Year A, Trinity 12: Winning the person, not the argument.

Romans 12: 9-end, Matthew 16: 21-end

“Get away from me, Satan! You do not have your mind on divine things, but human things.” These are some of the harshest words Jesus ever utters. He says them not to the Pharisees or the High priests, not to Judas, but to Peter. And this moment of public rebuke for Peter comes just after the moment of affirmation we heard last week, when Jesus declared him the rock on which he would build the church.

“Get away from me, Satan!” What had Peter done to prompt such a rebuke? He said something we might have a good deal of sympathy with. Jesus had just started to explain to people what would be the end point of his ministry. He wasn’t going to spend years wandering the Galilean countryside, healing people, teaching, and drawing massive crowds. He wasn’t going to lead an army to Jerusalem and proclaim himself King. He was going to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, be killed, and then rise again.

Perhaps understandably, Peter thought this less-than-optimistic vision of the future of Jesus’ ministry was a mistake. So, taking Jesus off to one side, he began to explain how he’d got it wrong. This was not what God had in mind. The Messiah was not going to suffer and die. He mansplained messianic prophecy to Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t having it.

The last time Jesus told Satan to get away was in his temptations in the desert. He uses the same words here probably because as far as he’s concerned, Peter’s words are a temptation. A temptation to choose a different path to the one God has called him to take. Peter’s problem is that he’s looking at this from a human perspective, not God’s perspective. Peter’s hopes and dreams are still limited by his human horizons. He wants the fairy-tale ending: Jesus wins, is proclaimed king, his enemies are destroyed, Jesus and his disciples all live happily ever after.

It’s a temptation for Jesus, Peter’s vision for the future, because it’s possible. It could happen. It would represent the best possible outcome for the disciples and all faithful Jews. But it’s not God’s vision for the future. It’s not God’s vision for all people, Jew and Gentile. And Jesus refuses to be swayed by it. God is calling him to a different path, one that is going to involve suffering and death. One that means putting the good of his enemies first.

Now if that were all that Jesus says, we could leave the whole thing there: Jesus tries to explain God’s plan for the Messiah. Peter can’t accept it, Jesus has to correct him. It’s yet another example of Peter getting it wrong.

But that’s not all. Because as Jesus goes on to say, this isn’t just about God’s plan for the messiah. This is a way of life that should mark out everyone who follows him. Peter hasn’t just failed to understand what Jesus has come to do. He’s failed to understand the way that Jesus wants all his followers to live. Anyone following him must deny themselves and take up their cross. Anyone who wants to save their life will lose it. Anyone who loses their life will save it.

It’s counterintuitive. It sounds like a paradox. If you live like you’re just trying to save your life then you’ll end up losing it. If you live as if your own life is less important than other people’s, then you’ll end up saving it.

Paul expands on this in the passage from Romans. Telling Christians in Rome how they should live as people facing opposition, he draws on Jesus’ words to remind them to live above all as people who see their own lives as less important than other people’s. In the face of persecution, they are to pray for those who persecute them. At a time when their trust and goodwill are being betrayed they are to continue to show hospitality to strangers. They are to return good for evil.

When we feel under attack, when we feel we are being persecuted, or treated unfairly, when we feel our way of life is threatened, our instinctive response is to become defensive. We enter into survival mode. We stop letting the little things go. We become less generous towards others. We fear the worst of people. When we are gripped by crisis, we feel the need for urgent action, the need to fix the problem, to prioritise this issue above the stuff that we might ordinarily choose to do. We tell ourselves that charity begins at home. That sometimes you need to put yourself first.

The words of Paul and Jesus here are counter-intuitive. They fly in the face of all of this conventional wisdom. They are against going into survival mode. They are against urgently trying to ‘fix things’. The more important an issue is, Paul is saying, the less hard we should fight for it. If we think the forces of evil are going to destroy us, then we should help them. We should try to identify who our enemies are and pray for them, be generous to them, bless them, love them. Instead of treating whatever crisis we are gripped in as an impersonal threat, we need to recognise that generally they are simply about different people with a different perspective. And that we are called to love those people.

This is difficult, and we want to deny it, like Peter.

“God forbid that you should do such a crazy thing! This is some sort of self-destructive martyr-complex. You’ll put yourself into an early grave thinking like that. You need to think of yourself and think of the people who love you. Don’t start worrying about the people who hate you.”

