Sunday, August 31, 2014

12th Sunday after Pentecost

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. 

This morning's Gospel lesson can really only be adequately appreciated in the wider context in which it is placed in Matthew's Gospel. By the very ordering of the passages in this chapter, there are important but subtle points being made. It might be easy to think of passages in the Bible like a long train on which various cars are coupled at random with no real relation to one another. Jesus goes here, and then he says that, and then gets in that confrontation. However, the Gospels are thoughtfully arranged, and a careful consideration of surrounding passages shows how they are like interlocking pieces in a great structure. Consider for a moment the parable of the prodigal son. It's not found in any other Gospel but Luke's. There it is preceded by two parables: one about a man who loses a sheep and leaves his flock to find him, and who rejoices when he does find him. A similar parable tells of a woman who loses a coin and searches diligently for it and then rejoices in finding it. All three parables are about finding that which is lost and the ensuing joy. The introduction to all three parables is a note that publicans and sinners drew near to hear him, but the scribes and Pharisees murmured against him. With these parables Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and his disciples that God greatly values those who have been spiritually lost but are now found, like the publicans and the sinners for whom Jesus searched. Jesus did not come to found a church whose membership would consist solely of moral supermen or perfect saints. His church is a society of prodigals; it is a gathering of those who have squandered the manifold gifts of God and who know they are not worthy to be called God's children, and yet have been received home by their heavenly Father.

Such a careful reading of Scripture in concert with itself is the basis for a sound reading of the whole Bible. When we say that we are Catholic Christians, part of what we mean by this is that we do not take isolated verses and rip them out of their context in order to support esoteric doctrine. That is a hallmark of Christian sects and schisms that always seem to have a scriptural proof for their perplexing doctrines. The Catholic and Reformed way of reading the Bible is to read it in harmony with itself and further, to read it in partnership with those who have read it throughout the church's history, like the church father's.

Keeping all this in mind, it would be impossible fully to appreciate today's Gospel without recalling last week's Gospel in which Peter makes his great confession. Briefly summarized, Jesus asks his disciples whom they say he was. Peter replies, thou art the Christ, the son of the living God. In response, Jesus tells Peter that he will build his church upon his leadership and authority. In the lesson today Peter is found rebuking Jesus. There is a kind dissonance between the climax of Peter's confession and his confusion in our passage about the true mission of the messiah. When Peter hears our Lord's disclosure that he must be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again the third day, he rebukes Jesus. Peter cannot believe that such a thing could befall the messiah, the christ. He was the king to redeem all Israel and draw in the nations. How could he possibly do this if he were dead? Peter of course misses the point, and our Lord's addressing him as Satan is in sharp contrast to the statement a few verses earlier that he would build his church on this rock. Our Lord would restore Israel. He would draw in the nations into the fear and worship of the one true God. However, he would bring this renewal not by the gradual conquering of nations, like a religious Alexander the Great. Rather, this renewal would come about through death and resurrection. His universal invitation would not be, come, be happy, do what pleases yourself. Rather, his invitation was and will always be a call to come and die, to come and die to sin and self and to be born again for love and service. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. He is a king, but his power is not exercised in control and in might. He is a king born to serve and save. He is a messiah, but he is not anointed to conquer the nations with a sword; rather, he is anointed for a death and a burial. It now becomes evident why the church cannot be akin to the state in power or authority because her Lord is not a tyrant but a king who exercises a power of service; nor can the kingdom of God be built on earth because the reign of God cannot be compared with earthly states and thrones.

All this suggests that Peter got the words right in his confession: Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God, but he did not really understand the true meaning of what he said. It is easy today for both those inside the church and those outside to do the same. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of moral precepts, perhaps among the world's best and most abiding. It is easy to think that Christianity consists of a set of doctrinal propositions to which you must give your intellectual assent. When we think of Christianity is these simplistic ways, we are like Peter making a great confession, but not really understanding the true meaning and mission of the messiah. Christianity consists at root in a call to complete spiritual transformation through trust and surrender. It is, as I said before, a call to come and die. This is an uncomfortable message for the settled, and that is why in the history of the church, its preachers and teachers and ministers have often lapsed into preaching morality or self-help or social issues. Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the Cost of Discipleship, when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. Have you received this call? Have you decided to hand your life over to God in surrender and trust? It is and always will be difficult and scary to hand over control of our lives to God, but ask yourself the simple question, without God where has your life gone while you were in control? For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

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