Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
On May 20, 1927, when an unknown airmail pilot taxied his Ryan monoplane down the muddy runway at Roosevelt field on Long Island, some of those watching wondered if that fragile, fabric-covered aircraft, heavy with fuel, would even clear the powerlines at the end of the field. Just the year before, French flying ace René Fronk’s Sikorsky had crashed on takeoff on that same runway. Noel Davis and Stanton Wooster had been killed while testing their plane at Langley Field in Virginia just a month before. And only twelve days earlier, on May 8, the French aviators and war heroes Charles Nugesser and François Colis had disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic in their seaplane.
The odds were not in favor of Charles Lindbergh as he taxied down that muddy runway. But despite the weight of 450 gallons of fuel, he coaxed The Spirit of St. Louis into the air and out over the ocean. Thirty-three and a half hours and 3600 miles later, he landed at Le Bourget airfield outside of Paris, completing the first solo transatlantic flight in history. And changing the world.
Lindbergh had faith that he would succeed. He trusted his abilities as a pilot. He had faith in his stamina. He had faith in his team. He trusted his plane. This quiet and complex man from Minnesota also had a quiet and complex faith in God. In later years when he flew combat missions in the Pacific theater during WWII, he would carry a New Testament with him. Still later, after surveying the damage done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bomb, he wrote a book that warned against the advancement of technology when divorced from the ethical guidance of Jesus and other spiritual teachers. His tombstone in the small graveyard beside Palapala Ho’omau Congregational Church on Maui contains these words from Psalm 139: “If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea…”
“Faith equals trust,” said Martin Luther. Lindbergh trusted that even on the wings of the morning, over the uttermost parts of the sea he wasn’t alone. God was with him.
In today’s first reading we are reminded of the covenant, the trust agreement, that God made with Abraham that he would become the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Even though Abraham was 99 years old at the time, we’re told that he trusted that God could make it happen. Sarah, you may recall, was a little more skeptical. She laughed. She knew that both she and her husband were well past child-bearing years. But the Lord had the last laugh. And when Sarah had a baby boy about nine months later, they named him Isaac, which means “laughter.”
St. Paul lifts up Abraham as a model of faith and tells us that his faith—his trust in God’s promise—was reckoned to him as righteousness. He was regarded as righteous because he trusted God and believed God’s promise. Frankly, I think Sarah deserves more than a few righteousness points here, too, even if she did laugh. After all, she’s the one who had to get pregnant and give birth. She did all the heavy lifting. Abraham may have trusted God in his head and in his heart, but Sarah was invested in the deal with her whole self, body and soul.
Faith equals trust. And trusting God is accounted as righteousness.
That’s a nice, clear theological formula. Unfortunately, clear and simple theological statements don’t always play out so cleanly and simply in real life. Because we’re human. And as with so many other things, what looks clear and simple can turn out to be less so when the rubber hits the road. Sometimes we get it most wrong when we think we’re getting it most right.
That’s what’s happening with Peter as he rebukes Jesus on the outskirts of Caesarea Phillipi.
Peter has great faith in Jesus. Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah and has said so. But Peter’s faith is more in the Jesus of his hopes and dreams and aspirations than in the Jesus who is right in front of him. Peter believes deeply in who he thinks Jesus could be and who he thinks Jesus should be. He has profound faith in what he thinks Jesus can do and what he thinks Jesus should do.
But now Jesus has told Peter what he is actually going to do. What is actually going to happen. And the events that Jesus describes crash headlong into Peter’s imagined scenario of triumph and conquest. All this time as they have travelled together, Jesus has talked about the basilea, the kingdom of God drawing near, being within reach. But now Peter is realizing that his vision of what that means and how it is accomplished are apparently radically different from what Jesus has had in mind. Being rejected by the elders, priests and scribes, being killed—how could that accomplish anything? And that part about rising again after 3 days—what does that even mean?
Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.
A friend of mine, also a pastor, told us about a man in his parish who came to up to him after he had preached on Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus says, “I was naked and you clothed me, I was hungry and you fed me…as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” The man was really upset. He accused my colleague of being political and preaching socialism. “The implication of what you were saying,” the man said, “is that it’s our job to feed everybody and make sure everybody has clothing and a roof over their head and medical care.” “I’m not the one saying it,” said my friend. “Jesus is saying it.” “Yeah,” said the man, “well I don’t like what Jesus is saying.”
From the very beginning of Christianity, followers of Jesus have sometimes not wanted to hear what Jesus is saying, not wanted to follow where Jesus is leading. They have had deep and profound faith… in the Jesus in their heads, and maybe in the Jesus in their hearts, but not always in the Jesus who is right in front of them heading down the road they do not want to take and asking if they will follow.
Peter doesn’t like what Jesus is saying. So Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.
Mark writes that Jesus turns and looks at his disciples as he responds to Peter. I think we’re supposed to have the sense that what Jesus says to Peter he is saying to all his disciples, and by extension that means he’s saying it to all of us. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Ouch. Even if you remind yourself that “Satan” can simply mean “opponent,” that stings. “Get behind me. Get behind where followers belong. You’re setting your mind on your goals for me, not my goals for you. You’re looking at your plans, not God’s plans. That makes you the opposition. That makes you one more obstacle to get past instead of part of the team that will make the kingdom take off and fly.”
Jesus spelled it out for the crowd and he spells it out for us. “If any of you want to come with me,” he told them, “you must forget yourself. Carry your cross, and follow me. If you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it. Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your soul? Of course not! There is nothing you can give to regain your soul, your deepest self. If you are ashamed of me and of my teaching in this godless and wicked day, then the Son of Man will be ashamed of you when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus was telling them, and us, that he was looking for followers who were willing to give up everything, even life, even their souls, even their own fevered dreams of how Christ should do things, for the sake of making God’s reign a reality on earth as in heaven. That talk about the cross was not hyperbole or metaphor. The people he was talking to had seen real crosses with real people hanging on them many times. The Romans used crucifixion frequently and ruthlessly to put down political unrest and to discourage banditry. It was their tool for keeping people in line. Jesus was telling the crowd following him that if they were serious about being his disciples, they could end up being those poor, tortured, unfortunate wretches dying at the side of the road or the top of the hill, dying because they had stepped out of line. He was telling them, and telling us, that there are consequences for doing things his way. And some people don’t like to hear that.
In his book, What Is Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” I think that’s why fairly early on the discipline of following Jesus in his Way of compassionate love and nonviolence somehow was transformed into a religion with rites and rituals and a hierarchy to perform them properly. Baptism and the eucharist, the subversive sacramental actions for creating and sustaining community, became symbolic gateways for inclusion within or exclusion from the embrace of holiness in our togetherness. It was easier for us to have faith in those things we could see and do than in the Christ who speaks to us through the gospels.
Faith is a powerful force. With faith we can move mountains or cross oceans. With faith we can change the world. But when our faith is misdirected or invested in the wrong things, it can lead us in the wrong direction.
“Get behind me, Satan,” said Jesus when Peter rebuked him for not sounding like the Jesus of his hopes, the messiah of his imagination. Get behind me.
In the end, Peter did get behind Jesus. He was behind him all the way. And there, behind Jesus, Peter was finally able to trust—to have faith in– the Jesus who was right in front of him instead of the imaginary messiah in his head.
Lent is a good time to ask yourself: Which Jesus do you have faith in? The one in your head, or even the one in your heart? Or the one who speaks to you from the gospels—even if he says things you don’t particularly like?