Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Desperate Struggle Of A Flesh & Blood Discipleship. A Homily for Passion Sunday, 4.13.14 from Matthew 26.

Homily for 4.13.14
Passion Sunday
Year A

THE Gospel Lectionary reading for this Passion Sunday is an extended passage from St. Matthew's Gospel, only a small portion of which we will examine today. 

I have chosen these particular pericopes because they offer us a deep forage into a dense Christian discipleship based upon a solid rendering of the human condition. Said another way, these verses force us to cross over the line from an idealize psudeo-discipleship to what it actually means to follow Jesus in a flesh and blood world of failure and loss. Or, said still another way, these renderings from St. Matthew give us a concentrated snapshot of the dire humanness of Jesus’ disciples and the response to his own humanity as well.

To get underneath the skin of these texts I will examine three difficult questions which I would ask you to bravely answer within your own heart. All these questions are impertinent, for they exceed the bounds of sermon propriety, and so I apologize beforehand.

The first question: Have you ever had your faith shaken to the core? Have you ever had a time when what you thought you believed was so shattered that…all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put the beliefs back together again?

The TEXT reads: 
"Then Jesus said to them, 'This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed; but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.'”
Put simply: The disciples' own faith was about to be shaken to the foundation because the one in whom they placed that faith was about to be killed by State execution. And this, of course, is most generally how our faith is shaken? The one in whom we trust, the one in whom we believe for truth, direction and security for some reason falls or fails.

This brings our entire system of belief into focus. That is, when life becomes unhinged, when things turn and cease going our way, when tragedy strikes our lives, when a trusted friend or mentor fails, suddenly the systems of certainty we trusted are pulled from us and we are seemingly, and in fact, left alone. Here, the questions are all boiled down to the very most pointed decision: Will I continue to have faith in GOD, or not? Will I run from GOD or toward him?

It is important to remember two things about the experience of a shaken faith. First, a shaken faith is a time of testing that need not ultimately end in our own complete failure. That is, a crisis such as this can eventually lead to a strengthening of resolve within the center of our faith, if we so choose. Allow me to repeat this important point: 
a crisis such as this can eventually lead to a strengthening of resolve within the center of our faith, if we so choose
Second, a shaken faith clearly offers new a perspective, allowing us to jettison what may now be seen as dodgy beliefs and understandings. That is, a core crisis can strip away innocuous mindsets that are bloated or wrong-headed, leaving only the base essentials. And this gift of a toughened clarity is the real basis for moving forward to a deeper discipleship.

The second question: Have you ever prayed and gotten "NO" for your trouble? Of course you have; we all have. Just think about  how many times have you taken your burden to the LORD, asking for relief or deliverance, only to be told in your soul that what is there confronting you must be experienced, that you must walk through that particular death valley?

The text reads: 
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
It may be of some comfort that Jesus himself had this as a life experience, but probably this helps only moderately so because when we ourselves are in the fire it matters very little what others have thought or said or done, for now it is our pain, our grief, our loss. 

Still, Jesus here offers us the modeled response to a "NO" answer: 
"yet, not as I will, but as you will." 
The question is how do we arrive to the point of this kind of spiritual resignation? I must say, the air is very thin when we enter this kind of discipleship. 

For the Christian disciple this kind of resignation comes only after the continuing (life-long) investment and practice of GOD's will as found in the Jesus-way. For, what is discovered only after the practice of this kind of investment is that to follow the Christ is actually the best path life has to offer no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the cost.

Said another way, to know GOD's will and to do GOD's will, this is true discipleship and the height of true spirituality. But, having said this, we would also do well to remember that this kind of discipleship involves denying self, carrying a cross and following a narrow way, all of which leads to the final question.

The final question is the most difficult of all to hear: Have you ever betrayed the LORD? Have you ever turned your back on the promises you made? Have you ever denied him to others? Have you ever broken faith with him?

The text reads: 
Then Jesus said to them, “This night all of you will have your faith in me shaken, for it is written: I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be dispersed; but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him in reply, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be.” Jesus said to him, “Amen, I say to you, this very night before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him,  “Even though I should have to die with you, I will not deny you.” And all the disciples spoke likewise.
Initially, this question reminds us that to follow Jesus as an informed, dedicated disciple — in contrast to a mere onlooker —   means we have actually counted what that discipleship would cost us. 

To this end there is a powerful passage from St. Luke's Gospel, chapter fourteen, that illustrates what I mean. Great crowds are following Jesus, which would eventually come to be the measure of success in the Western church, but for Jesus it was a cause for concern and confrontation:
"Great crowds were following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, "If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters -- yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple." (Lk.14:25-26)
It's like he is saying, 
"Now, listen all you people! You don't understand! So let me explain what you are seeing. To follow me it costs you everything! It costs your most precious possession -- your future! So, if you can't give that for the Kingdom, turn around now!"
Sadly, for some of us this was never explained upfront. We only learned afterward the cost of the Jesus-way. This fact alone can lead to a life-long struggle with faithfulness to the LORD and questions of loyalty and betrayal.

The thing to remember here concerning the question of betrayal is that Jesus predicts the disciples shaken faith and their future failure, especially Peter's. He offers this prediction as a warning, but a warning that includes a promise: 
"but after I have been raised up, I shall go before you to Galilee..." 
This is tremendous comfort. Jesus lets his men know where he will be after their failure! Far from writing them off, he accepts them in their failure and their shaken faith. He understands that, 
"the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," 
That is, Jesus recognizes that intention does not always produce follow-through. 

Anyway, the LORD's goal for the betrayer, for the failure, is restoration and return to fellowship. We probably would not have this truth as our conclusion today were it not for St. Peter, who betrayed the LORD to his face (Luke 22:61), but whom the LORD restored to himself in spite of the betrayal (John 21:15-17)

This failure-story of Peter reminds us of the most important truth of all -- within the heart of the LORD is a love that is so much stronger than either our failures or our successes. The lesson of the betrayer is that GOD does not love us more when we succeed and less when we fail. No, the truth contained in the failure-to-restoration of Peter is that GOD loves us because GOD loves us, the reason for the wonder of his love lies deeply rooted within the mystery that is himself. I wonder, can there be any more important fact?