Sunday, July 9, 2023

Sermon: "The Menace", 2 Peter 2:1-2, 10b-22 (July 9, 2023)

Today’s reading is unusually long, but after establishing 2 Peter’s tone last week, I really wanted to give you a sense of why Pretend Peter has the reputation he does. Also, to be completely honest, I couldn’t pick anything to cut. There’s just so much in here, and it’s all FASCINATING. Name calling! Hypocrisy! Unruly parties! A talking donkey! Pretend Peter pulls out all the stops to make a lasting impression on his readers. Let’s take some time up front to really take it all in.

After describing how great he and his ideas are in chapter one, Faux Peter immediately pivots to the offensive in chapter two – “offensive” both in the sense of “the opposite of defensive” and also of “insulting”. He begins with his thesis statement: the Christian community is under direct threat from false teachers who are spreading harmful opinions, and these false teachers will lead the community into destruction. So far, so offensive. But it gets better. Pretend Peter takes a moment to point out how wantonly these “reckless, brash people” use insults and slander, like “mere creatures of instinct” ... immediately before HE launches into an insulting and slanderous tirade about all these false teachers’ terrible behaviors. The irony is so thick here that you can practically taste it.

Next comes some of the most colorful insults and slander that the Bible has to offer. (Keep in mind that the people Pretend Peter is ostensibly describing here are members of his own community who simply have the gall to think differently than him.) These people enjoy unruly parties in BROAD DAYLIGHT! (The scandal!) They’re always on the lookout for the next opportunity to commit adultery. They use “unrestrained immorality” to ensnare people. The underworld has been reserved especially for them. They are blots and blemishes on the Christian community. And of course, 2 Peter concludes this chapter with the mother of all insults: these false teachers are like dogs that return to their own vomit.

Unfortunately, these supposed false teachers don’t have the chance to defend themselves against these accusations, but I think there’s enough evidence to at least introduce some doubt into 2 Peter’s description of them. To begin with, we know that Faux Peter thinks quite highly of himself and disparages anyone who doesn’t agree with him. We also know that he’s prone to – let’s call it embellishment. He appeals primarily to collective memory and emotion to make his points, and, while effective, these rhetorical tools aren’t necessarily the most reliable as far as factual information goes. And he’s not even above bending scripture for his own purposes. He compares false teachers to “Balaam, son of Bosor, who loved the payment of doing wrong”. But in reality, Balaam turns Israel’s enemies away multiple times, refusing all kinds of bribes, until God finally instructs him otherwise. Balaam may not have been a hero, but he certainly wasn’t the villain that 2 Peter implies he is.

Given all this, we probably ought to give the benefit of the doubt to those that Faux Peter is railing against. It’s more likely than not that these false teachers were misguided at worst or simply misunderstood at best. That’s not to excuse any bad behavior that might have occurred or to condone heretical teachings – but maybe these teachers weren’t quite the epitome of evil that Pretend Peter makes them out to be. It’s worth considering that 2 Peter may not be the unbiased account that its writer may have intended it as.

In fact, this passage probably tells us more about Faux Peter than about the false teachers that he’s writing about. Rather than a hero of faith, Pretend Peter sounds more like a crochety old man mumbling to himself about the neighborhood kids who won’t stay off of his lawn. He comes across far less as a righteous defender of Christ than he does as Mr. Wilson in the Dennis the Menace comic strip. Sure, Dennis DOES cause trouble for Mr. Wilson – it’s the central premise of the comic – but the reality is that he’s just a kid doing kid things. Making a mess, disrupting Mr. Wilson’s serenity, inadvertently saying something insulting: there’s no doubt that Dennis is annoying, but to hear Mr. Wilson talk about it, you’d think that he’s a tiny terrorist who should be shipped directly off to reform school. This is exactly the same vibe that 2 Peter gives off – don’t you think?

Now, here’s the thing: the comic is called “Dennis the Menace”, but if you’ve read it, who comes across as the most sympathetic character? Dennis, of course! If a menace is a person or thing that’s likely to cause harm, Dennis probably isn’t one. A pest and a nuisance, sure, but not a menace. We may ALSO be able to empathize with Mr. Wilson – to understand his frustration – but at the end of the day, most of us (correctly, in my opinion) recognize his crankiness as an overreaction to Dennis’ normal childhood shenanigans. Mr. Wilson’s antagonism, left unchecked, could lead to a great deal of harm to his relationship with Dennis’ parents, to Dennis’ feelings, and ultimately to his own mental and emotional health. So who’s REALLY the menace here?

There’s danger in becoming so wrapped up in our own certainties and convictions that we can’t see the damage that WE’RE doing, ourselves. Like Mr. Wilson, Pretend Peter doesn’t seem to make any allowances for the reality of the human condition. We mess up. We misunderstand important things. We make mistakes – big ones. But that doesn’t mean that any of us – even the worst of the worst – are beyond redemption. That’s what the Easter story is all about. 2 Peter charges the false prophets with “deny[ing] the master”, but could there be any greater denial of Christ than believing that his sacrifice on the cross was incomplete? It’s even worse to HOPE that our siblings in Christ will be destroyed for their wrongdoing. So, all things considered, Faux Peter seems to be a bigger menace to the Church than the very people he’s trying to protect it from!

2 Peter proves that even those with the most righteous ideas and the most solid faith are capable of being a menace. When we don’t understand another perspective (especially when it seems actively harmful) we’re just as likely as anyone else to descend into name-calling and exclusion. But this is just as likely to tear at the foundations of God’s kindom, if not more so, than a mistaken theology or a reckless interpretation of God’s Word. After all, God is still in charge. People can learn. Hearts can be changed. But venomous words and intentional cruelty are far more difficult to overcome than flawed thinking. Even when spoken or enacted in the name of righteousness. ESPECIALLY then.

So the question is, who would you rather be? A false teacher who, in all likelihood, is just trying to figure things out using the knowledge available to them, or a leader who sows discord and division without a trace of mercy or love? Would you rather be Dennis, who causes trouble but is always trying to do the right thing, or Mr. Wilson, who could be a role model and a friend, but choses instead to be grumpy and miserable? You don’t necessarily want to be the former, in either case…but it’s DEFINITELY better than being the latter!

None of us WANTS to be a menace to the Church, but when we become overly disparaging of its perceived enemies, we turn into exactly what we believe we’re fighting against. We begin to have more in common with a crochety neighbor than a faithful Christian. That’s not to say, of course, that we should be tolerant of injustice, harmful theology, or hatred. Those things don’t have a place in God’s kindom, either. But there’s the faithful way to address it…and there’s the menacing way. The faithful way involves remembering that even those who practice these terrible things are beloved children of God, too. It involves being honest about our own faults and shortcomings. And it involves believing that Christ’s redemption is NEVER out of reach, for anyone.

Pretend Peter is a bit of a bully, and certainly a menace to the very Church that he seeks to defend. But we can learn from him. We can see him with an objectivity that he isn’t capable of – and if we’re willing to be ENTIRELY honest, we can also see a bit of ourselves in him. But just as Mr. Wilson ultimately isn’t a “bad guy” in the comic strip, there’s hope for Faux Peter – and us – too. We can recognize when we’re becoming a menace, and we can make the choice to stop. That’s it – that’s all we have to do. That’s not to say that it will always be easy, of course…but there’s just as much grace available to us as there is to those who frustrate us. God loves Dennis AND Mr. Wilson equally. It’s up to them – and us – to figure out how to love one another the same way. May it be so. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment