Pride Comes Before the Fall (Luke 22:31-33, 54-62)

The Denial of Peter by Carl Bloch (1834-1890)

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death….”

Then seizing Jesus, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”

But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.

A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied.

About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”

Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.”And he went outside and wept bitterly. (New International Version)

A Lesson In Trust

One day I watched a lifeguard handle a group of kids for their first time in the pool. She went to each one and told them to put their ears in the water and their belly buttons in the air while she was holding them up. “When I count to three, you won’t feel my hands underneath you, but they’re there,” she said. 

Most of the kids frantically jerked their knees toward their chins and flailed their arms.

Even though nearly all people float when they assume a posture of rest, many believe they’ll sink, and don’t keep their posture for long. 

The disciples had a hard time trusting Jesus. They couldn’t seem to rest and relax because Jesus said and did things that they were not expecting him to say and do. 

Jesus preached the necessity of humility and loving one’s enemies; and he focused on ministry to the least persons around them. The disciples had not yet really bought into Christ’s kingdom agenda because they kept pulling their knees up by thinking Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the Romans and put Israel back on the map – believing it would be just like the old days of Jewish domination of the land.

But Jesus is all about a different agenda: transformation of the inner person that leads to greater submission to God’s will so that the least persons among us will be reached.

Bad News Before Good News

Many already believe they know what God wants and how to follow Jesus, and so, aren’t much open to the Spirit. They acknowledge they’re sinners, yet don’t believe their sin is as bad as others. “O, sure, we sin, but not like murderers and child molesters. Our sins are ‘respectable’– a little resentment, a little prejudice, and a little gossip is even necessary to make sure people submit to the unwritten rules.”

We must first hear the bad news before we can hear the good news. Once we hear the bad news and accept it, we must receive God’s remedy for it. In order to do this, let’s compare and contrast two disciples: Peter and Judas.

Peter’s Denial, 17th Century Ethiopian

Peter and Judas

Peter and Judas shared a similar vision about seeing Israel restored to its previous glorious prominence. Judas was a Zealot, ready to take military action, if necessary; and Peter had no problem taking up the sword when it seemed the time was ripe for a political rebellion and takeover.

Even though Peter insisted he would never turn on Jesus, Jesus knew better. And, sure enough, Peter did a full-fledged moral belly flop in the pool of denial by disowning Jesus three times.

Judas actually caught on, quicker than Peter, that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a military coup. Judas had enough of wasting time on poor marginalized people; they weren’t going to make good soldiers. After Judas clearly saw that Jesus had no intention of forcing an earthly political kingdom, he actively sought an opportunity to betray him.

Neither Judas or Peter, nor any of the disciples wanted to take a step into the world of suffering as the means of reaching others and embracing the kingdom of God. They wanted glory not suffering. But Jesus chose the cup of suffering.

Both Judas and Peter realized after denying Jesus that they had made a terrible mistake. But that is where the similarities end. 

Judas realized what he had done, and so, went out and died by suicide. Rather than throw himself upon the mercy of God, Judas tried to atone for his own sin. He tried to fix something that could not be undone. It was a refusal of grace.

Peter responded by weeping bitterly, consistent with someone experiencing repentance. He realized he was poor in spirit and mourned over his sin. Peter later becomes a genuinely meek person with God’s righteousness taking root within him as he, in the book of Acts, demonstrated mercy and became a preacher of truth and grace.

The Need for Transformation

There cannot be systemic and structural renewal without personal transformation. And there cannot be personal transformation without a brutally honest assessment of myself. “I will never fall,” comes from a heart of pride that believes “I’m not so bad.”

Our sins and failures stem ultimately from a lack of trust. We keep pulling our knees up because we are too anxious to let the agenda of Jesus control our lives. 

Proud people don’t pray much because they are self-sufficient. But humble people pray a lot because they don’t want to fall into temptation. They pray because they discern they’re prone to being like a cockeye little dog who thinks he is a big dog. 

