preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Transfiguration Sunday) at Holy Cross Anglican Church in Baton Rouge
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Virtuous. Knowledgeable. Self-controlled. Steadfast. Godly. Brotherly and affectionate. Loving. (1:5-8) These are not only the qualities we as Christians are to pursue and work toward. They are the qualities of our Lord Jesus Christ, and they are qualities given to those who are new creations in Christ, wherein the old man has been put off and the new man has come. These qualities are woven into the fabric of creation itself, and each moment is upheld because our Triune God would rather manifest these in the world than any other qualities. That is to say, our Triune God upholds the world by his own attributes and not by any other.
But we know the world is full of brokenness; in this narrative there are both heroes and villains, weeping and joy, shadows and highlights. And when we turn to Second Peter chapter two, we are given one of the most sobering sketches of what mankind is capable of, even amidst the most beautiful society on earth, the church, the redeemed Bride of Christ.
Please turn in your Bible with me to 2 Peter chapter 2. (give them time to turn there).
I would like to read for us today’s passage, Second Peter, chapter 2, verses 12-22 (read it).
Last Sunday we considered five consolations of false teachers, five reasons why false teachers among us should build courage and peace within us. And I made the claim that when we first read this chapter of Second Peter, we may have two tendencies. The first tendency would be to set up what I am calling the portrait of a heretic. We would then go around with it in our hands or minds and hold it up to others in our congregation or in other denominations, trying to find and out the true heretics once and for all. The second tendency we may have is to dismiss the portrait of a heretic altogether, to assume modern man is immune to these sorts of categories, that heresy has been dealt with in less technologically advanced times and it no longer haunts us. I then made the claim that both of these are the wrong extremes. However, one of these extremes is more in line to what Peter does here. And we can’t miss it. It is precisely what we ought to be able to do so that the pure waters of the Gospel would be preached, sung, prayed, and feasted upon in this church, in this city, in our homes, and in our own hearts and imaginations.
Consider for a moment what features Peter paints for us in this second chapter as we look at the portrait of a heretic.
Bold and willful
Irreverent toward God
Made for destruction
Sufferers and victims
Feasting with the saints
Gainful from wrongdoing
Sensual and passionate
They give promises of freedom
Slaves of corruption
Return to their own vomit
Return to wallow in the mire
What do we do with this list? As Christians, what are we to do with this portrait of a heretic? The answer is there, and as we continue through this letter, Peter tells us.
(3:2) “…remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Saviour through your apostles.”
(3:12) Be holy and godly, “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…”
(3:14) “…be diligent to be found by him [Jesus] without spot of blemish, and at peace.”
(3:19) “Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”
When a person sees a list like the one Peter presents, when a Christian sees this portrait of a heretic, there is no greater temptation than to hold it up to anyone by himself. There is no greater danger than to think that the seeds of heresy are elsewhere, that they are not in me, that someone else in our midst will fit this portrait much better than I can. But this is because we do not know ourselves. I’d like to put forth two things we should do with this portrait of a heretic:
First and foremost, we should hold this portrait up to ourselves. We should take the qualities just given and consider the seeds in our own hearts, minds, and imaginations which will bring forth this kind of destructive fruit. We should consider with brutal honesty those piles of vomits to which we all return. We should observe with humility those spaces and places where we seek to satisfy our insatiable sin. We should confess with clarity every angle of irreverence we’ve committed against God, his word, and his church. We should ask if we have gained any kind of wage from wrongdoing, even the slightest compliment from our neighbor. For the very purpose of Peter’s portrait of a heretic is to ensure that his readers stay as far away from even the slightest pencil mark in our lives which may lead to the full portrait. And we ought to hold this portrait up to us again and again, long before we ever hold it up to anyone else. Jonathan Edwards, the great 18th century American theologian, said it this way in his “70 Resolutions:”
Resolution 8: Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings, as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God. Vid. July 30.
Resolution 24: Resolved, whenever I do any conspicuously evil action, to trace it back, till I come to the original cause; and then, both carefully endeavour to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all my might against the original of it.