 

But Jesus and Paul are clear that we need to act differently. The thing is, even though most of us are not facing violent persecution or risking arrest we still face opposition. We still have people who act against us. We still feel gripped by crises that put us into survival mode.

We live in an accelerating news cycle, where the threats against us are constantly presented: declining attendance at churches, the rise of fascism and intolerance, the polar ice caps melting. Threats to the environment. Threats to our society. Threats to our church. We live in a permanent state of crisis. The stakes are always so high we cannot risk ignoring the warnings. Everything tells us we must act. We must resist. We must preserve our threatened way of life.

But what if we don’t? What if we decide that winning the person is more important than winning the argument? Instead of fighting our cause, can we figure out who the people are ‘on the other side’, and then love them?

I want to be a bit personal here, and perhaps a bit political.

As an ordained woman I live with this kind of concept and have done ever since I first started exploring a call to ordination.  I have always had, relatively close to me, people who have fundamentally opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood.

I could tell countless stories of my experiences over the years but I want to tell you one. I want to tell you about having an enemy. And what it might mean if we try to respond with love and generosity.  We’ll call him Frank (though that isn’t his name) and the first time I encountered him was in my final year at theological college.  I was administering the chalice as an ordinand and as I came to Frank along the rail.. he did this (held his arms over his face and head in the shape of an X).  Even my desire and conviction of calling as an ordinand made it offensive to Frank, for him to receive the sacrament from me – despite receiving from a female church warden most weeks.   We met again when I was appointed to a post where he served on the PCC.  Frank helped to paint the vestry (which would become my office).  It was clear that he wanted to help me, as a young woman, but that his views were not going to change. From the time I served in that parish they didn’t and he never received from me in any form, but we worked together where we could and helped one another.  I vowed to myself, many years ago, that I would pray for those people in my life and ministry, who did not agree with my ordination, not that they would change their minds, but that they would be people that I could work with, worship with and help and be helped by.   This has been true of every context I have ministered in – whether clergy colleagues or parishioners, some of the most fruitful relationships I have had have been with those who fundamentally disagree with me.  Even today, winning the person remains more important than winning the argument.

This year is actually a very significant one for the ordination of women, though we haven’t as yet marked it at the Cathedral.  This year it’s 50 years since the first female lay readers were appointed. It’s 30 years since the first women deacons were appointed. It’s 100 years since the congregational minister Constance Coltman became the first woman ordained in the United Kingdom. And this November it will have been 25 years since the vote to ordain women as priests. What we have gained in this generation, is to be celebrated.  It is a great gift to the church that women can serve as deacons, priests and now Bishops.

The consecration of women Bishop’s has been seen by some as a point of ‘arrival’, as though the work has been done.  Far from it. Because this isn’t an ‘issue’ to be ‘solved’. It isn’t a ‘problem’ to be ‘fixed’. It’s about different people who have different perspectives. And we are called to bless them, pray for them, be generous to them, and love them. Whatever our views we have come to be able to work together… not deny that it is a mess, not claim that we’ve ‘solved it’ and demand that people ‘get with the program’. We need to resist the urge to ‘fix it’.

We need to see the person. We need to see Frank. Because this counter-intuitive wisdom of Jesus opens up possibilities that otherwise we prevent ever happening. We instinctively think that acting in this sort of self-denying way, avoiding the temptation to go into survival mode, is self-destructive. We think it’s going to be bad for us. Maybe we ought to do it, maybe it’s what a really ‘good person’ would do, but in the end it’s going to mean you get hurt for being good. And the people hurting you are rewarded for it.

Because we don’t actually believe what Jesus says: “those who try to save their life will lose it, but those who are willing to lose their life will save it”. We think that those who try to save their lives probably will in the end, even if they feel bad about the choices they made. And those who are willing to lose their lives probably will. They will be the nice people who lost it all because they were too nice.

But what if he’s actually right? What if following our survival instincts means that we end up losing the very things we fight for? If I had treated Frank like my enemy, if I had made him feel as bad as he made me feel through his actions, then I’d probably have saved myself a lot of hurt. But I’d have lost something. I’d have lost Frank. I’d have lost the opportunity to love him. I’d have lost the opportunity to have him love me.

 

What Jesus is telling us is that our enemies are like Frank. It doesn’t matter if we win the argument. It matters that we win the person. If we only want to win, then we’ll lose every time. Because only by not caring if we lose can we ever really win.