Proper 17, Year A
Last week, I blogged about Peter's confession of Jesus as God's anointed and why he's rebuked in this Sunday's gospel. Peter thinks that Jesus was anointed to defeat their enemies, and that's the star he wants to hitch his wagon to: he wants to share in the victory he anticipates Jesus will win.
Peter is going to share in Jesus' victory, but it's not the kind of victory he anticipated when he first called Jesus God's messiah. It's a victory won not by killing enemies, but by forgiving them. It's a victory won on the cross, and Peter will share it when he's ready to take up his cross and follow Jesus.
But what does that mean, to take up one's cross? It's clearly something that's important to Matthew, as he reports Jesus saying something very like this twice: here in chapter 16, and earlier, in Matthew 10:38-39, and I think the context from chapter 10 can help us figure out what "taking up the cross" means in chapter 16 as well.
Let me start first by saying one thing that it does NOT mean for most of us: it doesn't mean that we're supposed to seek literal or figurative martyrdom. If Jesus' death on the cross was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, then nobody has any right to demand bloodshed or suffering for sins or crimes. For some of us, the hard part of taking that in and living it out is that we have to give up vengeance; for some, the hard part is to stop punishing ourselves. Paul writes in Romans 12 that we are to present ourselves as "living sacrifices," but that's a very different thing from becoming a kind of living dead. God wants us to live as fully and joyously as we possibly can.
We might be surprised, though, at what the path to that full and joyous life looks like. In Matthew 10, it looks like sons set against fathers, daughters against mothers, persecution from one's own family. And as emotionally painful as that must have been, that wasn't the end of it. In Jesus' culture, extended families lived together; many of those adult sons and daughters set against their parents would be losing their homes. And honor was family honor: cut off from family as rebellious and shamed sons and daughters, Jesus' followers were also cut off from the source of honor that made others willing to be in any kind of relationship with them; they could find themselves with no way to make a living in their community, nowhere to turn except to their sisters and brothers in Christ. In losing their home and family, they lost the life they'd known.
I preached about this in this sermon, when I last preached on Matthew's Beatitudes. Like the Beatitudes, the passages in which Jesus tells his followers to take up the cross implicitly tell the story of what happened to many who followed Jesus. Some were left destitute -- and some ended up on literal crosses of their own. They had heard Jesus' call to follow him, and had left everything they'd known. In some cases, their example was inspiring others. Women sneaked off to nighttime meetings where they consorted with men as freely as they did with their brothers, and they refused to marry those their fathers chose from them; they said they would not be "unequally yoked," and so would marry whom they chose. Slaves were saying that they had only one Lord, and it wasn't the person who'd bought them at the market. They had to be made examples of how the Empire treated troublemakers. Otherwise, they might be seen by other sons and daughters and slaves as examples of how to behave, and the good order of the Empire, which rested on the authority of fathers, masters, and governors, would crumble. Some were scourged; some were executed.
They could have known that the price was steep for the way of life they were choosing. So why, then, did they choose it?
On one hand, it was because they also saw a cost to remaining where they were, to the way of life that would have earned them praise, respect, and/or relative material security. For that reason, it was somewhat easier to choose to follow Jesus for those for whom the price for staying put was more obvious and immediate -- younger sons who might not inherit; young women whose older sisters had died in childbirth after their marriage at age 14 or less, and who feared the same fate when they were married; slaves whose masters mistreated them.
But I don't think that these people chose to follow Jesus because they lacked hope where they were so much as it was because of the hope they found in Jesus. Jesus himself was homeless, and if Mark 3:21 is any indication, his own family thought he was crazy (while the NRSV says "people" said he was crazy, the Greek just says "they" said so, in which case it would be more natural to assume that the "they" in question is his family, who are the "they" of the first half of the sentence), and if Matthew 13:57 is any indication, Jesus saw himself as being without honor in his homeland and family. And still Jesus was known as a "party animal," in the words of John Dominic Crossan, in contrast to the grim figure of John the Baptizer (Matthew 11:16-19). Jesus offered real freedom, deep peace, and abundant joy -- and those who saw him living it believed him.
We've got decisions of our own to make. There are times when there's tension or flat-out contradiction between how our culture defines being a good, patriotic citizen -- or being a good liberal, for that matter -- and following Jesus. It might be at a point when we're advocating forgiveness for enemies and a neighbor sees this as a slight to a son in danger while serving in Iraq. It might be when we're accused of being bad parents as we encourage our children to spend time on their spiritual formation and serving the poor even if that displaces some studying or going to an S.A.T. prep class. It might be when we're accused of betraying "the cause" by working with people on the other side of important and divisive questions. It might come when we let go of needing others to see us as right in service to letting someone else feel deeply heard and fully understoof. There's a price to pay for defying these cultural mandates, and though it's often miniscule in comparison to the price Jesus paid on our behalf -- or, for that matter, the price paid by those murdered for their stance against apartheid, for example -- it's going to feel like a steep one for those of us accustomed to privilege.
