You've Got to be Kidding Me!
"You've got to be kidding me," we say when something is incredulous, ridiculous, or ludicrous. Today we celebrate the Festival of Saints Peter and Paul which the Church has been celebrating since June 29, 258. Our Lutheran Confessions say we celebrate saints' days for thanksgiving, strengthening, and imitating (AP, XXI, 4-7). I say, in regard to Peter and Paul: You've got to be kidding!
Look at their lives; what do you see? Sure Peter is first in many areas but he's also last in others. Yes, he was the first to confess Jesus as the Christ of God, but he was also the first to interfere with Jesus going to the cross. Yes, Peter was the first to cast off Jewish prejudices against Gentiles, but be was also the first to withdraw from them in cowardly fear. Yes, Peter was first to profess undying faithfulness to Jesus regardless of cost, but he was also first to show absolute, cowardly unfaithfulness. Thanksgiving, strengthening, imitating should come from this? You've got to be kidding!
Paul is no better, and it's even easier to reject him as saint of the day. Read what Paul says about himself in his own letters. He calls himself "the least of the apostles." "Not fit to be called an apostle." He plays down the idea of sainthood. "I am the least of all the saints." The only area Paul ever claimed to be the first, the best, the chief was sinning. He said, "I am the chief of sinners." A second century church document describes Paul as a man of unimpressive appearance, small, bald, bow-legged (Dictionary of Saints, 267). You've got to be kidding if you think thanks, strength, or imitation will well up from the picture painted by his own mouth or others.
In the area of sports, you will rarely find a "hero" of the game who leads in best and worst. True, homerun hitters often lead in strikeouts, but QB's seldom lead in touchdowns and interceptions. In the military, I've never read of a Medal of Honor winner being written up at another time for cowardice. The world doesn't have this contradiction in her heroes. O sure Superman is also mild, manner Clark Kent but Superman isn't mild manner. The Church has contradictions in her saints. St. Paul is chief of sinners and St. Peter is the cowardly lion. And for this we don't say, "You've got to be kidding," but, "Thanks be to God!"
Well, in a way it is "you've got to be kidding." The sainthood of these two sinners shows over the top, beyond the pale, beyond belief divine mercy and strength for which we can only be thankful.
The Gospels show us the incredible sinfulness of Peter. We blush with shame at his extravagant claims to loyalty and bravery when we know a little girl is going to send him whimpering away from Jesus. In Acts we see how God patiently teaches him the Gospel is for Gentiles without them first becoming Jews. When Peter is walked out of prison by an angel in Acts 12, he walks out of Acts too and is eclipsed from then on by Paul. But in his two Epistles we see how God's grace has triumphed in Peter's life.
Hear what the one who denied 3 times not in the face of death but in the face of a little girl says: "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed." Think about it. The grossest, plainest, ugliest denier of Jesus now champions confessing Him and suffering in His name. You've got to be kidding!
What about Paul? The Holy Spirit in Acts goes out of His way to show us a murderous Paul. Proud to be serving God by arresting Christians, men and women, and putting them in chains. Proud to be an official at the stoning of Stephen. So zealous to persecute the faith of Jesus to the point of death he gets letters from the Sanhedrin to hunt down Christians outside of Jerusalem.
And what do we find in Paul's Epistles? Yes, we find that he is chief of sinners; yes we find him a self-confessed wretched man; yes, he admits to being least in every spiritual way possible. But we also find one ready for his blood to be poured out as thank offering to God. He is ready to depart and be with Christ. He has finished his course; he has kept the faith. You've got to be kidding me!
No, really. This time I am again being incredulous; I see something absolutely ridiculous and ludicrous. We're you going to let me off that easy? Perhaps you weren't paying attention just then. Zoned out to the World Cup or your cup of problems. You can't let pass the fact that the biggest Christ denier of all time can preach confessing and suffering for Christ. And a killer of Christians can write I Corinthians 13's advocating love for others.
Unless you can see 1) Peter really was a gross denier of Jesus and coward to the bone and Paul really was a proud murderer of Christians, and 2) they really did later stand in pulpits like I'm doing and preach confessing Jesus to death and love for others, unless you can see these two things thanks will not flow from your heart nor strength into it from the celebration of this festival. In short, unless you leave here saying to yourself, "You've got to be kidding me," you don't get it.
