God wants to reshape our desire
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Easter 3, 5th 2019
Have you ever come to the realisation that you did something purely because you were caught up in a group mentality? Discovering an old photograph, it would explain why you thought flairs and a crocheted top seemed so cool at the time. Going along with a group trend like that is fairly harmless, but it’s not always harmless, for example, sharing racist jokes. They may be funny within the group, but they perpetuate prejudice.
Despite pressure to blend in with the groups we belong to, in our culture, going against the crowd, or going against the status quo, can also be applauded, and individuals gain a sense of being unique and so special, through doing so. They feel they’re different to others, who need to fit in, but they’re not really. That’s because the process which drives people to act and think alike, can also capture and redirect that desire to stand out, resulting in the individual simply belonging to an alternative crowd.
The reason it’s hard to escape from some form of thinking and acting as others do, is that it’s fundamental to what being human is, and that is, that we are who we are, only by acting as others do. From infancy onwards, we are taught to act and think by others. That’s actually a great thing, because it means every individual doesn’t have to invent being a person for themselves. We copy others, with some of our own variations. It also means that our desires are, more or less, shaped by others. Not our biological drives, but the form they take. For example, my biological drive to eat, is shaped by the group, or culture I grew up in. I don’t desire whale blubber though, because I didn’t grow up in Iceland. I have a biological drive to quench my thirst, but because I become what I am by going along with others, that drive has been directed, or shaped, into a desire for water with tons of sugar and bubbles added. That’s why, I sometimes desire Coke – especially when I’m also desiring the feeling of freedom which comes with having fun at the beach with other good looking young people. The process through which we acquire our desires is neither good or bad, but it’s necessary. What we end up desiring isn’t always good, though. And we are not always aware of that. In fact, the gospels tell us we are generally ignorant of that.
Jesus’ crucifixion reveals to those who killed him, something they are ignorant of, which is that their desires drive them to think and act violently. The gospels tell us that we’re all caught up in some version of the same thing, in other words, much of the way we think and act, leads to violence in some form towards others and ourselves. We don’t see it, because from the perspective of the way we have been formed to think and act, we are good people. We’re caring, law-abiding and kind.
Some people make the mistake of thinking that being Christian is about being good. Most people know that’s fairly boring though. The reason being Christian is not about being good, is that in trying to be good, we just invent an alternate means of being violent. That’s obvious in Christians who condemn others for being divorced, or following another religion, for example. But I can easily be the same. I am very tolerant of divorce and those who follow other religions, but how do I think and act towards those Christians who are not? Even though I do it in very acceptable ways, and after all, it is judgemental, cruel people we’re talking about, I will just be violent towards them in ways that are more subtle, so that I appear, to others and myself, to be different.
Yes, we need to become good, but it’s not our job to become good. It’s God’s business to make us good. The more we take charge of that process, the less successful we’ll be and the more blind to it
Today we read two stories about individuals (Saul a.k.a. Paul and Peter), whose task will be to take the gospel into the world. The 153 fish caught in the gospel story represent the whole of creation, indicating their mission is bigger than converting people to Christianity. Yes, they are to convert people, but only so they will open themselves to something which will reshape their desires. This is the conversion experience, through which God makes people into good people. Although these stories involve Saul and Peter, they are about us too.
The conversion experience begins with the individual being made aware of their truth, something we don’t find easy. When Peter is fishing and hears Jesus has arrived on the beach, he jumps into the sea to hide – just like the man and woman in the Garden of Eden, who hide from God after eating the forbidden fruit. The truth is we desire the wrong things. We are caught up in a collective mentality which leads us to think and behave in ways that are not good. When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, it’s partly a rhetorical question. Jesus knows Peter’s love for him is fickle. Saul’s experience of the risen Christ is similar. Jesus asks why he is persecuting him. The gospels assume we persecute Jesus. It assumes we don’t love him, because our desire is off.
Saul’s conversion begins with him being blinded, which reflects his true state –that he can’t see how his desires lead him to a destructive life. Later, when scales fall from his eyes, he begins to see. For Peter, his truth must be exposed to him, like peeling back layers of an onion, a process which Jesus begins by asking Peter if he loves him more than the others present. Jesus is asking him where his loyalty lies, who he loves more. So Peter is having to look from whom, or what, does he acquire his identity? We too need to look at what or who is most significant in defining what we are. What or who plays a role in shaping our desires? Do we desire certain things in life because a group of which we are a part encourages us to? Do we desire certain things because it will win the approval of people we value, or perhaps the approval of people in general? Are we part of a collective, or culture, which encourages us to desire rising above others, or acquiring more than others, in case we miss out? Belonging to such groups is just part of being human, but remaining within them becomes a form of idolatry. We worship them, in the sense of ascribing them great worth and allowing them so much influence on our identity and desires, which plays out in our attitudes and behaviour. Jesus repeats his question to Peter, because he knows that wrenching yourself away from false idols takes time and effort. On the third asking, Peter is grieved, not because Jesus asked him a third time, but because it’s so hard to do so.
Peter always saw himself as a faithful follower of Jesus. He was deluded about himself and so was shocked when his true self became uncovered, as he stood warming himself by the fire in the high priest’s palace. There, three times, he was asked if he was loyal to Jesus and each time he replied ‘I am not’, thus revealing himself as completely opposed to the One who is called ‘I am’ (The divine name revealed to Moses, and also used by Jesus ‘I am the good shepherd, the vine etc..). Until we see that truth about ourselves, until we see just how much we stand opposed to God, we’ll remain stuck. Unfortunately, Peter has to stew in his own mess for awhile, but he does what we all do, which is find something to distract us from the truth about ourselves. Jesus pursues him though. If we are awake to it, we’ll find God will work around our ways of hiding from ourselves. Peter is embarrassed about his failure, but as far as Jesus is concerned, it doesn’t matter. That’s the divine forgiveness of which we are all recipients. Having peeled back the layers of resistance and clinging to false idols, Peter then finds his desire being redirected, which he expresses by saying he loves Jesus. In the end, it’s all about how willing we are to be loved, which will shape what we desire, and therefore, how we think and act.