August 24, 2014 Romans 12: 1-8 Matthew 16: 13-17
Rev. Catherine Purves
If you nick your finger with a paring knife or fall down and scrape your knee, a simple bandage and some Neosporin will probably suffice. In a few days your injury will be almost completely healed. When you have children, you soon become an expert at these minor remedies, and you are no longer alarmed by the sight of blood or by plaintive cries that sound like death is imminent. As parents, we readily come to believe in the ability of the body to right itself with only minimal assistance so long as no bones are broken.
This confident attitude toward healing and wholeness is sometimes applied to moral or spiritual injuries as well. So we might admonish ourselves to “pull up our socks” ethically or to get our sin under control spiritually, as if this were as simple and natural as the growth of fresh skin after a superficial scrape. We seem to assume that our bodies and our minds and our spirits can heal themselves with only minor first aid. This generally optimistic attitude is nowhere justified in Scripture, however, where we must always wait for an act of God if we are to be spiritually transformed.
This week I was wading through Karl Barth’s ground-breaking commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans. If you ever want to feel less smart than you thought you were, pick up something that was written by Barth. Wading was the best I could do, sometimes having to read and reread the long Germanic sentences several times. But part of the difficulty was the fact that Barth saw so clearly something that for us is an uphill struggle because of our culture’s basic belief in the goodness and the perfectibility of human beings. Barth in no way thinks that our spirits can heal themselves or that we can restore our relationship with God through the application of a simple dose of religiosity. For Barth, there is no such thing as a good man. We are all hopeless sinners. There are absolutely no grounds for religious pride or ethical confidence. In terms of our spiritual health we all belong in hospice care. Meanwhile Christians are self-medicating with Band-aids when they need tourniquets, and we’re fighting the equivalent of a spiritual Ebola virus with aspirin.
You might wonder how such a doctor of the church as Barth would have any following with such a pessimistic attitude toward the spiritual health of Christians, but, in actual fact, and surprisingly, Barth is extremely optimistic about our prognosis. He just wants to insist that we cannot heal ourselves or heal one another. Healing and spiritual wholeness is entirely the work of God, so that no one may boast or become over-confident, self-righteous, or judgmental of others. That work of God is huge. It requires a total transformation of the human spirit in Christ. It is a re-creation not a rehabilitation. It requires us to submit entirely to God, to place our lives completely in the hands of the Great Physician.
This is just what Paul was saying to the Christians in Rome. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” When Paul says, “present your bodies” he means your whole self: body, mind, and spirit. We do this, “by the mercies of God,” that is, trusting in God’s willingness to receive us ‘as is’ because we cannot raise ourselves to spiritual health before we entrust our lives into God’s care. This “living sacrifice” is “holy and acceptable” not because we have made it so, but because it is ‘whole’; we have not held anything back. We’ve handed over all of our medical records. We signed the release forms requesting treatment. We’ve given our broken and sickly bodies back to God, because we trust in God’s will to heal and God’s determination to save through Jesus Christ.
So, Paul warns his readers, “Do not be conformed to this world,” because this world proclaims a self-help gospel that asserts our own ability to make ourselves holy and spiritually healthy. Instead, Paul says, “be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Be transformed. This transforming is the work of the Holy Spirit who gives us a whole new lease on life, and we call this healing sanctification. It is entirely an act of God, but that’s why this gospel is good news. And that’s why Barth is optimistic about our prognosis even though we must live in a world that is unable even to diagnose that we are sick unto death and that does not know that a cure exists. That cure is Jesus Christ.
In our Gospel reading for today, when Jesus asked his disciples the crucial question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he asked that in what was perhaps the most worldly of places, Caesarea Philippi. This was a Roman city, a commercial hub, and a stronghold of paganism. You don’t get much more worldly than that. Then, as now, it was easy to find your mind being conformed to a worldly way of thinking that both underestimated the infectious power of sin and that overestimated our ability to heal that infection by self-medicating.
When Jesus asked his question, the disciples reported that the general populous thought that Jesus was a prophet, possibly even one of the great prophets of history returned. The prophets brought warnings to worldly rulers and prescribed God’s recommended remedies, but they themselves could not heal Israel; they could not transform lives. Jesus was not a prophet. And he was not going to provide a prescription for changing your lifestyle, passing on ‘natural’ remedies or good advice about healthy living. This kind of minor first aid had not proven effective. What was and what is needed was a total cure, a transformation, to use Paul’s word, a complete renewal – that is, the body, mind, and spirit must be made new.
That total healing began for Peter and the other disciples when they realized that Jesus was more than a prophet and that the cure he provided for them and for the world was more than any prophet could offer. When Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded immediately, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus was the one who would bear God’s ultimate cure for the human race. He would not advise kings. He would be King. He would not proclaim God’s power. He would wield God’s power. He would not lament the power of sin. He would defeat sin. He would not simply sustain life. He would transform lives.
When Peter made this breakthrough in his understanding of who Jesus was, Jesus was quick to announce that this itself was not a natural cure of the general spiritual blindness that afflicted not just Peter but everyone who encountered Jesus. “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,” Jesus said. In other words, Peter didn’t just work this out for himself. He was not his own physician. He could not cure himself, and neither can we. No, Peter was blessed by God who revealed to him this truth, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Peter’s own native wit didn’t figure it out. His mind was transformed by God who enabled him to see who Jesus was. And this was just the beginning of Peter’s transformation or sanctification. He would grow in grace more and more as the healing power of the Holy Spirit continued to work in his life. He would suffer some relapses, as we all do, but God began his healing work in Peter on that day in Caesarea Philippi, and God would complete it.
Healing takes time. In fact, it takes a lifetime, because the transforming work of the Holy Spirit persists even as the world continues to impose upon us its own remedies and its own way of thinking about human potential and human wisdom. These partial cures we must resist, because they will keep us from trusting fully in the total cure, Jesus Christ. We must present our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit – to the Great Physician. This is what worship is. This is when the healing can begin. This is how, like Peter, we can have our eyes opened, our minds renewed, and our lives transformed.