How could a denier of Christ and a murderer of Christians stand their preaching faithfulness and kindness to others? A known coward wouldn't have the courage to preach bravery. A known philanderer wouldn't have the guts to preach abstinence. Yet denying Peter preaches faithfulness and murdering Paul preaches love for your fellow man. How could they do this?
Only if something came into their life that was so big, so powerful that it was able to soak up not just their sins but their sense of sinfulness and their guilty conscience. Surely someone did say to Peter, "Don't talk to me about confessing Jesus, you coward." Surely someone did say to Paul, "Don't talk to me about loving my fellow man, you murderer." Yet these men did talk, did preach, did go on to die in the name of Jesus. How could this be? You've got to be kidding me! They couldn't. They wouldn't, but you know they did. The church has been celebrating they did for 1,756 years.
Peter and Paul preached what they did, lived without their sins of the past haunting them, and died a martyr's death because God's grace for Jesus' sake preached louder and longer in their ears and hearts than did their sin or sinfulness. Go back and read their Epistles; always when they encourage people to confess, to suffer, to love their fellow man, it's rooted in what Jesus did for them first.
Sin, your sin or sins, is a huge blot or stain on your soul or conscience. It was all Peter could think about as he went off and wept bitterly. It was all he could think about on the shores of the Sea of Galilee when Jesus asked him 3 times, "Do you love me?" Paul's sin or sinfulness was all he could think about for 3 days as he sat blinded by the light and even more so by the fact that the Lord who called to him from the light was none other than Jesus who he persecuted.
But where sins abound or just that one big one weighs so very heavy, Paul found that precisely there God's grace abounded even more. And Peter found that while we all like sheep have gone astray, God laid on Jesus, His Lamb, the iniquity of us all. What we can see only dimly or darkly Peter and Paul, by God's grace, saw brightly: that God willingly sent His Son into the world to do what they obviously hadn't done and could never do: keep God's Laws perfectly. They weren't to keep going over and over in their minds all the ways they had let their Lord down. No, once they saw they had, they were to turn away from their failures to Jesus' victories.
Moreover, God did not want Peter to cry a river of bitter tears or Paul to be mired in the fact that the good he wanted to do he didn't do and the evil he didn't want to do he did. No, God wanted them to be carried away from their bitterness and freed from the mire of guilt by the flood of Jesus' blood, sweat, and tears. One tear of Jesus swept away all the sins of the world; a billion bitter tears of Peter, or you, won't sweep away even one. One drop of the sweat of Jesus was enough to cleanse the whole world of sins; Paul, or you, spending a lifetime sweating over your sins won't cleanse one person.
You've got to be kidding me! No, Peter and Paul, worst denier and most heinous murderer didn't live their lives in guilt, in fear, but in faith that God loved them for Jesus' sake and gave His only Son up to suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying, so that He might claim them. Why not me?
"Why not me?" is the title of a 30 year old country song. I've always liked the thought. Why not me? Why can't this Paul be that Paul? I've got the sins; I'm as guilty as he. I can't be chief of sinners because Paul was that, but I can be assistant chief. And what about you? Why not you? Don't you have the sin, the guilt, the stain of Peter or Paul? Haven't you experienced the depressive mood Peter was in after his fall? Don't you know the sins of wasted years as Paul did? So why not you?
The same grace, the same forgiveness, the same peace that these men lived and died in can be yours. Jesus didn't die just for their sins but for the sins of the whole world. Jesus wasn't a wrath removing sacrifice for just their sins but for the sins of whole world. God in Christ didn't just desire that Peter and Paul come to repentance and faith but for everyone, you included.
Why not you? Why can't you live guilt free? All that the Devil, others, and your own flesh accuse you of can be put under the blood of Christ sprinkled on you in Baptism and never looked at again. Those accusations that scream in your ears can be drowned out by the Absolution you heard this morning and never listened to again. The bitter taste of sinfulness can be wiped from your lips as sure as Jesus gives you His Body for Bread and His Blood for sweet wine. You've got to me kidding me? Actually, I'm not. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Peter and St. Paul, Apostles (20140629)