Homily for August 31, 2014
from Matthew 16:21-27. Year A
The Gospel reading for today continues the transition began in last week's lectionary reading. We are now in the movement of Jesus, both in emphasis and location, from his time of ministry -- the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom through his words and his works, to the time of his passion -- the accomplishment of the Good News of the Kingdom through his death and resurrection.
Before us today is a seminal text. Because it is the first of his passion announcements (Matthew records three), and because it is the hinge moment (from Matthew Hare) of Jesus' ministry, we can say that as far as his disciples are concerned, this is the turning point in their relationship with Jesus. It is at this point when the intentions of his ministry come to the surface most clearly, which confronts them (and us) with a decision.
Here, they face Isaiah's suffering servant motif, which Jesus has chosen to guide his world-view as Messiah. Here they are invited to join him in his good news view that involves the very real experience of suffering and death prior to resurrection and victory. And, here, they must decide to let loose of their own Messiah understanding in favor of his, or not.
In fact, a good way into the text is to notice the two invitations Jesus puts before his disciples, and by extension, to us:
1. An Invitation to UNDERSTAND what GOD is really doing in the Christ -- this involves a new way of thinking
2. An Invitation to FOLLOW the Christ’s actions which involve loss and gain -- this involves a new way of living
Before I begin, I should warn you that this is a brutal text, one that, if we are honest with ourselves, will leave all of us cut and bleeding on the side of the road. She or he who has ears to hear, let them hear.
1) An Invitation to UNDERSTAND what GOD is really doing in the Christ -- This involves a new way of thinking
The text reads:
"Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised."
I have mulled what the text means when is tells us that Jesus showed his disciples the way of suffering, death and resurrection. The Greek word, deivknumi, means:
"To expose to the eyes, to give evidence or proof of a thing, to show by words or to teach."
What I think Jesus begins to do, now that his face has turned toward Jerusalem, is to persuade his followers that his way of Messiah, though not what they expected, is really what GOD had planned for Messiah all along.
This persuasion was needed because the disciples had a particular world view that actually led them away from GOD's intentions for his Messianic action. They were looking for a conquering Messiah, the head of an army. Well, the Messiah would conquer, but not with violence from the power of the sword.
No, the Messiah would conquer with the power of suffering and death, and only then would that be followed by resurrection. The Messiah would conquer through the power of new life in the face of hate and lies and brutality. The Messiah would conquer as the Anointed ONE who would overturn radical evil and unmask the earthly powers for what they really are -- abusive and filled with pride and envy. The Messiah would conquer with the power of GOD.
Notice the pattern because it is important: Suffering, Death, and then New Life. This would be the path of victory. But, of course, the disciples initially ailed to comprehend this reality. How could you conquer with a dead Messiah?
Douglas Hare, in his commentary on Matthew, says that so stunned were the disciples at the death announcement, that they were unable to hear the promise of resurrection. This makes sense to me.
This is probably why Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."
There is much in this statement by Peter, not the least of which is his strong belief in Jesus as Messiah, remember last week:
"You are the Christ, the son of the living GOD."
which in Peter’s mind would even allow Jesus to even entertain the thought of death and defeat.
In fact, so strongly does Peter believe in Jesus as Messiah that he willingly rebukes his own Messiah!
“God forbid, Lord!”
No, he is saying, “You are wrong, Lord!”
I find it interesting that Peter takes Jesus aside to rebuke him. Was this to save face for Jesus? Perhaps. But whatever the reason it displays an intimacy between Peter and Jesus that extends even to the point of frank conversation with disagreements.
Which meant that Jesus would give as good as he got:
"He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Jesus sees Peter's rebuke not as the words of a friend, but as a rock in the road ("Peter you are rock, and on this rock I will build my church.") over which he might stumble. That is, Peter's suggestion that the Messiah should avoid suffering and death plays only to well into the temptation that Jesus is already feeling, a temptation voiced from the very beginning by the tempter in the wilderness.
Jesus rebukes Peter's way of thinking:
"You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do,"
and this is the key to the first part of the text. Somehow, the disciples (along with us), must get clued into GOD's thoughts and GOD's ways, both of which are beyond our natural ability to absorb.
Said differently, ultimately our actions hinge on our view of GOD, and we must not assume that we always and forever understand what the Almighty is about. Instead, we must be open, yielding, submissive to the winds of the Spirit, who presents to us, to the church, the direction of movement for GOD's people in the present moment.
Or, said still differently, what is very clear from the understanding Jesus gives of GOD: We are in the moment of a theology of the cross and not a theology of glory. We are in the time of burden-bearing and suffering, not of victory and rest.
Which opens to us the second invitation:
2) An Invitation to FOLLOW the Christ actions which involve loss and gain -- This involves a new way of living
Jesus invites us to join his suffering and death! The text reads:
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me."
Notice, Jesus' pattern -- suffering, death, resurrection, becomes our own -- self denial (suffering), cross bearing (death) follow me (raised life).
How can this calling be made any clearer? We are to follow Jesus. Which means we are to pattern our life after his, yes?
This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, that in someway, in some significant manner, we offer our allegiance, our pattern of life, our future to him who calls us.
This is that toward which I have been driving through these messages since we opened St. Matthew's Gospel this year with the Sermon on the Mount. Time and again we have emphasized the narrow way and the truth that the Christian faith is something to be done. This means that the calling for GOD's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven means, at least in the beginning, that will be done in my own heart and yours!
And yet, this way of life, the Jesus way of suffering and death before resurrection was never taught to most of us who reside within the bowels of Christendom. We were taught victory and triumph, and thus we took on the same character that Jesus comes to defeat -- pride and envy.
We want life; we desire our ease. Rarely do we allow the inconvenience of following Jesus to touch us or get in our way.
Perhaps the best know description of this pattern of life comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's, The Cost Of Discipleship. This work records his thoughts on the Beatitudes in response to National Socialism’s brutality and the forced choice between the good and genuine evil.
Early in the work Bonhoeffer describes what he calls "cheap grace. He writes:
"Cheap grace is preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
By contrast, he also describes costly grace, saying:
"Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow...Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son..."
Perhaps the deepest question of all is very simple: If we even wanted to, could we somehow get to this theology of the cross?
It is not too late, but it is late in the day for most of us:
"For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life..."
Ultimately, then, this is about time, and what time we have left. The question is: What will we do with the time we have left? Will we, truly, open ourselves to the suffering and death that has always accompanied the Gospel? Or, will we pass on all that stuff and wait in comfort and ease?
I must confess, these words break me; they break my heart. "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."
If I know my own heart I want to get there; I want to offer my life to the Master's way of walk. Would you pray for me that the life-giving Spirit would breath true discipleship into my heart, that I might not fear costly grace?