Even Jesus felt the need to watch and pray so that he could face his hour of pain and suffering on behalf of all mankind.

Following Either Close or From a Distance

Jesus was arrested and Peter followed him at a distance. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, this too, describes much of our own following of Jesus. We want to see how everything will shake-out before we commit. 

Christ is asking us to trust him, to make and keep promises before we even know what it all means. We need to acknowledge and admit that we have commitment-it is; we have made a mess of our lives by our stubbornness and holding on to our own ideas for how we think things ought to go.

If you find yourself in a mess, whether it is of your own making or of somebody else, the only thing that can handle it is a close following of grace. We are to approach God with brutal honesty, humility, and a willingness to rest and relax when he is telling you to. 

The Lord will give you his righteousness; you need not try to obtain it on your own. So, let the knees go down and stick the belly button out – rest in Jesus.

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Acts 2:22-36 – From Flake to Fearless

Statue of St. Peter in Rome

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
    Because he is at my right hand,
    I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
    a footstool for your feet.”’

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” (New International Version)

Throughout my ministerial life, there have been individuals who have come to me a bit discouraged because they have not experienced a changed life. After trying, time and again, to be different, they say to me, “Nobody ever really changes. We’re basically the same people throughout our whole lives.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

In the New Testament Gospels, the Apostle Peter was a flake. He sometimes was discerning and got it, and sometimes didn’t. 

Peter could understand Jesus was Messiah, but then turn around and refuse that Christ had to die on a cross. He would get bold and walk on water, but then also end up afraid, needing help from drowning. Peter stood tall for Jesus, ready to take on the world, and then turn around and deny the Lord three successive times.

However, when we come to biblical book of Acts, Peter is a completely changed man. Peter gets it. He is brave and fearless. He boldly confesses Christ. And all the while he does not falter, flinch, or back down. 

So, what in heaven’s name, happened and made the difference for Peter between the Gospels and Acts? 

The Holy Spirit, that’s what, or rather, who.

God’s Spirit comes upon Peter, and he is never the same again. He is a changed man. Peter goes from flake, to fearless.

Everything falls into place for Peter, who preaches with such boldness and effectiveness that thousands turn from their previous ways of thinking and living and turn to Jesus as the hope of the world. They changed, too.

Peter was all-in with a simple and straightforward message of good news, that God raised Jesus from death. He went on to insist, without wavering and with firm conviction, that this was so, because it was not possible for the Son of God to be held by anything, even death. The proof being the resurrection.

If it was impossible for death to keep a grip on Jesus, then there is absolutely nothing that can deter Jesus or hold him back from accomplishing what he wants to accomplish. 

Flaky believers are not going to frustrate Jesus or upset his plans; he’ll just send the Holy Spirit. 

We may too often imprison ourselves in self-made spiritual jail cells. Like the pre-Pentecostal Peter, we flake and flip-flop in the Christian life. Once-in-a-while we are spot-on, but cannot really explain why, like a golfer who hits an amazing shot but can’t reproduce it no matter how hard he tries. 

The truth is that Jesus has conquered sin, death, and hell. By faith, we have forgiveness of sins in him, and have the way opened to a new life in the Spirit. It isn’t a secret; it’s a new reality.

At the front end of the Christian season of Ordinary Time, we are reminded that God’s Holy Spirit is with us. We remember what good old Peter said so long ago, which is still relevant for us today:

We have everything we need to live a life that pleases God. It was all given to us by God’s own power, when we learned he had invited us to share in his wonderful goodness. God made great and marvelous promises, so his nature would become part of us. Then we could escape our evil desires and the corrupt influences of this world. (2 Peter 1:3-4, CEV)

The message Peter proclaimed was powerful, not only because it was inherently potent, but also that the gospel dwelled mightily in Peter and inhabited a central place within him.

We, too, have that same opportunity and privilege.