Second, after we have held this portrait up to our own lives, asking first how we may repent of our own sins, we should hold this portrait up next to Jesus Christ, or perhaps up to any faithful saint of old, or even any faithful and mature saint sitting next to us at this church, and we should pursue all those things we see in the portrait of a faithful saint, or in the portrait of Jesus Christ, which we do not see in the portrait of a heretic. In holding the portrait of a heretic up to ourselves, we may stare at it so much that we become more familiar with it than any other portrait. We may, in our intense naval gazing, become obsessed with finding each and every wrong we have committed, each and every fault possible within us. But this is a fool’s chase, and it will lead to despair, for it is nothing more than our taking our gaze off of God and once again onto ourselves, in what appears as a spiritual exercise. But a man cannot naval gaze for too long, for it only leads to darker and darker truths about himself and the world. Therefore, we are to look to Christ; we are to hold this portrait next to the image of the invisible God and pursue with unabashed allegiance all the radiance therein. To be more concrete, go back to Second Peter chapter 1, verses 5-8. Peter in chapter 2 tells us the portrait of a heretic, but in chapter 1 he told us the portrait of a saint:
Supplement faith with virtue
Virtue with knowledge
Knowledge with self-control
Self-control with steadfastness
Steadfastness with godliness
Godliness with brotherly affection
Brotherly affection with love
If these qualities are yours and are increasing
Virtuous. Knowledgeable. Self-controlled. Steadfast. Godly. Brotherly and affectionate. Loving. (1:5-8). These are the things upon which we should set our gaze, and there is nowhere these are found more clearly than in Jesus Christ. God is a good story-teller, so in life and in his Word, he sets up foil characters, and we should not shy away from this. It is important to note that in the first chapter of Peter, he tells us why he is writing this letter, and even why he will set up the portrait of a heretic. Peter, in v.12 says he intends “always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.” And in v.15 he says, “And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.”
Recall these things. When you read literature, find ones with good heretics. Watch movies with good villains. Consider the narrative at your office, in your extended family, or in your neighborhood. Place before your imagination this portrait of a heretic, so that you would guard yourself against becoming him, and so that you may with more delight see what Jesus Christ is not, and you may see what you who are in Christ have been brought out of becoming, as you stay faithful in him, rooted in his word, and diligent to do good works by faith.
It is God alone who saves each of us from being heretics, and it is God alone who preserves his church when heretics arise from among them, from among us. But it is man’s imagination which ought to always have set before it these two portraits: the portrait of a saint and the portrait of a heretic, that we would love the former more than the latter, we would pray to be counted among the saints, that every trace of heresy would be cleansed from our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength. So, in a moment, we, men and women who if left to ourselves would be on the cusp of heresy, see Jesus Christ at this table, his sacrifice, his grace, his fidelity, his humility, his altruism, his abundance, his love. And we eat and drink, that his image would be manifested in us.
Now hear, as we close our time, two poems by George Herbert.
Self-Condemnation by George Herbert
Thou who condemnest Jewish hate,
For choosing Barrabas a murderer
Before the Lord of glory;
Look back upon thine own estate,
Call home thine eye (that busy wanderer):
That choice may be thy story.
He that doth love, and love amiss,
This world’s delights before true Christian joy,
Hath made a Jewish choice:
The world an ancient murderer is;
Thousands of souls it hath and doth destroy
With her enchanting voice.
He that hath made a sorry wedding
Between his soul and gold, and hath preferr’d
False gain before the true,
Hath done what he condemns in reading:
For he hath sold for money his dear Lord,
And is a Judas-Jew.
Thus we prevent the last great day,
And judge our selves. That light, which sin and passion
Did before dim and choke,
When once those snuffs are ta’en away,
Shines bright and clear, ev’n unto condemnation,
Without excuse or cloak.
Virtue by George Herbert
Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky:
The dew shall weep thy fall to night;
For thou must die.
Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye:
Thy root is ever in its grave
And thou must die.
Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.
Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.