This is my second sermon from my year long pastoral internship at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Dubuque, Iowa. This service included the baptism of Noah Johnson, the son of two fellow Wartburg Seminary students who themselves recently returned from internship.
The texts this week are Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28.
I want to start by asking you to close your eyes and picture something. I want you to picture love. What do you see? What’s your image of love?
You can open your eyes now. What did you picture? Maybe you pictured a heart, or a wedding celebration. Maybe a romantic kiss in a movie. Maybe, because we’re in church, you pictured something like Jesus and the little children.
Or, maybe love sounds negative to you. Maybe your image of love involves betrayal, or sadness. Maybe your experience of love is painful, maybe you’ve offered love and it hasn’t been returned.
The words we just read from Paul’s letter to the Romans start out, “Let love be genuine.”
Let love be genuine. We talk about love a lot, because it’s pretty central to our faith, to who we are as Christians. People sometimes think the question is, “Do you believe in God.” Obviously that’s important, but the Christian message is more specific.
The gospel message, why we’re here today, the good news is that God loves us. God loves you.
Not the cute, romantic kind of love, but something beyond that. Something beyond even a parent’s love for a child. A deep, self-sacrificing love.
A love that makes God do ridiculous things, like come to be with us when we don’t deserve it, like never stop loving us, even when we reject God’s love. A love that never fails, unlike when we might have been burned by others. A love beyond what we can understand. Everything we’re doing here today is because God loves us.
And because of God’s genuine love for us, we love others. Not so God will love us, but because God already loves us. Let love be genuine.
There’s another Bible passage that goes into this really well. 1 John 4 makes it clear. We love because God first loved us. If we say we love God, yet hate our brothers or sisters, we are liars. Loving God means loving each other.
If I had to pick a Bible verse to sum up what Christian life is about, I think I might pick this verse from Romans. Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection.
Now, loving each other with genuine love and mutual affection sounds great, right? I can do that. All you need is love, love, love is all you need. Right? But what does genuine love look like?
Keep that question in mind.
I like the combination of readings for today from the lectionary, because they give us two different ideas of what being a follower of God looks like.
In the first reading from Jeremiah, we hear about Jeremiah being frustrated, yet faithfully looking to God for salvation, looking for God to rescue him from his enemies and to curse his persecutors. Life is really tough, and his mission to proclaim God’s word seems to be failing. Jeremiah wants to be rescued. Bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In the Gospel reading from Matthew, we pick up again the story of Peter. Last week, we heard about Peter’s great confession of faith. As Pastor DeWayne talked about, Peter, the guy who often seems to not get it, who sometimes seems like a bit of a blockhead, Peter gets it right. Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, and Peter steps out and says Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
Peter is on fire. He’s finally getting it! Jesus is going around doing miracles and healing people, and Peter is loving it. Peter is ready for the revolution, ready for the world to change. He’s willing to make that radical declaration that Jesus is the Son of the living God right there in Ceasarea Philippi, in a stronghold of the Roman empire ruled by an emperor who himself claims to be the son of god.
I hear Jeremiah’s plea for God to bring down retribution on his persecutors, and I can’t help thinking that Peter would probably be ok with that. Jesus is the Messiah, the rescuer, coming to save God’s people.
And then – as he often does – Jesus messes it all up. As he starts talking about going to Jerusalem, about undergoing great suffering, Jesus gives us another vision of following God.
Going to suffering and death doesn’t sound as good, and suddenly, Peter’s not so sure. The triumphant glory of God coming to the rescue? Peter can get behind that. But he’s not ok with that glory leading to a cross, leading to suffering and death.
Think back a couple of minutes to the opening hymn we just sang, Lift High the Cross. The words of that hymn talk about lifting high the cross to proclaim the love of Christ.
This is probably one of my favorite hymns to sing. I like how triumphant it is musically, but the words we’re actually saying as we sing it are a little intimidating. When we lift high the cross, we are indeed proclaiming the love of Christ, but not in a happy, “Aw, Jesus loves you” sort of way.
