Sermon: 14th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17 Year A – True Religion
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, O God.
If I were to hear the phrase “true religion” spoken outside the context of today’s collect, I would probably be pretty wary and skeptical of the flavor of Christianity they are selling. It sounds like a narrow-minded view, where if someone doesn’t follow the rules exactly, if you don’t believe exactly like the minister says you have to believe, then your very salvation is at stake. Like, if you don’t follow the true religion, it has eternal consequences.
I don’t know if anyone can truly *know,* intellectually, without a doubt, they are the keepers of the one true religion. We can take care to read the Bible carefully, we can think through and discuss issues with fellow members of God’s family, we can pray truthfully and genuinely listen for God. But in the end, no one can force belief. True religion is not something that we can reason our way to. It’s not something that can be imposed on people by a sermon. No matter how hard I try, I can’t force anyone else to be a true believer. I mean, I can’t make even myself believe things by force of will. I don’t think that’s what our prayer for God to increase in us true religion is though.
I don’t think we’re asking for God to force us to believe things. I don’t believe in a God that requires intellectual assent like that. I mean, how true can a religion be if it needs to be carefully guarded from all questions and doubts lest we step off the true path into eternal negative consequences? That implies such a small God who stays within boundaries that humans impose.
Jesus is trying to explain something to his disciples in our gospel lesson. He’s trying to tell them that suffering and death, and ultimately resurrection, are all going to happen. That’s going to break everything. Their lives and communities are going to be broken by persecution, by doubt. This is a hard thing to accept, and Peter refuses to accept it. “God forbid it!” he says. What he knows to be true is that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. Peter was just praised for saying so in the passage directly preceding this. Jesus said that Peter was the rock on which he would build his church! I’m not sure you can get more “true religion” than that. So, Peter reasoned, how can the Messiah, God’s anointed, God’s own Son, be subject to something so humiliating as being executed by religious authorities?? But that’s not the right way of thinking. True religion is not fitting God into the box of our plans, of what *we* know to be right. God is going to break out of that box. Jesus rebukes Peter for suggesting that God’s plans were going to fit into Peter’s ideas. Jesus says that Peter is setting his mind on earthly things rather than divine ones.
So what is true religion then, if it’s not hyping up Jesus as Peter is trying? Jesus says that his followers must take up their cross. If they want to save their lives, they have to lose them. That paradoxical truth is sort of mind blowing. It breaks everything we think we know about God. Peter might know an important truth about who Jesus is, but what’s going to happen to Jesus breaks all those expectations of the messiah. The authorities of the day also thought they were upholding true religion when they called for Jesus’ execution. But the coming resurrection is going to break all their expectations too.
Following Jesus requires breaking free of thinking earthly things are the truth. That’s where Peter went wrong. He thought he knew what was going on, and didn’t trust the divine truth Jesus was telling him. Later in the gospel according to Matthew, Peter says that he would die rather than deny the truth he knows about Jesus. Peter did indeed end up dying for his faith. Is that what Jesus means by taking up our cross and losing our lives?
Peter was not martyred for defending the earthly things he thought he knew about Jesus. I do not think true religion is defending to the death what we think we know. True religion is trusting that God is indeed greater than our conception. For many Christians throughout history, trust in God’s mind-blowing divine truth did lead to earthly persecution, suffering, and even death. Christians here and now do not suffer persecution and death for our religion. But our call to take up the cross today is just as contrary to earthly truth as ever.
This is not cause for despair, like we are doomed to figurative if not literal martyrdom if we are to embrace true religion. Suffering and death are going to happen. They break things. They might even break us. Suffering and death certainly break people’s faith and trust in what they know. True religion is not so fragile. True religion is not something that can be imposed on anyone. True religion is not something that anyone can even force *themselves* into believing through their own strength of will. True religion is not… forcing God into our tiny earthly conception.
True religion is embracing the divine truth that is contrary to what the world is telling us. “There’s nothing we can do about climate change,” the world says. God says, “you are rulers and stewards of creation.” The world says, “The Episcopal Church is never going to get back to where we were before the pandemic, before the schism, before the 1970s.” Jesus says “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Do I know and understand how the coming of God’s kingdom works? Not really. But true religion is trusting in God’s divine truth even if I do not understand.
What’s important is not the intellectual assent to the concept that God’s kingdom is coming, but trusting so deeply in that truth that even when the world says it’s impossible, I act as if it’s not only possible, but certain. What earthly thoughts can we break free of when we embrace the mind-blowing truth of God?
The world speaks of brokenness and evil. The world tells us the only way to survive is through fear and hate. God calls us to openness and goodness. God calls us to love. Genuine love is something that comes from taking up our cross to follow Jesus. It is contrary to earthly things.
“Let love be genuine”, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. Don’t seek honor for yourself like the world says, “outdo one another in showing honor….Extend hospitality to strangers….Associate with the lowly”. Don’t seek to advance yourself at the cost of others, but “live peaceably with all. Do not curse those who persecute you, but …bless them. Feed your enemies. Give them something to drink.” Genuine love, or perhaps, true religion, is contrary to what the world says. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble.”
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” …That’s genuine love. That’s true religion.
Increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.