sermona sermon, based on Romans 12.9-21 and Matthew 16.21-27, preached with the people of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Sunday, August 31, 2014


Relationships. We, created in the image of God – who, in Christian understanding, as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwells in eternal ontological union – were made us to be in relationship with others. None of us is meant to be always alone. (Even Henry David Thoreau, unable to stay in blessed solitude forever, at some point, had to come back from Walden Pond!)

Relationships. An important, perhaps most important aspect of our lives; the primary purpose of which, I hasten to say, is not to complete ourselves. In preparation for Holy Matrimony, when I hear folk refer to their future spouses as “my better half,” I ask: Do you mean that literally? For none of us is a half-person marrying another half-person to make a whole person. Yes, we often are attracted to others who have strengths that we know to be our weaknesses. Yet the mystery of that attraction, it seems to me, lies in our sometimes inchoate, perhaps unconscious awareness that through the other, we will find our own strength.

Relationships. Not to complete, but rather to fulfill, to become more fully our individual selves.

Relationships. That experience – to use 20th century theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase for God – of “the ground of our being.” That experience with another through which we can explore and know our whole being – our histories and memories, our thoughts and feelings, our intentions and actions, our likes and dislikes, our triumphs and our struggles. Though, as the Apostle Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly,” unable to know ourselves fully, it is our willingness to look that matters. And this intense, as-long-as-we-live self-reflective, self-exploration is all for the purpose of giving ourselves away to others, therefore imitating how God is with us.

This is how Paul understands the divine-human relationship. We present to God our “bodies” (the Greek word, soma, meaning all of one’s self) “as a living sacrifice.” And it is our giving everything to the God who has given everything to us that makes possible, to paraphrase Paul, a life of love that hates evil, holds fast to good, honoring and dwelling in harmony with all, even our enemies, and of hope that is patient in suffering and perseveres in prayer.

Relationships. That experience where all is to be given and all can be gained.

Now, here’s the challenge. Relationships are hard! It’s hard to know ourselves and to give ourselves to another. And if knowing and giving ourselves is hard, then it’s hard to see and interpret clearly what another is showing and giving to us. And even if we do see and interpret it clearly, it may contradict who we believe the other is and conflict with who we believe we are.

Relationships are hard. Sometimes they don’t work. At times, when in my most Job-like snit, I ask God, “Why have you made something so essential to human existence, as necessary as breathing, so hard to do? If I had orchestrated the universe, I would have made relationships easy!”

All this comes up for me as I look at an intense encounter between Jesus and Peter, which is a biblical lens through which we can behold the risks, the difficulties, and the rewards of relationships.

Jesus, sent by God to do God’s will, called disciples to follow him, to be in relationship with him. At a critical moment, he asks, “Who do you say I am?” (Do you see me? Have you received what I have shown and given to you?) Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus answers, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” (You do see me. Now, let me tell you what being the Messiah means.) I “must go to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter doesn’t like what he hears. Who he thinks Jesus is as Messiah is not who Jesus is. They use the same language, but they mean entirely different things.

Ever had a conversation with someone when you thought you were talking about the same thing only to realize later that you were not (therefore rediscovering the indelible ambiguity of language)? And have you ever had a conversation and you thought you had reached a resolution, which you sought to follow only to discover that the other person was doing something else? And when you said, “But this is what we said!” the other person replied, “But that’s not what I meant!”? If so, then we have an idea of what’s going on between Jesus and Peter.

They had come so far and drawn so close: Jesus, the Messiah and Peter, his chief disciple. Now great expectations are broken and with them grave disappointment: Jesus knowing that he will be abandoned at his moment of severest trial and utmost need and Peter fearing his own suffering and death. How easy it would have been for them to walk away from each other.

But something happens. Jesus and Peter, as the euphemism goes, didn’t get past it, but rather got through it.

Ever had a traumatic experience…no, I’ll ask this of myself…

I remember, years ago, the death of my brother Wayne. My only sibling, but more, one who I adored. (Since his death, to this day, whenever I meet someone I sense my conscious lament that that person will never know Wayne, who, on my best day, was a far, far better man and person than I’ll ever be.) For a time, I remained enveloped in grief. And I remember many a well-meaning family member or friend, saying, “Paul, you just have to get past it”? Past it? As in leave it behind. That was and is impossible for me to do. However, over time, I have discovered that it is not impossible to get through it, exploring and embracing the experience, all of it, the good (the love) and the bad (the loss), so to arrive at another, a new place.

This is what Jesus and Peter did. They worked through it. Not quitting, not leaving their relationship, but staying together. Committing themselves to each other. Committing themselves to a life of self-denial. A life, despite using the term self, not focused on the self at all. But rather a life lived for others, which, as it turns out, seems to be the only way one’s true, real, best, fullest, God-given life can be found.

2 thoughts on “relationships

  1. Dear Paul,

    Wow! That’s one of the best commentaries / sermons I’ve read on relationships. So honest and thought-provoking too!

    You’ve given us so much to ponder …. What we draw from others giving us the strength to fulfill more of what we are supposed to be, and can be. (I’m paraphrasing of course). I’ve always tried to be in relationship with people who could make me a better and stronger person in some way. And we all know people who are in relationships with those who mean them no good, yet they stay to their own detriment.

    Relationships truly are Hard. But anything worth having is worth working for. Sometimes I believe we give up on relationships too easily, when there was still so much to learn from the other person and so much to give them.

    The older I get, the more I treasure my relationships. EVEN the really hard ones, because they make me more tolerant and understanding of others (and I know I’m no picnic myself sometimes!!).

    I truly understand what you mean about not being able (or wanting) to “get past” losing Wayne. Since losing my aunts Diane and Frannie and my sister, I feel horribly adrift at times….but I’m thankful for my relationship with God and for my relationships with my dearest family and friends who get me through the toughest of times.

    Relationships are Hard… But I don’t know where I’d be without mine, especially my relationship with you, both as my clergy and as my dear friend. Thank you for all that the Abernathys have given to the Veneys, and for this sermon.


  2. Thanks, Loretta, for the kindness of your compliment! We are simpatico on this greatly important matter of relationships (no matter how hard) – their importance in general and, particularly, their importance to us.


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