But there's a price for staying where we are too. We can give up the rest and play that we need for health so that we can achieve more (at least in the short term); we can give entirely in to our culture's assertion that we are what we accomplish and what we can earn. And if we do, that's what we're going to pass along to our children, who will believe their worth to be at least as conditional as our lives say that our worth is. We can try to protect ourselves by threatening violence to any who would harm us, but we'll find the number of those who would harm us multiplying because of the fear and resentment our policies instill. The bottom line is that the networks of dysfunctional relationship that we think will get us ahead in the eyes of the world will enmesh and enslave us if we don't make serious changes.
And if we do answer Jesus' call? What if we did present ourselves as living sacrifices to God, not conformed to the world's expectations, but being transformed in Christ's image? Let's be clear about who this "Christ," this anointed one, is: he's Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified as a threat to the order of families and of the Empire. This Jesus, is the one the God of Israel chose as the Son of Man, judge of the nations, who repays evildoers by calling down forgiveness rather than fire. And so believing that the nations will be judged can bring freedom from fear, when we believe that the judge is Jesus. We can be at peace even when we're in conflict with the authorities of this world when we're in the care of the Prince of Peace. We don't have to prove to anyone, even ourselves, that we're worthy of love if we take in that Jesus loved us without regard for deserving.
As we follow Jesus, things will change -- us, our relationships, our world. Change means losing things as they were, but if we've caught Jesus' vision for how God is redeeming the world, we know that what we gain is of far greater value than the chains we lose. Jesus brings us out of old ways of being and relating that bring sorrow and death so that we can be free for new ways of relating to one another, and in the self-giving love in which Jesus forms us, we find real, deep, and eternal joy.
Thanks be to God!
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In the Matthew text, Jesus is evolving into His role as the Messiah. His life is no longer in the shadow of the cross, but the cross is now the priority. His destiny is clear, his purpose clearly defined, and the mission of salvation is now at hand. His reason for being is to die and save us from our sins.
I feel that all of us have a purpose, and a reason for living. In time, we evolve into that divine purpose.
Jesus is clear about what God wants of Him. However, everyone is not happy that Jesus is in the soul saving business. As a matter of fact, Peter denounces the entire plan. Peter has a better idea of how Jesus should live His life. Just as it is in our lives as well. It is always interesting how others suggest we should spend out time. He say such things will never be unto you Lord.
Peter's motive is probably more selfish than honorable. He wants an earthly kingdom more than an eternal kingdom.
However, Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms, to get behind him. You are looking to enjoy the recognition of man rather than the applause of heaven.
Posted by: darryl | Aug 26, 2005 9:04:29 PM
I'm preaching from this text Sunday. For me the "hotspot" comes in realizing that Peter means well. F Dale Bruner notes that Peter's exclamation is like unto "God forbid" or "Lord have mercy, no."
Peter means well. He just thinks he knows a better way to go about "it." Jesus has said, "deiknumi" - It is necessary, by God. It has to be this way. Peter thinks he has a better way.
See, I think a lot of the worst kind of evil comes when God's people retain a good agenda, but are unwilling to go about it in God's way. We think we know an easier way. Rather than a cross, some way that spares lives or spares us trouble, or allows us to avoid the hard teachings of Jesus.
"Surely I can be Christ's disciple and keep my Lexus, right? I mean, surely Jesus didn't mean all that about riches and the eye of a needle."
This is how we got televangelists and mega churches.
The moment when you try to find an easier way than the way of Christ, the cross, is the moment you become very dangerous. Satan.
Posted by: Real Live Preacher | Aug 27, 2005 12:56:31 AM
I stopped by via blog sites you commented on. I wasn't going to comment and leave but Thought better. This is only my thoughts on all of this. I think when anyone creates a feeling in others of inferiuor feelings then we have a problem. I was confused with your post, but i am not confused in what I believe. Maybe because I am not Bible learned. Only learning I have is from life. I don't care who you are, Its how you treat others that matters to me.
Posted by: bubba | Aug 29, 2005 2:42:14 PM
Happened onto your site and would like to post a poem on the vital topic of following in Jesus' footsteps:
"This woman I admire"*
Rather than just retire,
her heart on fire
to reach others with
what had set her free
from years of suffering --
God's divine method of healing --
she prayed and toiled, leaned on God,
wrote down what He revealed.
This lady loved Christ Jesus
more than all the world, she said.
And her lifework to make clear
what he knew about God and man
has made Christ's words and works
understandable and practical for me.
*Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and
Founder of Christian Science
(From "Heaven where we are" by
Sharon Slaton Howell,
Tennessee Valley Publishing, 2008)
Posted by: Sharon Slaton Howell | Aug 30, 2008 9:08:50 AM