We’re proclaiming Jesus’ suffering and death. Yes, the resurrection turns the cross into a symbol of God’s victory, but literally, it’s a symbol of death by execution, like a gallows, or an electric chair.
Verse 2 goes like this: “All newborn servants of the Crucified bear on their brows the seal of him who died.” That’s talking about us. At baptism, the mark of the cross was traced on our foreheads. We carry the symbol of God’s suffering.
To become a follower of Christ, a member of Christ’s body, means to recognize that we can’t do it on our own. To be a Christian means to die to ourselves, to admit that we are incapable of living up to the standards Paul is writing about. Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
On our own, we can’t do that. For us to love each other with the genuine love of Christ, we need to first be loved. We need to have new life in Christ. And in baptism, we have been given that new life.
As Paul puts it in Galatians 3, when we are baptized into Christ, we are clothed with Christ. And in Romans 3, in baptism we die with Christ, we lose our lives, so that we might be raised with Christ and walk in newness of life.
At baptism, we’re charged to proclaim Christ through word and deed. We’re called to join in God’s work. Yes, of course, that work can be fun and joyful, but it can also be hard and painful.
When we join in taking up the cross, as Jesus calls us to do, we’re joining in the suffering, in following Christ to His death, in which we find new life. We’re drowned in the waters of baptism, and God gives us new life.
When Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem and undergoing great suffering, when he talks about taking up the cross and following him, it’s no wonder Peter gets upset!
This isn’t the glorious hero Peter was expecting. It’s a lot easier to get excited about following a leader, a God, who behaves the way we want, who’s against our enemies, who makes it easy. But Jesus isn’t living up to Peter’s expectations. I can see why Peter rebukes him!
And questioning God is ok. The Bible is full of stories of our great heroes of faith challenging God, questioning God. That’s ok. God can handle it. But here, in this story, Jesus responds to Peter’s rebuke, pretty strongly.
When Peter wants to protect Jesus, to fit him into his own box, Jesus goes from calling him the rock on whom he will build the church, to calling him Satan. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
That’s not how I usually think of Jesus talking. I remember once when I was probably 8 years old or so having an argument with my little sister, and I told my mom that I wanted to quote Jesus and tell her to “Get behind me, Satan!” Mom said that was not ok for me to say, even if Jesus said it. But I think Jesus’ point is mainly in the second part, not in calling Peter, Satan. “You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”
We want to curse our enemies who persecute us, but God calls for us to bless them. We want to be in control of our lives, but Jesus calls us to lose our lives for his sake. To give up our control, to let go of it being about us, to stop focusing only on our own human things.
We need to die to our selfishness to be able to set our minds on divine things, to experience the abundance of true life in Christ. Peter is right, Jesus is the Messiah, but the Messiah’s victory comes through forgiving enemies, not by killing them. That’s a radical declaration too!
As Paul says, “Let love be genuine.” Again, it sounds great, right? But what does that look like? Instead of Jeremiah’s plea for God to curse his persecutors, Paul says we are to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Live peaceably with all, if your enemies are hungry, feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
Serving our enemies sounds a little different than praying for God to curse them. Letting go of our own desires in order to serve others sounds like a tough prescription for the Christian life. And by ourselves, it’s impossible. We can’t give truly unselfish, genuine love.
But God’s love for us makes it possible. What does genuine love look like? It looks like God loving us so much that Jesus comes to experience the worst of human life, to suffer, and to die. It looks like God giving resurrection, the promise that death does not win.
Genuine love looks like us answering God’s call to serve each other living out the new baptismal life we have in Christ. And not just serving each other when it’s easy, but serving and blessing our enemies.
Because of what God has done for you, because of how much God loves you, it is possible to let love be genuine, to rejoice in hope, to be patient in suffering, and to persevere in prayer.
Let love be genuine.
And may the peace of Christ, which comes in unexpected, unglamorous ways, keep your hearts and minds clothed in the abundant love of God.