In the fifty-fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, God proclaims to the community of Israel, “ My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Is. 55:8-9)
Since the beginning of time this has been the one lesson humanity has failed to learn. In Genesis, Eve succumbs to the temptation of the serpent when promised she would become like God if she eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the children of Israel question God’s wisdom when in the desert as survival becomes a challenge.
God’s ways truly are not our ways. They are often more confusing than enlightening to us mere mortals. When God answers Job’s anger, God defends Godself by asking,”Where were you there when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7) At the end of God’s examination of Job all that was left to answer was, it was you O God, not I.
Human assumption and confusion as to the will of God is part today’s Gospel as Jesus asks the disciples who they believe he is.
Imagine the scene. Picture Jesus and the disciples relaxing at night sitting by a campfire to keep warm. Think ofJesus as the proverbial rabbi or teacher taking advantage of a teachable moment as Jesus tests his students to see if they truly understand who he is and what they are part of.
“Who do people say that I am?”
“Some say your are Elijah, the great prophet, or even possibly John the Baptist, returned from the dead.”
“But more importantly,” Jesus asks, “Who DO YOU say that I am?”
Now Peter, our beloved, but often bumbling disciple quickly responds with,” you are the messiah, the anointed one.”
I suspect, everyone was surprised that Peter got it right on the first try. But did he really understand what he meant when he declared Jesus to be the messiah. As this morning’s Gospel unfolds, we discover Peter really didn’t get it. Yes, he understood Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, but he didn’t understand what this meant from God’s perspective.
Peter’s held the popular understanding of who the Messiah would be and what the Messiah was to accomplish. According to tradition, the messiah was to be the great liberator of Israel. The ancient Jews of Palestine longed for and they prayed for the day when the messiah would come and free Israel from the oppression of Rome and restore the kingdom to the glorious empire of King David. This is why Peter grew upset with Jesus after Jesus declared that the Son of Man was to under go great suffering. In Peter’s mind, suffering and the great liberator, the new King David did not go together.
Peter was just like us. He thought he understood, he assumed, like Job, he could counsel God on the expectations of humanity. He forgot, God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts. Peter didn’t understand that when Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he was not referring to the physical kingdom of King David, but of the heavenly kingdom of God.
We all fall into the same trap that Peter fell into. We all assume, based on our limited experience that we understand the ways of God. More often than not our assumptions are based on a status quo which benefits us and not everyone. In recent weeks, Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refuses to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, has personified this reality.
I believe Ms. Davis is a sincere woman. She truly believes in what she has been taught and like St. Peter and Job, she believes she understands the will of God. And yes, she is passionate about her faith, she is even willing to deny herself and pick up her cross by suffering the humiliation of jail time. It appears,however, that somewhere in her spiritual formation, she missed the lesson on humility and forgot the words of Isaiah. Most of all, it seems she has forgotten the second commandment of Christ, to love your neighbor as yourself.
The God we worship is an active and loving God. One who is often full of surprises. It never fails, the moment we feel we have gotten a handle on God, God will surprise us with something new to ponder and struggle with.
Bishop Adams of the Diocese of Central New York once reminded his clergy, we worship and celebrate a living Christ, not a dead one. Isn’t that the lesson of Easter?”
Yes, Christ is alive! That is the lesson of Easter. And yes, the Holy Spirit was sent by God at Pentecost to reside among us, and to continue teaching us what divine love, divine justice and divine forgiveness are.
The challenge of this morning’s Gospel is how do we discern what the the Holy is teaching us. As progressive Episcopalians, we may now sit on the correct side of same-sex marriage. But we only came to this understanding after a great amount of controversy. And while we have recently celebrated the life John Daniels, an Episcopal Martyr from the civil rights era, Bishop Knisely has reminded this diocese, that when it come to issues of racial equality, the Episcopal Church has often lagged behind, and has often found itself on the wrong side of the issue. A parishioner at St. Luke’s in Camillus once told me how their vestry threatened to terminate the rector if he chose to join the walk on Selma. They defended this by simply stating his job was to proclaim the Gospel in Camillus, not down south.
Discerning the will of the Holy Spirit is rarely easy, especially since it requires us to deny our own will in order to tune into the will of God. As Episcopalian we have always held to the three-legged stool of apostolic tradition, Scripture and reason when discerning the will of the Holy Spirit. In recent years, our method has failed as scriptural interpretation has at times appeared to be in conflict with reason and experience. In recent years this has forced to ask what to do when reason and the literal interpretation of scripture no longer work in concert with each other. I believe Mother Theresa may have offered the simplest way around this problem. She taught that the Gospel is designed to make the comfortable uncomfortable and the uncomfortable comfortable.” I have found when new issues arise, if the solution makes me uncomfortable while affording comfort to those who have been marginalized by society, then most likely the the Holy Spirit is speaking.
Ultimately what we can glean from the rebuke of Peter is what a friend from Syracuse often advises, “when we or someone else claims to know the will of God, RUN!” . . .For as St. Peter learned in this morning’s Gospel, God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts and as mere mortals we can never fully anticipate or know the ways of God.
Let us Pray
O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen