Lent 1 Sermon: “Why I Should Be Pope!”

The following is my draft of this Sunday’s sermon, which is using the lectionary readings of Romans 10:8b-13 and Luke 4:1-13.  I will preach it this coming Sunday at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, Dallastown, PA.  Thanks as always to the Girardian Commentary on the Lectionary for some helpful starting points and ideas, and I was also led to this sermon by a chapter in Altizer’s new book, The Apocalyptic Trinity, on the nature of tragedy and trinitarian thought.

In our scripture reading, Jesus heads out into the wilderness, and there is tempted by the devil, who tempts him to perform a magic trick of turning a rock into bread.  When Jesus refuses, the devil, the scripture says, “led him up” (it doesn’t say, up where, but the devil leads him up, I assume to a high point on a mountain, or high in the sky) and offers him all of the kingdoms of the world, if he is to simply worship the devil, and Jesus again refuses.

Then the devil tempts Jesus again, taking him to the pinnacle of the temple and again demands a miracle, that he throw himself from the top and command the angels to save him from death.  The devil famously quotes scripture here, and after Jesus resists the temptations of the devil, the devil departs from him until a more “opportune time.”

Among the things very interesting about this story is that there is an assumption that the devil owns all of the kingdoms, and Jesus does not say to the devil, “these are not your kingdoms to give.”  There is no indication that the devil is lying to Jesus.  And it is not just that some of the kingdoms are his to give, or only those within immediate view, the Bible instructs that it is “all of the kingdoms.”  None of the kingdoms or governments escape control of the devil, none of them are holy.

So from this implied condemnation of all governments, Jesus is taken to the highest point of the temple.  The pinnacle of the temple would have been a wing-shaped point at the highest point on the southeastern corner of the second temple that would have looked about 350 feet down toward the Valley of Kidron.  It’s worth noting that our Lenten journey begins this Sunday with Jesus being tempted at the point of the temple looking down upon the very area where he entered Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday, and later that final week would cross the valley from the place of his last meal to the Garden of Gethsemane.   Those who first heard this Gospel read to them would have known the geography of the area and made these connections of the beginning point of Jesus’ temptation to the very end of his journey into human death.

But those also familiar with the geography of the area would know that directly down from where the pinnacle of the temple was, in this Valley of Kidron, is an interesting, ancient structure known today as the Tomb of Absalom.  This structure has traditionally been believed to be the resting place of the body of King Solomon’s rebellious son, Absalom, but scholars have more recently debunked that it is actually Absolom’s tomb, and they believe that the structure was built at about the time of Jesus’ life or the writing of the Gospel of Luke.

Scholars today are of two minds what this structure is that Jesus would have looked down, and the devil suggested the angels save him from.  The first is that the tomb is not at all a tomb but is a monument for a system of burial caves nearby.  The other theory is that at some point the structure became known to be the burial site of the father of John the Baptist, Zechariah, who is believed to have been killed by being sawed in half.  And related to this is that nearby to this structure is another ancient structure called the Tomb of Zechariah, which is referring to another Zechariah, who was the last victim of murder in the Hebrew scriptures, whom Jesus references directly in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 23).

All of this is to say is that when the devil takes Jesus “up” to see all of the kingdoms, he offered what they saw to him, and then they went on top of the temple, specifically to the highest point that looked down upon a valley where, directly below, is a system of caves for burying the dead, a monument that may be a reminder of the harsh death of both John the Baptist and his father, and the nearby tomb of the last violent murder of the Old testament.

What does the devil ask him to do, upon seeing this view?  Throw yourself into this valley of death, and let the angels save you!  If you’re a God, you don’t have to die, you can command the angelic powers to deliver you from death!  If you know Greek literature, the tragedy of death is reserved for human beings, and not to Gods.  The Good News of Jesus is precisely that God does not shun human death, and does not save himself from it, but that the perishing and death of God on the cross is the ultimate act of sacrifice of God for humanity.  The devil tries to trick God into acting like other gods.  Jesus’ divinity for us is demonstrated through a denial of the very characteristic that makes gods godly, namely, their inability to die a human death.

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Similar to my statement earlier that the Gospel of Luke makes the automatic assumption that the kingdoms of the world are the devil’s to dispense, so also is it important to me to read this story with the implication that the devil is hanging out and has some control over Jesus at the highest point of the temple.  The temple was understood as the center of the universe to the Jews, and the statement being made here is that if the temple were running its own government, the devil would be there to control it, as well; and to take this line of thinking even further:  if the temple was in fact the place where many believed God lived, even symbolically as a house of God’s residence at this point in history, the devil lives there, too.  As it happens, Jesus, being God incarnate, finds himself at the pinnacle of the temple only when the devil takes him there.  And when the devil makes him appear there, Jesus is at the mercy of the devil’s magic, high up on top of the building, asking God himself to save himself from death, and Jesus, as God, says “no, thanks.”  As this is the first reading of our Sunday worship in this season of Lent, we begin is God saying no to saving himself from death, and we will end this season with God himself dying on a cross.

I can’t help but connect this scene to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The devil approaches Jesus in the same way that the talking snake approaches Eve. The snake says to the first woman that she should eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, assuring her, “You shall not die” for eating the fruit, for when you eat of the fruit, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5).

Jesus is taken to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem—the highest point of the center of the universe and the holiest place in the world—above the abode where God resides, and is there tempted to be God.  Consider this:  As I said before, the devil is tempting God to be a God, but Jesus, as God, refuses this temptation!

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This past Monday we learned the somewhat surprising news that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning as the pope, effective February 28th.  Many people are kind of surprised or shocked that a Pope would, or could, resign, since if you have a billion people believing that you infallibly speak for God, why would you ever resign?  If you speak for God himself, to whom do you submit your resignation? It’s actually Catholic doctrine that only the Pope himself can accept his own resignation.

The history of Popes resigning is interesting, other Popes resigned as a result of power struggles or to prevent a schism.   One Pope, Benedict IX, who was one of the most corrupt Popes in history, was actually Pope three times during the years 1045-1046, after resigning and selling the office of the Pope.  St. Celestine V was Pope for only five months in the year 1294 and actually made the process of a Pope resigning official law so that he could resign without dispute or claim to return, because he hated the job.  It’s worth noting that Pope Benedict the XVI, who has just resigned, publically prayed at the tomb of the Pope who made papal resignation law in 2009.  The last time a Pope resigned was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 to prevent schism in the church.  So, clearly, the Pope resigning is historically noteworthy.

The idea that the Pope is infallible is not an easy history to trace, and likely begins in late medieval times.  But we should remember that the infallibility of the Pope was not formally declared as official church teaching until the First Vatican Council, which occurred in 1870.  So for us Protestants, who don’t quite understand Catholics’ fascination with the Pope, and stand as interesting bystanders to all things surrounding the Pope, it is natural to ask:  How is one infallible (if even under certain conditions) one day, and not  the next?  This doesn’t make sense to us.

The thing is that part of the poison of Protestantism has always been the fact that we emphasize the individual’s interpretation of scripture, which leads to sometimes really awful interpretations of scripture from the Holocaust to Westboro Baptist Church, and everything in-between.

One time I was at a Costco in New Jersey and the man serving food there told me the history of his local church.  They were Dutch Reformed, but their minister got in trouble for something, so the church split in half, and his church left the denomination and stayed with the minister.  Then later they split again over temperance and women’s rights.  They split again over whether the King James Version of the Bible was the only legitimate Bible or not.  And then they split again over whether women could speak in the sanctuary or not—he called his group the “Liberal” faction because women are allowed to read from the Bible and make announcements in church now.  But then he said they very recently split again over some debate about how the end of the world is exactly going to happen—if you know your theology, some were “pre-tribulation,” the others were what is called “post-tribulation”—and, the man told me, this most recent split was really hard on the church.