Loving Lord Jesus, I confess my faults, shortcomings, sins, and rebellious acts, and ask you to forgive me. I embrace you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for your atoning death on the cross in obedience to your Father’s will to put away my sins. Be in charge of every part of my life. Indwell and empower me with your Holy Spirit, so that I may live as your faithful follower, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 30 – Mourning Has Turned to Joy

I will exalt you, Lord, for you rescued me.
    You refused to let my enemies triumph over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you restored my health.
You brought me up from the grave, O Lord.
    You kept me from falling into the pit of death.

Sing to the Lord, all you godly ones!
    Praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
    but his favor lasts a lifetime!
Weeping may last through the night,
    but joy comes with the morning.

When I was prosperous, I said,
    “Nothing can stop me now!”
Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.
    Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.

I cried out to you, O Lord.
    I begged the Lord for mercy, saying,
“What will you gain if I die,
    if I sink into the grave?
Can my dust praise you?
    Can it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear me, Lord, and have mercy on me.
    Help me, O Lord.”

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.
    You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy,
that I might sing praises to you and not be silent.
    O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever! (New Living Translation)

Life is not only full of the tears which give way to joy; a great deal of life is learning to move through our grief and transform the pain into something beautiful.

Hard circumstances make us either better or bitter.

The psalmist, King David, had his share of adversity, difficulty, and distress. The youngest of seven sons, David was something like the runt of the litter. He was given the grunt work that nobody else wanted to do, since he was the lowest person in the household.

So, off to the fields he went, shepherding the sheep, dealing with hot days and cold nights, fighting off predators, and keeping the sheep healthy and safe. Yet out there where no one was looking, God was watching. And the Lord was developing within David the very qualities needed to one day rule over all Israel and Judah.

Even in-between becoming a member of the king’s court and becoming king himself, David’s life was mostly characterized by misunderstanding and being victimized. In other words, David had intimate first-hand experience of terrible sorrow, buckets of tears, and stress-filled anxiety. Through it all, he did not become bitter. Instead, David learned to transform his mourning to joy.

Many persons, having experienced the sort of things David of old did, come through their difficulties and adversity with a hard heart. They end up hurting people, just like they were hurt. Their verbal and physical acts of violence betray their inability to turn pain into something useful.

So, what makes the difference between those who experience the same sorts of painful events, yet go in the different directions of caring or harming?

I believe the twentieth-century Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, understood the true source of violence and non-violence…

“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Merton rightly discerned that the false self (the self we project to others and try to maintain as real) is in fact the source of violence – specifically, the false self’s need to gratify impulses for power and control, affection and esteem, security and safety, at all costs.

However, we do not find ourselves in those ways. The cultivation of solitude, silence, and contemplation are non-violent practices which organically produce non-violent ways of being in the world. Those were the very practices which characterized David’s early life as a shepherd.

It’s what we do when no one is watching, and nobody is around, that makes the difference. Our way of being in the world is determined by the way we are with ourselves when we are alone.

How you are, matters.

“If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.”

Richard Rohr

We need to be present to our pain, to pay attention to it. Our hurts don’t simply vanish if we ignore them, try to go around them, or seek quick fixes to them. The pain is still there, and over time, becomes gangrene of the soul.

Instead, we must dare to go to the unexplored territory of the inner person, to confront and contend with our inner turmoil and be open to hearing from it.

“The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.”

St. John of the Cross

Today, like every day, we have the opportunity and even responsibility to bring our whole selves, pain included, to the relationships we have, the work we do, and everywhere we go. The world not only needs our skills and abilities; it needs us.

The path to joy isn’t through perfect circumstances and having all our wants satisfied; joy comes after a season of darkness with all it’s sobbing, tears, and wondering. As we become more comfortable with the shadowy places of our lives, the more open we become to transforming our pain to a beauty which blesses the world.

O God, you are my God, and I will praise you, whether at night’s inky blackness, or in the day’s bright sunshine of happiness. As I endure each difficult situation, help me to see it’s transformative power and it’s potential to make me a better and more godly person, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit. Amen.