Sermon for 1 June ’08
I am on leave, so today Kerry Pierce and Rev Dr David Rankin took the service. Kerry and David delivered a dialogue sermon that they’d put together in the weeks before the service in an email conversation. Here it is:
David: At first sight this reading from Matthew might appear to suggest that the grounds or source of our salvation, of our justification, of our being put right with God, lie not in the unmerited, gracious action of God in Jesus Christ but rather in our own faithfulness, in our own actions, in actions mirroring our words. This would appear, at first sight, to suggest a form of justification by works and not that justification by faith through grace which sits at the very heart of Reformed teaching, indeed the teaching of the whole Church Catholic. But it is not so. Now while I am not a great fan of many of the headings given by translators of scripture, that given here by those of the NRSV – ‘Concerning Self-Deception’ – is marvellously apt. For it is true – and indeed we know that it is true because the scripture says so and not because I might give my imprimatur to it – that we can easily fool not only others but even ourselves if we assume that just because we call Christ ‘Lord, Lord’ or just because we perform impressive deeds in the name of Christ that we are thereby faithful and doing that which is the Father’s will.
Kerry: I guess the “Just because” is important. For example, I might go to college on Mondays ‘just because’ I have to if I want to complete ordination requirements. If we are performing impressive deeds, not that going to college is an impressive deed, with our eyes on the reward then I’m not so sure self deception is really the issue as self righteousness. And I wonder if it’s more the ‘self’ than the deception or the righteousness that’s the issue anyway. If I believe I go to college ‘just because’ God wants me to, maybe I’m deceiving myself or if I go to college because God wants me to be ordained, and that has got to be an impressive deed, I might be self righteous.
David: I take your point about both the matter of self-deception v. self-righteousness and that of the significance of the ‘self’ in both. Yet, in this context at least, perhaps self-righteousness is a form of self-deception whereby what regard as ‘our’ righteousness in the presence of God may be no more than a heightened sense of self-deception. We convince ourselves that we actually understand the demands of the righteousness to which we are called and that we can ‘do’ this, but actually only manage to deceive ourselves. One is perhaps reminded of Peter who, having achieved the seeming pinnacle of discipleship recognition at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus says that he (Peter) is the rock on which he (Jesus) will build the church and that Peter will receive the keys of the kingdom so that he might on his own authority loose and bind sin (Matthew 16.13-20), then only three verses later challenges Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death with the suggestion that ‘Lord, this must never happen to you’ and is called “Satan’ and a ‘stumbling block’ by Jesus and told to get out of the way (Matthew 16.21-23). And, with respect to the matter of the ‘self’, self-deception and self-righteousness – whether they are the same thing or not – are actually all about ‘self’; they are all about me!
Kerry: Yeah, the about me isn’t about God, it gets in the way and even as you pointed out assumes its own understanding of God’s righteousness, Like Lord Lord, I was doing what was righteous, I was doing your will. If we get to where we’re explaining our self before God, challenging Jesus’ discernment, like Peter does (Matthew 16.21-23) then we are convinced that we do actually understand the demands of the righteousness to which we are called, that we understand the will of God, maybe better than God if God can be convinced? Peter, wants to tell God that he’s not right, that what Jesus is saying can’t be true, wow the authority he’s just been given has really gone to his head.
Getting back to Peter being given the keys of the kingdom, the authority to bind and loose and also being the foundation rock of the church, I understand this as Peter’s spiritual family, not his flesh and blood relies, but those who know (biblically) Jesus well enough to recognise him as “the Son of the living God” and this kind of knowing is obviously a two way street which brings me back to our gospel passage where Jesus declares he never knew those who claimed to be doing things in his name.
After Jesus declares that he didn’t know them, he rebukes them, telling them “Go away from me you evil doers”. One commentary (Fenton, 1963) referred me to psalm 6 regarding this rebuke and when I read this psalm, alongside our gospel reading, I’m encouraged that Jesus might be turning those who are seeking the kingdom of heaven, but are really delusional in their relationship with Him, to an appropriate response to their being caught out, a response of repentance before the Lord of steadfast love as opposed to their response of trying to convince God of their righteousness.
