Proper 16A Sermon (1996)

Proper 16 (August 21-27)
Texts: Matthew 16:13-20;
Rom. 12:1-8; Ex. 1-2


Peter was right…and he was wrong. He got the right words when he said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praises him for these correct words, but he also qualifies his praise in this way: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” In other words, “You have the right words, Peter, but you don’t know what they mean.” And Peter constantly proves that he doesn’t quite understand. Two weeks ago we saw him sink down into the Sea of Galilee; next week Peter will be scolded when he rebuffs Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. When that day of Jesus’ arrest finally comes, Peter will first run away with the rest of the disciples, and then deny Jesus three times in the high priest’s courtyard. No, Peter had the right words that day in naming Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, but he still had the wrong idea about what all that meant. Peter was right…and he was wrong.

You may have noticed in the bulletin that I’m doing things a bit differently this morning. I’ll be finishing up my “adult” sermon here briefly, to sing that well-loved hymn “Amazing Grace” with Adam Pechman’s accompaniment; and then I’ll have an extended story time with the children, telling the story of the author of that beloved hymn, John Newton. First, I’d like to make a couple links between Peter’s story in the gospel and John Newton’s story, and perhaps our stories, as well. And I’d like to put all these stories under the same title of “The Joy of Being Wrong.” That’s right, “The Joy of Being Wrong.” We’ve already seen that Peter was wrong. We’ll clearly see how John Newton was wrong. It’s that “joy” part that seems out of place, right? But that is the experience, I think, of finding yourself forgiven by God. Being forgiven is a joyful thing! No doubt about it, right? But to be forgiven we have to see that we are wrong, or that we have wronged someone else. Yes, I’d like to suggest that the experience of being forgiven is the “joy of being wrong.” Think about “Amazing Grace.” It’s a joyful hymn, isn’t it? Even though it contains words like “saved a wretch like me”? Sometimes we have problems with those kinds of words today: “a wretch like me” offends our modern sensibilities of “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” But for John Newton to sing those words was the joyful experience of knowing that he was wrong, but that in Christ’s forgiveness, he was already on the way to being made right. He was on the way to doing things right.

Now, the second link-up of stories I’d like to make, before we get into John Newton’s story with the children, is that the joy of being wrong can be a lifelong experience. For, even though God makes us right in Christ Jesus, we don’t instantly get everything right in our lives overnight. Do we? Those relationships of ours may be pretty messed up, and they’re going to take some time to get right. But there is also the experience, I think, of gradually seeing just how wrong the whole world is, and how strong the pull of the world’s ways is on each of us. So we are constantly discovering our wrongs, even as we constantly know again and again God’s amazing grace of forgiveness.

Peter still had a lot to learn, even after the joy of Easter. There was that time years later, for example, that he had to go to a Gentile centurion’s house and learn that this gospel message can’t be exclusive (Acts 10-11). It’s meant for everyone. We will hear in the story of John Newton how that transformation didn’t happen overnight for him, either. Newton’s life was dramatically changed in the way he treated most people around him. But he did, living in the 18th century, continue for a number of years in one of his society’s great evils: namely, trading slaves from Africa to Europe and America. It was years later after his conversion experience that the joy of being wrong also turned him into one of the early abolitionists who spoke out and worked against the practice of slavery.

What are those things in our world that still pull us in? How does the transformation of our hearts and minds need to continue? These are the questions to keep in mind as we hear the story of John Newton under the banner of “The Joy of Being Wrong.” In what ways are we still in need of God’s amazing grace? In recent years, we have made strides forward against racism and sexism. That struggle to be transformed is by no means complete. What still awaits us in this world so weighed down by its wrongs. Do we need to get out from under our extreme materialism? Away from a one-sided individualism? What are the challenges that await us in having our hearts and minds transformed by God’s amazing grace? St. Paul sums up the challenge for us well:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-3)

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, August 24-25, 1996

Note: the regular sermon was then followed by a children’s sermon, the telling of the story of John Newton through the book for adolescents The Runaway’s Revenge. (2)

1. Those familiar with Girard’s anthropology of the cross might recognize this title and theme from Girardian theologian James Alison’s book The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. His understanding of sin and grace obviously has an influence in this sermon.

2. Dave & Neta Jackson, The Runaway’s Revenge, Trailblazer Books (series), Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995.

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