After officiating at a funeral a while back, I found myself in an interesting conversation with two self-proclaimed atheists. They told me, “that’s the best funeral we’ve ever attended.” I jokingly said, “Yeah, the Episcopal burial service is the best evangelism tool we have. It’s our best kept secret.” They replied, “Yeah, you’re right! Can you bury us using the Episcopal service when we die?”
As the conversation went on, it became clear to me that this was the first time these two people had truly heard the gospel message. Sure, they had heard about Jesus and were familiar with his teachings. One of them grew up going to a church that shall not be named.
As far as they knew, they weren’t good enough to be Christians so why bother. As far as they knew, Jesus came for the righteous and they weren’t. But the core message of the gospel has nothing to do with how good or bad you are and everything to do with how good God in Christ is.
As strange as it may sound, the burial liturgy is one of my favorite services in our prayer book. The burial service is able to articulate the message of the gospel in the clearest of ways. The language of the service makes it clear that our salvation has nothing to do with we have done or left undone and everything to do with what God has done in Christ.
One of my favorite prayers in the burial service says, “we pray thee to set thy passion, cross, and death, between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.” The ultimate vocation of Jesus is crystalized in this short prayer. While the ministry of Jesus includes miracles, healings, casting out of demons, great teachings, it is his passion, cross, and death that grant us the knowledge of salvation. It is the passion, cross, and death that makes Jesus different than every other religious leader or prophet.
In today’s lesson, Jesus invites his followers into a theological discussion concerning who exactly others think he is. The disciples report that many see Jesus as another great prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah or John the Baptist. Prophets are certainly known for their deeds of power and their prophetic teachings but as we have seen in the salvation story these deeds of power prophetic warnings do not have the power to turn the sinking ship of humanity around.
Jesus continues the conversation. Who do you say that I am? Peter responds correctly, you are the Messiah – the Son of the living God. But like a 4-year-old who is trained to say Jesus anytime a priest asks a question, Peter does not understand the implications behind his answer. Peter has yet to experience the passion, cross, and death of Jesus. Peter has yet to experience how Jesus is any different than other messiah figures.
If we look at the long story of salvation beginning in Genesis, we see how God is in the business of saving humanity from total destruction, from themselves. Again and again, humanity trades in the free gift of God’s love for the illusion of power and control. Again and again, God intervenes to remind humanity that true power comes from a love that cannot be controlled, from a love that cannot be possessed, only given away.
Again and again, the salvation story tells us that not even a great teacher or prophet or miracle worker like Elijah or Jeremiah can reverse humanity’s desire to choose power over love. God sends messenger after messenger to help the people turn back to God but nothing sticks. Humanity continues to choose power and control over love and compassion. God will have to do something drastic to rescue humanity from sin and death...
Fleming Rutledge says, “From beginning to end, the Holy Scriptures testify that the predicament of fallen humanity is so serious, so grave, so irremediable from within, that nothing short of divine intervention can rectify it.”
As Christians, we believe this divine intervention comes at the place of the cross where the pursuit of power and control is exposed as totally destructive and shameful. As Christians, we believe the cross is also the place where we see that a love that is willing to die for the even the enemy is the only force that can reverse humanity’s insatiable appetite for power and control.
Only God's drastic measure on the cross of Jesus Christ can flip the script. The best methods and practices on how to live in community won’t do it. The most inspirational speakers in the world won’t’ do it. Even a miracle cannot permanently flip the script. Only the cross of Jesus Christ can change the trajectory of our fallen history. And that trajectory is forever changed when Jesus rises again on the third day.
The way of Jesus is true not because it solves our problems or all the world’s problems. The way of Jesus is true not because it gives us practical advice on how to live a better life. The way of Jesus is true because 2,000 years ago the Son of Man was willing to die for the sins of the whole world. The way of Jesus is true because 2,000 years ago the crucified One rose from the dead and lives beyond the grave.
But even though Jesus died and rose 2,000 years ago, I sometimes wonder if we aren’t living in the same place where we find Peter in today’s gospel lesson. Sometimes I wonder if we stop short of proclaiming the Jesus who died on the cross and resort to proclaiming Jesus the great teacher or Jesus the great healer and miracle worker.
What about the Jesus who took on the shame of humanity so that humanity might take on the compassion of God? What about the Jesus who knows that the cross is the only way to life? Sometimes I wonder if we expect too much out of Jesus – or not enough, depending on how you look at it?
Jesus does not promise to fix your life. In fact, he promises more. Jesus does not promise to love you more when you are good. In fact, he promises more. Jesus promises to love you even when you are bad. Jesus promises that your problems will seem trivial in light of his passion, cross, and death. Even more, Jesus promises life beyond your problems, beyond your sin, beyond your death.
In a few minutes, we will be assured of this promise, when we baptize Janeisha Smith into the household of God. One of our prayers for baptism says, “grant that we may be baptized into the death of Jesus Christ.” In other words, baptism acknowledges that our individual salvation stories begin to take shape when we are willing to die with Jesus for if we don’t die with Jesus, how can we ever expect to live beyond the grave?
So, the prayer continues, “baptized into the death of Jesus Christ so that we may live in the power of his resurrection.” In the end, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ puts to death the illusion that power and control are the keys to a happy and successful life and give birth to the truth that a merciful and boundless love is the way to true joy and true life.
In our baptism and at our death, we are reminded that the secret to life isn’t about the acquisition of power, success, and happiness. Rather, the secret to life as we know it in Jesus Christ is about accepting the peace, joy, and love of God which can only be received at the foot of the cross, at the place where humanity’s insatiable love of power is destroyed by God’s inexhaustible love of us sinners. Amen.