In our lesson today, in particular in THE MESSAGE version, the word virtue appears. “There’s no particular virtue in accepting punishment that you well deserve,” writes Peter, “But if you’re treated badly for good behavior and continue in spite of it to be a good servant, that is what counts with God.”
Virtue is a very old word. A quick glance in a dictionary we discover that virtue means “morally good character”, and “uprightness”.
Since it’s the merry month of May, I am reminded of the virtuous character Lancelot in the musical Camelot who croons, “A knight of the Table Round should be invincible, succeed where a less fantastic man would fail. Climb a wall no one else can climb, Cleave a dragon in record time, Swim a moat in a coat of heavy iron mail. No matter the pain, he ought to be unwinceable, Impossible deeds should be his daily fare. But where in the world Is there in the world A man so*extraordinaire*? C'est moi! C'est moi, I'm forced to admit. 'Tis I, I humbly reply. That mortal who these marvels can do,C'est moi, c'est moi, 'tis I. I've never lost in battle or game; I'm simply the best by far…”
The best at what, we might ask. According to Lancelot, some muscle (toppling other knights, slaying dragons), some might (swim a moat in record time while wearing heavy armor, climb a wall), and some loyalty to that which is right, which is the king. As a knight of the round table, Lancelot defends the king’s honor and the king’s property, in this story, Camelot.
Who are our modern day Lancelots on the big screen—the strong, confident morally good heroes? Perhaps Batman who defends the good people of Gotham City against a host of characters bent on being the most powerful person on earth? Spiderman? Wolverine? All of these heroes, so to say, are considered the good guys—the virtuous ones.
In some ways discipleship is all about some muscle, some might, and some loyalty to what is right. But there are some important differences.
*First, the muscle Christ is interested in is faith in God to act—as opposed faith in ourselves to act.
*Second, the loyalty Christ is interested in is loyalty to God’s job description (God’s purpose in Jesus) which Jesus introduced in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Easier words might be end injustice, violence, and oppression of all kinds.
*THIRD, as disciples, we’re not called to defend God, God can take care of God’s self. What we are called to do is to LISTEN to Jesus. How many times in the scriptures do we hear God say, “This is my son, listen to him”? By listen God means more than just hear his words. God means follow; become Christ—including a willingness to suffer for God’s purpose in the world.
Where the virtuous Lancelot is gallant, displaying his mighty physical ability,
the virtuous Christ is humble, refraining from revenge– “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly,” writes Peter.
What you and I are beginning to understand is that in the Christian tradition, virtue means strength, but not an outward strength; it’s an inward strength—an inward strength that is rooted in one’s ability to detect and trust God at the core of one’s being and to act on that relationship and purpose and that relationship and purpose alone . Who other people are is up to them.
As contemplative practitioner and teacher Thomas Keating observes, “Virtue, true strength, is not controlling or dominating other people. It is moderating our own excesses and respecting the basic goodness of other people and their needs.”
As Peter concludes, it’s this kind of virtue, or strength, when offered to a world that’s far from perfect, that provides the best opportunity for change to take place—moderating our own excesses and respecting the basic goodness of other people and their needs—not controlling or dominating other people.
Here’s another way to enter today’s story. Instead of seeking revenge, Jesus sought repair; instead of participating in destruction, Jesus sought construction. What is meant by the words revenge and destruction is hurting someone who hurts you; destroying someone who wants to destroy you. Another word is retaliation.
What is meant by the words repair and construction is fixing things so that no one will ever hurt, or get hurt, again.
At the end of his life, when Jesus was surrounded by his enemies and abandoned by his friends, Jesus didn’t develop amnesia and suddenly become something else other than God’s beloved. It was obvious to him and to others that many persons in Jerusalem that day had lost sight of their best self; the one loved by our God who acts justly in the world. They were lost to that other self—the one who puts their faith in the world’s treasures—or perhaps the one that thinks they are truly alone and therefore defenseless—or yet the other self who needs to feel in control. The answer wasn’t to join them in their sickness.
The answer, for Jesus, was to join God in God’s wholeness, or health. This is what Peter means by letting God keep our soul—staying grounded in God’s wholeness, God’s health. For Jesus this meant choosing God’s character, forgiveness and humility, and in the end he most respected. Here we are wanting to be LIKE him; balanced, wise, healthy, whole, faithful, helpful not hurtful, an agent of peace and not violence.
In today’s superhero movies, what happens? I’m most familiar with Batman so I’ll use the Batman as an example. In Batman movies, an enemy emerges such as the Joker or the Penguin, enticing Batman to exit the bat cave with all of his amazing toys. They are great but they do break. After a long you fling this and I’ll fling that duel, Batman wins at the end of the film, but we’re always introduced to the next villain hiding in the shadows—the next battle of muscle and might. The story of muscle verses muscle continues, and Gotham City remains dark, anxious, fearful.
Yes, Batman is good looking and every one covets Batman’s toys—but to a world that longs for peace and prosperity for ALL and a little light to see that possibility by—and knows they’ll never have those abs AND those toys—perhaps Jesus’ example of relying on virtue, the ability to refrain from control and domination OVER people--the ability to participate in repair over revenge and construction over destruction—is much more possible, and hopeful.
Forgiveness and humility are two things we can do.
“But you’ve got to be prepared,” writes Peter to us, “to suffer.” Not everyone welcomes God’s kingdom with open arms. People will hurt you—bully you, oppress you, seek control OVER you. Prepare yourself so that you, too, will stay grounded in God’s purpose—let God keep your soul…
How do you prepare yourself to survive suffering at the hands of those most threatened by a just world-- while working for heaven come on earth?
This past week the students at Will James were treated to a visit by Jerry Taylor, a man who has lived with Cerebral Palsy all his life. His message was this, “My condition didn’t matter. What mattered was trying. That’s how you win, by trying.” Using special crutches Jerry entered races. “Not to win,” he said, “but to run.”
Isn’t that true for discipleship—isn’t that the message of the cross? We can’t help the condition of the world around us in which we answer the call to love God and neighbor, but we win by trying to live in the world as Christ lived in the world—with great love, always love, and then again, love.When it comes to discipleship Peter says we’re on a journey and we don’t know where we are going. “But I can tell you something you will want in your backpack,” he writes, “and that’s the ability to suffer and still let God keep your soul.”
Prayer: Amazing God, may we be strong enough to stay with you and work for your purpose even when people lash out at us for reminding them that everybody matters—like Jesus did. Amen.
(Reverend Dana Keener preached this sermon on May11, 2014 at Central Christian Church, Billings, Montana)