “shame researcher.” TED originally billed her as a “story teller” which was probably smart, because who would click a link to listen to someone talk about shame? It turns out, a lot of people. Brene Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that for us to really be embraced in a community, we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.” “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” She says it takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes faith to show up with our suffering.

Stephen Colbert was interviewed for the GQ magazine this month, ahead of taking over the Late Show. You probably know by now that in our house, Ellis is the fashionable one. We get GQ, and he gets the fashion. I just read the magazine for the articles…

The interview with Stephen Colbert in GQ is worth searching out. In the context of this interview, Colbert talks about how his faith helped him to live with the death of his father and siblings in a car crash when he was ten. He speaks, in this interview, about embracing that loss, and he describes a letter from JRR Tolkien. Tolkien was writing in respondse to a priest who had questioned whether his stories were doctrinally Christian. In the Lord of the Rings saga, in Middle Earth, Tolkien treats death not as a punishment for the sin of the fall but as a gift. Colbert gave Tolkien’s response to the priest. The author wrote back: ‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’

What punishments of God are not gifts?

There’s a depth to that understanding of God that only comes through suffering, and having faith through that suffering. To see the gift that comes through the pain. Stephen Colbert wouldn’t be the man he is without the loss he experienced. The growth that comes through the loss, the life that comes through the loss, it’s only possible when you face the loss. Colbert explains that his faith couldn’t be the same without his experience of God through the suffering in his family. He actually says he is grateful for the worst experience of his life.

I hope the Church of the Holy Communion doesn’t come off as a place to come only if you have it all figured out. Sometimes I worry that people think of church as a club for people who have their life all together. I worry that we try to dress up a little too much for church. This isn’t a new challenge. In the early centuries of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo was quoted as saying: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”

Jesus won’t let Peter live in his imaginary world without suffering. Jesus won’t let Peter stay there, pretending like everything will just be okay. Christianity is not a religion that you choose to help you avoid pain. Following Jesus does not mean avoiding suffering. Believing in God does not mean you won’t face obstacles.

You show me someone who believes they have never faced suffering. You show me someone who believes they haven’t sinned, haven’t screwed something up in life. You show me a person who has never struggled, and I’ll show you a human being dealing with deep denial. Denial isnt just a river in Egypt.

All of us face failures, foibles and frustrations. We all get knocked down once in awhile. All of us. Faith is about how we survive the disaster. Faith isn’t about avoiding the fall. Faith is how we climb back out again. We need a savior particularly in the times when life is at its worst.

Jesus wasn’t a savior only for the perfectly dressed church people. Our God didn’t come to set up a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners. That’s all of us, me and you included.

In a few minutes, I’ll stand up in front of this altar, and say “Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself on the journey of faith, you’re welcome at Holy Communion.” I don’t say that just because it sounds nice and inviting. I say it because our Gospel invites us to know a God who can meet us wherever we are. Whether we are celebrating or lamenting. Whether we are filled with joy or sorrow. Whether you are a lifelong member of the church, or you’re exploring, and especially if you are suffering, God will meet you where you are. When we admit that we need saving, we learn that God’s love is bigger than we can ask or imagine.

We all at times find ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death. We find ourselves with pain, and suffering, and death. We find ourselves facing loss. We find ourselves at the end of our rope sometimes, at work, at home, in life.

That’s where Jesus knew he had to go. That’s where our God went to find us. That’s why we need a messiah, a savior. Christianity is a faith for survivors.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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