Mark 14:66-72 WHAT GOD CAN DO
Today we are constituting a consistory to do an impossible job. Notice that I didn’t say that they have a difficult. It has been my privilege to work with dedicated and skilled consistories in this place who do the difficult jobs of making budgets work, finding leaders for all our programs, keeping creaky buildings not only in shape but nicely so. We can do difficult things. But impossible? That’s a bit beyond our pay grade.
That said, .they will do it. Not because of who they are and the skills they possess. They’ll do it because of what God can do. We’re going to ask God to so empower them to do the impossible. Listen as we pray when we ordain and install our elders and deacons: we pray God pour out the Holy Spirit and fill each with “grace and power” for their ministry as elder or deacon. We pray God’s Spirit so to inspire them, so to fill them with energy that they can be about God’s work here. Which is? To tell the wondrous news of God’s love to a world and a people starved for love. Yes, and again yes. But it is a news that calls us to the impossible. It is to follow Jesus. And following Jesus is not for the faint-hearted. Because there is no half-way with Jesus. No following so long as it’s convenient, or that it helps us along. It’s signing on for the whole trip. And that means the cross. That’s too much. Too much for me, anyway. So it’s impossible.
We’re in good company – or in company, anyway. We’re with Peter, the Peter who is one of Scripture’s stand-ins for the church. Peter has hung in there. He told Jesus he would. He swore it on a stack of Bibles. So he did. The others may have left Jesus, but Peter follows to the court. And then, at the last moment, he bails. And worse, he doesn’t only take a powder; he denies even knowing the man who was his heart’s companion, the man who made the hope so real Peter could touch it. He saw it and he heard it. But now, now when death threatens, he denies any connection with this dangerous way.
The story is clear, I think. We see the most dedicated, the best, who cannot walk that last leg of the journey to the cross with Jesus. Who, when the chips are down, cannot follow the call to the end. This isn’t so much a matter of accusation against us humans. I’ve heard more sermons – I’ve preached more sermons – that asked of the poor pew-sitter: “How have you denied Jesus?” This is less accusatory than it is descriptive. This is where Jesus found himself; and still does. He finally goes it alone. And going alone, he gives life in precisely those places where we see death.
Jesus’ way of salvation is through death. It is to stand in the way of threat, unafraid. And I can’t do that. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus says. That doesn’t work for me, for us. We’ve got to be strong. We’ve got to do something to keep those Iranis from obtaining nuclear weapons. “Unless you’re ready to forgo houses and lands, to leave your homeland, all that is right and precious,” Jesus says,” you’re not ready to follow me.” Wait a minute? You mean we’re supposed to tell our neighbors that we’re to put our patriotic duty on hold for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom? That’s not going to bring them into your church, Mr. Jesus.
Here’s the impossible task for us in the church. We love the church, most of us in this room do anyway. It has nurtured us. Some of you can point out how it has done nothing less than to save your life, thoughts of the next life aside. And we’re asked to follow Jesus to the place where we have to give it up? That’s a bridge too far.
The story is clear. Finally we cannot save ourselves. We cannot, finally, make the world safe. We cannot, for whatever reason, live the kind of love that gives everything away for the sake of the homeless and the destitute. No one goes with Jesus all the way. Not even Peter. There is no hero of the faith.
Not that we can’t do a great deal! This past week I watched a marvelous film on the effort to conquer polio in the United States in the middle of the last century. It was a truly amazing feat as the nation pulled together to defeat a frightening enemy. We can do much. And we shall. But it hasn’t saved the world from itself. That only God could do, and God did it in a way we would not and could not expect.
Here’s what is so amazing in this story. Peter denies Jesus. He actively steps away from identification with this Jesus and his movement. He’s ready to deny reality, what anyone with two eyes could see: “I didn’t even know him,” he said about Jesus. Well, you could line up the witnesses. They saw him day on day hanging out with Jesus and his band. Peter denies Jesus, but Jesus doesn’t abandon Peter.
No. It’s more stunning than that. Jesus uses Peter. The denier becomes the rock on which the church is built! The church is not built on heroes of the faith. It is not built on those who are the smartest guys (or gals) in the room. That’s not how God works. We knew that. We knew that with Abraham and Jacob and Moses and David. All of them showed colossal failures of nerve. Abraham would pass his wife off as his sister to the king for the king to have as a wife to safe his skin. Jacob was a scoundrel who had problems with truth, to say nothing of courage. David, well you know the one about David and Bathsheba, where the king commits royal murder to hide his dalliance with the beautiful Bathsheba. And God uses them for God’s purpose God used Peter, the very one who, at the end, gave way. Jesus died for Peter.
God uses sinners all. This isn’t just the case in the church. It may be just me, but this political season is particularly disheartening. Most of the candidates for president haven’t disported themselves very well. At the very least, money has distorted our democratic process. I know this is a sense of the moment. I’m old enough to remember scoundrels aplenty in
Washington, and not only there, but in county courthouse and city hall too. I’m not about to tell you to ignore bad behavior. But here’s the wonder: God can use such to do God’s will. God uses scoundrels and sinners too to be about God’s work in the world.
That’s the point. God can do it. And God does it. And so to our consistory and their impossible job. Hear me well. I’m not calling them scoundrels and sinners; not at all! But if God can work through Peter, and if God works through all sorts, then God works through our leaders too.
So we need not be afraid. Not afraid of the daunting and joyful task of following Jesus, even when it doesn’t seem profitable or practical. We need not be afraid of speaking and living God’s truth, Jesus’ way, in a culture that is increasingly indifferent to it, or to us, a culture that tells us that it’s OK to believe what you will so long as you keep it private. And no, we need not be afraid of ourselves and that place where we give way.
Here we are, everyday people, not paragons of belief. We’re you and I. We have given up on Jesus more than we’d like to admit. But God can do it. God can use us to do the impossible. And to do it as we work on such ordinary things as budgets and buildings, on pledge drives and Sunday School, on mission committees and flower committees. We do work on it becoming a people who in such halting ways point to the one who did go all the way, all the way to love us, to save us, and to use even us.
Pray for this consistory. Pray for us all. Pray confidently. For God can do it. God does it!