David: The thing might be then to see how we provide checks and balances that allow us both to act on what we genuinely believe to be that which God requires of us – for it surely cannot be that God expects us to remain inactive unless we know ‘for certain’ what is his will for us – but yet to know consistently that we do not fully ‘know’, that we cannot fully ‘know’? For Jesus’ words at Matthew 7.23 that these ‘evildoers’ ‘get away’ from him are a direct quote from Psalm 6.8 as your commentator properly points out and are then reflected in Jesus’ later words to Peter to ‘get behind me, Satan’. For this is always the case with us; as soon as we think that we ‘know’ what we should be and do – and even what God should be and do! – we are powerfully reminded that we do not know and we should get behind him. We need to be reminded that even in our being justified before God the Father in Christ, even in our being reconciled with the Father in Christ, we remain imperfect, greatly flawed sinners who are always bound, of ourselves, to get it wrong or at best only ever partially right. And the great thing about Peter’s situation – if I can stay with that for the moment – is that right after his telling off by Jesus – his great humiliation following his great moment in the sun – he then (in chapter 17 of the Gospel) goes with the brothers James and John to the heights of the mountain to witness the wondrous Transfiguration of Jesus. Thus the good news is that when Jesus tells us to ‘get behind him (you evildoers)’, he actually means that we ‘get back in line’ and know who and whose we are!
Kerry: Ok, so we can’t really know what God wills, but we still want to be doing what God wills as best we can. As the resurrection community we do this in the knowledge that we are justified and that we are incapable of getting it right or really knowing God’s will. That’s got to be hard. And I guess it’s important that we don’t think for a minute that it’s likely to be any other way. Jesus says the gate is narrow and the road hard. This points me to one of the checks and balances, scripture. And I don’t mean proof texting so much as listening to the Word of God that is consistently life affirming and orientates us toward community rather than individuality, unity rather than separation.
And I guess another check then is going to be that community. The church, which seeks to be an expression of unity focused on worship. So if we think we are doing God’s will and we are acting in a divisive way in the community then it’s maybe a good idea to get some counsel and seek reconciliation, if we don’t, or more likely when we don’t, God will rock up soon enough and tell us to ‘get back in line and remember whose we are’.
So it’s got to be inevitable that we’ll be pulled into line and when I think back to Psalm 6 I’m reminded that that’s a good thing. The rebuke itself gives us the opportunity to recognise our waywardness, seek forgiveness, and thank God for the amazing love that reconciles us regardless of our imperfection.
David: It is not so much that we cannot know what God wills for us – if that were strictly true the Christian life would be impossible – but rather that we cannot hope to know it fully or perfectly and certainly not by our own endeavours. What you point to therefore, Kerry, is crucial. What are the ‘checks and balances’ that might guide us in this endeavour? You start most properly with Scripture. The Basis of Union declares that it is in the books of the Old and New Testaments, received by the Church as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, that the Church hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, as it must (the Basis reminds us), its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses (paragraph 5) (we note the plural witnesses). This Word of God, and this I believe is crucial, this Word on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. And this picks up your second ‘check’ of community. For while God in and through Christ and through the power of the Spirit may and does speak from time to time a particular word to individuals among the faithful, it is normative that God has chosen to do so in and through the community of faith as the Body of Christ. The charge to bind and loose was given by Christ to the whole Church in the person of Peter; the final command and authorisation of the Incarnate and Risen and soon-to-be Ascended Christ to disciple, baptise and teach was given to the whole Church in the persons of the Apostles gathered around him. And thus it is to the Church – but not solely the Uniting Church but the Church Catholic (this is why ecumenism is so crucial and not merely an optional possibility) – that we look for confirmation of how we are to understand and to appreciate the will of God for us. But not the Church simply in its conciliar pronouncements, but the Church as a worshipping, witnessing and serving community, the Church seeking to discern the will of the Father in its hearing and exploring of the Scriptures in its worshipping, witnessing and serving life. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine ands acts on them will be like the wise person who built their house upon a rock’ (7.24). Thus is Simon later, as the representative of all the faithful, renamed as Peter, the Rock on whose faith the Church is built.