Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

World domination! How many games, TV shows or movies have you seen or played in which the end goal for a player or character is world domination? Or maybe town domination? School popularity domination? Workplace popularity domination? A common theme in much of our pop culture these days has to do with having it all, being the “boss” of it all, or consuming as much of everything as we possibly can. Mor eon this domination theme later, but I wanted to begin with a personal story of my attempt at domination.

As school is beginning and I thought about dominating kids can be, it made me think of how Confimation. I grew up Roman Catholic and that was where I went through Confirmation. I was part of a rowdy group of middle schoolers who didn’t want to be there and made it our mission to give the priest and the nuns a run for my money every Wednesday that we met. So I decided to answer every question I was asked with “Jesus” (Yea, I was that kid). 

  • How many books of the Bible are there? Jesus. 
  • What did you learn about in this reading? Jesus. 
  • Who was the beloved disciple? Jesus. 

It did not matter the question or the context, I simply responded with the answer Jesus. 

They laughed it off for a few weeks, then I was sternly warned that it was not funny anymore. Eventually we dove into a class conversation solely on Jesus. We were asked to explain Jesus and his teachings in one word, other than his name. Everyone looked at me expecting me to say, Jesus. At first I was frustrated and upset about not being able to continue to give my only answer. After a few moments passed though I looked around and said, “Love. Jesus is love.” For the next few weeks my answers were once again the same for every question I was asked, but now every time the answer was simply “love.”

I have thought about love a lot this week. With the passing of my Uncle Tom, and how the family gathered to share stories of a very loving man. This week I find myself  drawn to the verses I often pass over: Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:24-25).

I find these verses often get two distinct reactions. 

  • Some folks embrace Jesus’ words, feeling themselves both called and capable to make decisions that reflect their Christian commitment, even to the point of sacrifice. For them, these words are an invitation. 
  • Other Christians, however, struggle to find joy in these words. Some may be aware of their own limitations and so doubt their ability to embrace the cross, while others experience this as a request to denigrate themselves and can point to too many examples in culture where specific persons or groups have been told by their oppressors to “bear their cross.” Not all struggle and suffering, they will remind us, is sacrificial or beneficial, and so they are understandably leery of any blanket statements that legitimate unholy oppression. For both these latter groups, Jesus’ words are a burden, whether imposed on them by Christ or by others.

There may, however, be a third way to interpret these words, which is simply to recognize: a) that suffering happens and b) whether you choose it, embrace it, or resist it, Christ is present with you in it. I think that sometimes we are so keenly aware of Jesus’ words of his impending suffering and death that we assume it was all part of some plan (presumably God’s plan). 

But what if, instead, God’s plan was to send Jesus to bear a word of redemption and grace and love and the cross happened as a result? What if it wasn’t the only way by which God could conceive of redeeming humanity was for God’s son to be violently put to death, but rather that God in Jesus came amongst us bearing a vital message of love and acceptance even though Jesus knew that humanity’s likely response would be to reject the message and kill the messenger. In this sense, the cross was not Jesus’ goal, but rather the outcome of Jesus’ fidelity in the face of unfaithful people. He didn’t choose the cross but rather trusted God to work even through the extreme of the cross for the sake of the world God loves so much.

Similarly, the cross isn’t something we choose, but rather it is something that finds us. Sometimes what is redemptive in our suffering is obvious—the sacrifices we make for our family members and friends, foregoing individual “rights” during a pandemic for the sake of community health—and sometimes it’s hard to tell if there is anything good at all, let alone redemptive, in the suffering we see and experience. And yet Christ identifies with all of our suffering, took it all on himself in his suffering, and promises to meet us in ours.

What does “take up your cross and deny yourself” look like in this case? Perhaps it’s following Jesus’ lead and, to the best of our ability, to make decisions and act in a way that reflects God’s love for us and all people, God’s acceptance of us and all people, God’s desire for abundant life for us and all people. “Deny yourself” is not the same, I think, as “forget all about yourself” and certainly is not “debase yourself.” By linking “and all people” to “us,” we realize God is in it for everyone, not just us and that is what I think denying yourself looks like – seeing that you and I are part of something larger, in recognizing that there is, in fact, no meaningful “you” or “I” apart from “us.”

Suffering doesn’t need to be – and, quite honestly, should be not be– spiritualized. And it should not be justified. And it should regularly be resisted, particularly as we are moved to resist the actions and systems that we undertake or in which we are involved that increase the suffering of others. But trust me, suffering – chosen and sacrificial and at times even unholy – will find us. And Jesus will be there.

As we read our Gospel lesson for this week Jesus is explaining to the disciples all that is to come. The questions in verse 26 strike me as especially poignant for today: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”. This is the moment where my world domination comments kick in. Jesus is bringing the disciples (and us) new life through his life, death, and resurrection. There are hundreds of thousands of things out in the world that seem like they maybe should take precedence over this discipleship thing every single day. Money, power, success, fame, beauty, brawn, the list goes on and on and on. Jesus’ question for us as we are pulled from one direction to the next with visions of all these things is: “What will it profit us if we gain the whole world but lose our life?” 

  • What does all that money matter if you die a lonely and miserable person who solely lived to make money? 
  • What does all that power matter if it is not used to create a world in which there is more goodness than evil? 
  • What does all that fame matter if no one truly knows you? 
  • What does all of it matter if we do not have the promises and assurances that Christ continues to breathe into our lives through the Holy Spirit? 

In this moment:

  • Jesus says to us, I will give you purpose. 
  • Jesus says to us, I will give you love. 
  • Jesus says to us, I will give you direction. 
  • Jesus says to us, I will give you hope. 
  • Jesus says to us, I will give you community. 

And in all of this, Jesus shows us by saying I will give you life by giving you my life.

As I consider all these things that Jesus says to us I think of  Paul’s letter to the Romans, I was reminded of that Confirmation class and my response to that question so many years ago of who Jesus is, love. As Paul writes to the church in Rome, they are experiencing all kinds of things. They are experiencing hardship, they are experiencing suffering, and they are experiencing the normal ups and downs of everyday life. Amid all of this they have a lot of questions! 

What do we do? How do we do it? How do we persevere? Paul seems to have a similar answer as I did in Confirmation. Love. This love will meet you where you are and empowers you to meet others where they are. This love will overcome all and overtake all, and that love will create goodness and peace and harmony in rich and incredible ways. Love, is that the only answer there is! 

In the world in which the Romans are living, and I would argue our world as well, love does not always seem like the most satisfying response to persecution and evil. Heaping on of hot coals sounds a bit more tempting, but even that is connected to this act of feeding and giving drink to one’s enemy. Yet, Paul says it again…love, and finally goodness will prevail overall. 

As members of the ELCA, and partners in ELCA World Hunger, we talk a lot about accompaniment. There are fancy slideshows and definitions for it, but at the root of its definition of accompaniment is, I believe, what Paul is teaching in his letter to the Romans this week. When we commit to walking alongside of one another just as Christ walked alongside of us, we commit to love. We commit to not just “faking it until we make it” or “grinning and bearing it,” but rather authentically taking the time to understand and learn from one another in a pure curiosity that is based in love. In addition to that we commit to entering spaces without the need for it to be all about “me” in that moment. This means being attune to the world around you and the people whom you encounter each day. It means deeply caring about the well being of your fellow human beings and varied members of God’s incredible creation. Finally, this act of accompaniment means walking into a world that may often preach a word of hatred and division and having the audacity to move forward in love, peace, and unity instead.

I don’t know about you all, but I could use a little love, peace, and unity right now.