I asked him how many people were left in the church.  “About three  families,” he said.  I asked if he was not related to any of them, and he said he’s related to everyone in those schisms, but those three families are the only ones left that he associates with or talks to.

The problem with Protestantism is that because we have no Pope, no one authority that speaks for all of us, we often declare ourselves Pope.  Pope of ourselves.  We all know the story of King Henry VIII who wanted a divorce from the Pope, and when the Pope wouldn’t give it to him, he said, “Screw you, Pope, I’m now the Pope of this Island!”  Part of the danger of Protestantism is that our belief system leads us to declare ourselves Pope.

I am told that some people in this church don’t like the Passing of the Peace, and the rumor is that people won’t come to church because of the passing of the peace.  So you’ll notice we haven’t done it in church for a couple weeks.  We’ll do it again, but we’re just taking a break. And I get that we need to be careful during flu season.  But let me tell you this story.

In the Catholic church, prior to the changes made in the 1960s, during the passing of the peace, only the sign of the peace would have been done between the priests and other ministers or deacons up front in the church service, and everyone else watched them do this without participating.  But then the changes to the service happened, and suddenly everyone was invited to give the sign of the peace during the first services performed in English.

Now this is a true story someone told me about their father.  At the very first service at his church with the new mass, when the priest directed everyone to pass the peace, the man went to his frail, older lady, who had sat near him, but sat near him during the entire service quietly praying the rosary while this new version of the worship service was being performed for the first time.  The man extended his hand to her to shake her hand, and she looked up through her black veil (as the Catholic ladies wore to mass back then) and just kept praying the rosary.

The man cleared his throat and extended his hand to her again, and said, “Peace be with you.”

She looked up at him indignantly, and simply said, “I don’t believe in that shit.”  And kept on going with the rosary.

We can have our disagreements about preferences for things in church, and some things are just cosmetic and our preferences are just that:  preferences.  But we make a mistake when we decide that my version of things is the only way, and that my interpretation of religion is The Truth.

And of course, when we sin, and when we rebel against God, and when we participate in injustice, and when we give honor to kingdoms that we know answer only to the devil, and when we do not work for equality and justice and turn a blind eye to poverty and exploitation and the racism that is everywhere around us, we declare ourselves Pope, and this declaration is the root of all evil.  It is the root of evil from the tempting of the serpent to the killing of Abel by Cain to the tempting of Jesus by the devil himself on the pinnacle of the temple.  We will make excuses or justifications for our actions, but we know that we do it, we know that this drive to declare ourselves Pope is very often at the core of our being, and we know that we stand in need of repentance.  To add further insult, when we act as our own personal Popes we find rituals and methods by which we pretend that we aren’t the Pope, we make ourselves out to be victims, and we find a way to justify our actions.  We might as well just get on our knees and openly pronounce our worship of Satan.

The Good News is that we are to follow the likeness of Christ.  As Gil Bailie observes, Jesus, while God, is human, and these tests by the devil are serious tests, they “are not mock tests.”  Jesus discloses his divinity by denying his divinity in the face of Satanic temptation.  This is the path we are to follow, even and especially when the path follows through the Valley of Kidron (the valley Jesus and the devil looked down upon from the pinnacle of the temple), the way of the tomb and the path between the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane.   We are tempted and dealt serious situations, even if we are not magically taken to the top of the temple.  But when we follow Jesus, we deny our temptation to be God, to be the Pope, and we humble ourselves.

Christians throughout history have known this as the Good News of Christ, and even while there are exemplary examples of Christians changing the world, time and time again we as a Christian people have failed to follow the path of the cross.  This is evident through any tour of history.  Will we as a restored people learn from the horror of history and take this Lenten journey with Jesus?

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