|Isaiah 51:1-6Psalm 138Romans 12:1-8Matthew 16:13-20|
Pentecost 13 – Year A
August 27, 2023
The Rev. Catherine D. Kerr
I think it’s really hard for us to appreciate the kind of courage and determination it took to be a follower of Jesus in the earliest years of the Church. As far as we know, John was the only one of the apostles to die a natural death. The rest were all martyred in Jerusalem and in the far-flung places where they had traveled to spread the Gospel on long missionary journeys.
Tradition says that Peter and Paul were both martyred on the same day, in Rome, possibly in the year 64.
I’ve been thinking about Peter and Paul—those two towering figures of the early Church—as I our readings for today over the past week: the Gospel where Peter proclaims Jesus the Messiah, and Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
I think we covered Peter pretty thoroughly the last time I was here two weeks ago, but for anyone who wasn’t here with us then, I will summarize:
He was passionate in his love for Jesus, but he was definitely flawed. We decided that one of his greatest virtues was his stubbornness, his persistence, the way he picked himself up when he failed and kept on going when he had failed. And we saw that he was really a very human figure, which makes him seem a lot like us, and makes us a good example for us to follow. Although I have to say that in so many ways, I’m not sure that I have the courage that he had.
So today I want to talk about Paul. Paul was a Roman citizen. He was a Pharisee who was one of the most zealous persecutors of those first believers. But like Peter, he also had a name change. He went from Saul to Paul when he had a very dramatic conversion experience. And after that he became a Christian believer himself, and he emerges a tireless evangelist.
He’s the apostle to the Gentiles. He went out from Jerusalem to make three or four long missionary journeys. He covered 10,000 miles (without benefit of frequent-flyer miles). And he wrote letters to the communities he knew, that he founded, and to others. He offered them encouragement, he offered some instruction, he offered some constructive criticism when he thought that was what they needed, and he tries to explain his faith in Christ as he understands it. And remember it’s very early on, and they’re all trying to figure out, what does this mean. So he’s one of our great sources for how it came together for them.
So in our liturgy this summer we’ve been reading through this letter from Paul to the Christian community in Rome, and it’s one of his the greatest of his works.
Paul wrote this letter while he was still in Corinth, in Greece, probably in the late 50s. He might have been hoping to travel to Rome, and he might have written it as a letter of introduction. He did travel to Rome, but perhaps not the way that he had intended. He was taken there as a prisoner, and held under house arrest for two years, until finally they executed him; tradition says by beheading him. But in those two years when he was under house arrest they did give him the freedom to have people come into that house, and so he continued to teach and encourage while he was being held.
So this letter, this long letter that he wrote before he ever got to Rome, is a comprehensive explanation of the faith, but also it’s really heavy on Christian life, on how believers are supposed to live.
And I would guess that if you’ve ever heard a sermon on today’s reading, it was probably about that idea of the different gifts that we have in community. That you have here in this community.
About how we’re one body, with many members; one body in Christ. And that’s come down to us so that it seems pretty familiar to think of ourselves as the Body of of Christ on Earth. It’s a bit strange as a concept, but we know we are the Body of Christ. And body is going to be important in this passage.
I think that the different gifts in community part is easier to understand than this:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
I mean, who really wants to be a living sacrifice, right? I know what happened to Jesus when he presented himself as a sacrifice, and it didn’t end well. Or maybe I should say that it did end well for him, but we’re not Jesus, right.
But for Paul, this was a way of saying that everything that we do is done on Earth is done by these bodies of ours. We’re not pure spirits; we’re human beings who eat and breathe and act in the world. And the way that we live, the way that we act—every action that these bodies of ours carry out for us—that is how we worship God. We worship God by our actions, by the way that we live. And this “living sacrifice,” as Paul calls it—he’s sort of contrasting it to the sacrifice of animals in Israel’s previous history.
So what he’s saying is that what God wants from us isn’t that kind of ritual. What matters is how we live our lives. Our whole lives should be “holy and acceptable to God.” That’s what God wants from us.
Don’t be conformed to the world, Paul says. Don’t let yourself be taken in by the values of the society around you. We say that, but it’s easier to say than to do. A lot easier—in our time, as it was in Paul’s time.
But Paul is saying, Use the mind God gave you to decide how God wants you to live. How God wants us to live. Because we are community. We live and act in the world in many ways as a community.
So when we can follow Peter’s example, when we can say with real conviction, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” just in that proclamation, we become different people. Our lives can change.
So we can be glad we have the example of saints like Peter and Paul even when sometimes their virtue seems unattainable by us. And we can be grateful for the example of the saints in our community, those differently gifted people that Paul mentions, those teachers and exhorters—you know what an exhorter is? It’s the one that just stands there and says, come on, you’ve got this! Who say to us, come on—you can do better.
Those teachers and exhorters and compassionate people that he mentions. These are examples to us, too. They’re the ones who help us find our way in this world.
So with God’s grace, with this faith that Peter and Paul had, even as human as we are, and as flawed, let us go on and proclaim the Messiah, and live the life that God wills for us, and let God’s will in us be done.
Preached at St. James the Greater Episcopal Church, Bristol, PA.