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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 16 – Year A

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!
You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind
not on divine things but on human things.” Matthew 16:23

Why was Jesus so unhappy with Peter? After all, if you look back just a few verses, you see last Sunday’s gospel reading where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, “the Son of the living God.” And Jesus commends Peter for that keen insight and says he’s made of the right stuff—like rock—the kind of foundation on which the church will be built! But it’s obvious in today’s gospel that Peter really doesn’t get it. Because as Jesus begins to spell out what his messiahship in fact means, that it’s going to subject him to great suffering and certain death at the hands of the Jewish authorities, all that flies in the face of everything Peter understands. He won’t let such a thing happen!

Before Peter can understand the mind of Jesus, his own mind-set has got to change. Peter, like all of us, has a certain way of thinking about things; it’s “the way he’s wired”, as we sometimes put it. And that’s why Jesus scolds him: Peter’s whole mind-set must undergo a radical change before he can even begin to exercise that rock-like potential with which God has endowed him. And therein lies the point of this sermon. Before you and I can comprehend, much less practice, Christ’s way of the offered life—which is what the way of love, the way of the cross, is all about–we need a makeover! Call it a new mind-set, or way of the heart, or disposition of the soul—call it what you will, it’s the only thing that will change our ways of living and relating to each other.

We can understand “mind-sets” in part by thinking about our various personality types, a subject in which I’ve long been interested. Some of you may have taken a questionnaire called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator of Human Personality, based upon the work of Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist. Another way of mapping our personalities is called the Enneagram, which draws upon classic Greek philosophy and themes from Judaism and early Christianity. The Enneagram was brought to this country in the 1970’s and developed by psychologists Don Riso and Russ Hudson. Dozens of others have written and taught about it too. (If you’re interested, you can take an eight-week course on it right here at St. James’s, starting Thursday evening, October 16th. See Whitney to sign up.) The Enneagram describes nine different personality types, no one better or worse than another. It says that all of us have at least some of each type in us, and most of us share significant characteristics of one or two other types besides our own.

To take myself as an example, I seem to be a “Type 9”, which they call a “Mediator” or a “Peacemaker”. Mediators, they say, tend to be patient, agreeable, able to see all sides of an issue, and strive for harmony and stability. However, say the experts, 9’s can be stubborn, indecisive and passive-aggressive! Those are mind-sets I need to put behind me! Clearly they stand in the way of my becoming a more effective witness for Christ. I think I also have some “Type 1” in me. 1’s are “Perfectionists” or “Reformers”. We’re conscientious, idealistic, bent on self improvement. But we can also be rigid, opinionated and judgmental! Each type has its virtues and challenges, reminding us that we’re all human! Other types have names like “Helper”, “Achiever”, and the like.

Now, when Jesus scolds Peter in today’s passage and says he needs to alter his mind-set from things human to things divine, he’s giving him credit for being able to change! Peter is not necessarily “stuck” in his ways. Indeed, Jesus challenges all the apostles to change: “If any want to become my followers,” he says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Let’s remember that! God gives to us all genuine freedom! No matter what our mind-set, no matter what our personality type, you and I can change. That’s the way God has made us! And the Myers-Briggs people and the Enneagram people all confirm that. You may continue to be a “helper”, an “achiever” or any other personality type, but you can also grow, you can mature. You can give up the undesirable behaviors of your type and take on all the good traits of your type. And you can make of your whole being an offering for the sake of God and God’s world. That’s exactly what God calls us and empowers us to do. That’s what “taking up our crosses” means.

To that end, we need to become far more self-aware of what it is about our mind-sets that we need to put behind us. One of the things that has helped my own self-awareness is thinking about how we human beings walk! Now, that may sound a little quirky, but just as you can tell about some people’s state of mind by the way they drive, so it is, I think, with walking. In fact, I’ve made a little study of that! When I’m too satisfied with myself, for instance, there’s a certain cockiness in my walk! When I’m stressed, I walk rather stiffly! So look around you! What telltale signs do you see in yourself and others as you walk?

How do you suppose Jesus walked? See him in your mind’s eye. See him walking along the beach and encountering those fishermen. What do you see? I see an easy gait, an inviting manner that sees everything, looks everyone in the eye. Jesus’ eyes—those penetrating, loving eyes—engage Peter and the others. He calls them to walk with him– join him in the great adventure of new life. Picture Jesus in today’s passage, beginning to make his way toward Jerusalem. His disciples are walking with him. He’s disappointed by Peter’s cautious mind-set. Yet even as he rebukes him I see him with an arm around the big fisherman’s shoulder—figuratively if not physically. To walk with Jesus is to feel loved but to find our mind-sets challenged. Using the same metaphor, he tells his disciples, “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of the world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” (John 11:9-10) Paul uses the same metaphor about baptism: Baptism unites us to Christ so that “we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)

When I walk, and see others walk, I become more aware of my own mind-set and of the things about myself that I need to deny and put behind me. Earlier this month the media noted the death of the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn who dared to walk a radically different path in his native Russia. Through his books he revealed to the world the unspeakable atrocities of the Soviet premier Josef Stalin, and his own incarceration in Stalin’s notorious prison camps, along with twenty million others. After his release he was stripped of his citizenship and he moved with his family to Vermont. One July he made a visit to Virginia with his wife Natalya. A bystander who saw him walking through Williamsburg was quoted in the Times-Dispatch as saying she found it “a phenomenally moving experience.” But perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s time in the United States is best remembered through his 1978 address at Harvard where he compared the pampered mind-set of American society with the grim realities of a troubled world: “Destructive and irresponsible freedom has been granted boundless space,” he said. “Society appears to have little defense against the abyss of human decadence…for example…motion pictures full of pornography, crime and horror.”

Solzhenitsyn’s words at Harvard constitute a prophetic warning reminiscent of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for setting his mind on human rather than divine things: “(Humankind’s) task on earth…must be of a more spiritual nature,” said Solzhenitsyn. “It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods….It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.” Let these words of a courageous Russian reformer serve as a ringing reminder to us that we can change; we can leave the old behind and embrace the new. Let us do just that, remembering Paul’s word about mind-sets in his Letter to the Colossians: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (3:2-3)

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