FROM BEAST TO BEAUTY
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah… 69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.’ 70But he denied it before all of them, saying, ‘I do not know what you are talking about.’ 71When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth. 72Again he denied it with an oath, ‘I do not know the man.’ 73After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.’ 74Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed. 75Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly. (Matthew 16:13-20, 26:69-75, NRSV)
God created for 6 days and on the 7th day God rested. But what did God do on the 8th day? What is God doing today? Does God continue to rest or does God remain involved? Is creation finished or rather ongoing? Unlike the Deists who believe that God set the world in motion and then stepped back, I believe that God's creative power is still at work in our world and in each of our lives. Theologian Paul Tillich once wrote, “Here and there in the world and now and then in ourselves is a New Creation” (The New Being). This New Creation is God's work, though we have our part to play. God's transforming work in our world and in our lives changes us from the beastly to the beautiful, from incomplete to fully human.
We all have both sides--a beautiful side and a beastly one, though some people are more extreme than others. The history of humankind shows the battle that rages within us all including American founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson gave us the noble words of the Declaration of Independence but also built his home, Monticello, and plantation on slave labor. While openly speaking out against slavery, Jefferson nevertheless used hundreds of enslaved children, women, and men through the years. After his death, only a handful of his slaves were freed, the vast majority went from one brutal slave master to another.
There is thick irony in the recent neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, white supremacy “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, only a few miles from Monticello. Charlottesville is best known as the home of The University of Virginia, which Jefferson founded. During the construction of UVA, Jefferson kept a close watch on the progress using a telescope. What would he have seen from his Monticello plantation two weeks ago on August 11th and 12th? He would have seen hate groups clash with counter protestors. He would have seen 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. crash his car into a crowd of counter protestors killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. He would have witnessed the tragic deaths of two Virginia State Police, Jay Cullen and Berke Batres, who were monitoring the melee from the air and died when their helicopter crashed. Watching the free for all, I wondered how Thomas Jefferson would have felt seeing hate and violence on the streets of his beloved Charlottesville.
Lest we forget, Thomas Jefferson continued to enslave human beings while at the same time predicting an American Civil War over the continued existence of slavery. Looking through Thomas Jefferson’s telescope one more time we see a direct line between an American leader who, despite his misgivings, benefited from and perpetuated slavery. Had he dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery we might never have lost hundreds of thousands of people in the Civil War and to the institution of slavery. Having avoided a Civil War, we might have also averted the recent tragedy in Charlottesville. Like everyone else, Jefferson’s heart and soul contained both beauty and a beast.
John Newton, the composer of "Amazing Grace," knew the beautiful and the beastly as well when he wrote of the amazing grace “that saved a wretch like me.” “Wretch” may seem like a harsh word until we realize that John Newton had been the captain of a slave ship. His beastly side allowed him to carry human beings as cargo. It was after he became a Christian that John Newton wrote of God's "amazing grace" which transformed him from a slave trader to something more beautiful, someone more fully human. In John Newton we see the beginning of a New Creation.
For most of us the extremes are not as great as those lived out by Thomas Jefferson or John Newton, but we too know about our own internal beauty and beast. We all have our moments of greatness when everything comes together and for an instant we sense that our lives are full of meaning, purpose, and joy.
Sometimes it is a big event like our child learning to walk, greeting a long lost friend, or watching a solar eclipse. At other times it is the little things like seeing a butterfly or being moved by a powerful novel or piece of music. The beauty of these moments has the power to deepen our faith, to nudge us a little from beast to beauty, to continue God's New Creation within us.
Though of course we have those other moments too—times when we struggle with whatever it is that keeps us from living life to the fullest. Anxiety, rage, addiction, greed, low self-esteem, all of these beasts and countless others are lived out in ways that harm our loved ones and ourselves.
You and I are not unique in these battles. Even the heroes of the Christian faith recognized this conflict. The life of the Apostle Peter demonstrates a propensity for sinning and sainthood, for both beauty and the beast. Peter, the only disciple with enough faith or impetuousness to hop out on the water and walk with Jesus, was also the one to whom Jesus said, "Get thee behind me Satan" because Peter’s suggestion was so out of line.
This morning's texts give us further insight into Peter's psyche. In the first, Jesus questions the disciples to see what the masses were saying about him. The disciples give answers equating Jesus with prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, or John the Baptist. Jesus tries to get below the surface and asks them point blank, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter perceptively answers, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Jesus smiles to himself that finally someone has gotten it, but realizes that these words did not come from Peter alone. No. These words were spiritually inspired and Peter was open enough to receive the message. Jesus brags on Peter and gives him the nickname Rock because of the disciple’s solid faith. The New Creation was beginning to sprout in Peter.
In the second passage, we see the lowest point of Peter's life. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus predicted that all of the disciples would scatter before his crucifixion. In his typical brash style, Peter brags that while others might fall away, he would never forsake Christ. Jesus says much to the contrary, that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed at the break of day. As Jesus prophesied, Peter three times vehemently denied even knowing Christ while Jesus was inside being questioned and beaten. When Peter heard the rooster crow he left and wept bitterly. How can we account for this? How can someone who was at one point in his life full of faith confessing Christ change so quickly and deny Christ? How did this one called Rock crumble as if he were a sand castle being washed away in a sea of doubt and fear?
Was Jesus wrong when he called Peter “Rock”? No. Even though Peter denied him, Jesus looked beyond this to see the person who Peter could become. Jesus glimpsed the New Creation in Peter and saw a faithful disciple who would one day die a martyr's death on an upside down cross.
It is much like the story of "Beauty and the Beast." The Prince was always hidden within the Beast, trapped until the love of Beauty set him free. We all have our beastly side, which proves harmful to others and ourselves. Yet the Christian message is that through God's Spirit we can begin, little by little, some days more than others, to live our lives more in tune with God's dictum to love, with beautiful, wild abandon. Unlike the Beast's metamorphosis, Peter's transformation did not happen overnight. The truth of the matter is that God's New Creation in us takes a lifetime, a gradual changing known in theological terms as sanctification.
The traditional Christian name for the beast with which we fight is sin. Sin is not a popular topic with broad-minded thinkers like us. And yet, it is unavoidable. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said that, "Original sin is the only verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith." Indeed, daily the news outlets verify brokenness and estrangement in the stories they tell and the pictures they show. Video images of angry people flaunting swastikas and confederate flags, screaming hateful words about African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, immigrants, and those in the LGBTQ community among others.
We all struggle with our imperfections and shadow side. Are we then left alone to fight the beast as best we can? Definitely not, for the one we follow, Jesus, wrestled with his own beasts. He faced temptation. Eventually he found himself on a cross. But the beastly cross was not the last word. The beauty of resurrection and new life give us hope in our struggles today. Just like the fairytale when Beauty's love brought the Prince out of the Beast, Christ's love can transform our lives so that here and there, in big ways and small ones too, we are being changed into something more beautiful; we are becoming a New Creation. Peter's story didn't end with his denial of Christ and the rooster crowing. Peter was given a new lease on life 2,000 years ago on Easter Sunday when he met the risen Christ face to face.
God's transforming work in each of us can help us create more beauty, more love, more justice. When we give blood that another might live, when we pray for our enemies, when we build houses with Habitat for Humanity, when we visit a lonely person or speak a word of encouragement, our world becomes a better place. As God has loved us, we have the opportunity to love each other and in so doing help transform one another like Beauty's love transformed the Beast. We can reach out to another and let God's love flow through in kind words and deeds. In our struggles, our confusion, and our half-hearted attempts to make progress, God loves us still. It is this divine love that has the power to make something beautiful out of something beastly, to continue the New Creation in our world and in each of us, now and forevermore. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
August 27, 2017
The Congregational Church Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Loving God, amidst the warmth and beauty of summer we turn our hearts and minds to you. This creation of yours staggers the imagination as we ponder its beauty and brilliance. Human life boggles our minds too. We are inspired by the mystery of human love, the birth of a child, the sound of moving music, the sight of great art, and people who make sacrifices for the sake of others. Ours is truly an amazing world, but not everything that happens is good, far from it.
For those suffering along the Gulf Coast as a result of the hurricane, we ask your help. For the racial divisions and vestiges of old wounds from slavery and racism in our country, we pray for healing and reconciliation.
Thank you for listening, O God, and thank you for caring, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.