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Saying Yes to God’s No

Proper 17A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

September 3, 2017

Scripture says Mary pondered on Jesus and treasured all the things people said in her heart (Luke 2:19). When she said, ‘Here am I, Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38), I’m pretty sure she assumed God had a good plan. I wonder if later, Mary didn’t have a few questions for God.

A son, born to a poor family in a backwater town, in an out of the way province, in a no-name nation on the margins of the Roman Empire would become the Messiah? And this would be accomplished through that shameful means of state execution reserved for the worst criminals, on the cross?  I wonder, “Could not God have saved the world in some other way?” (Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, p. 40)

And today, we read that God’s unlikely plan wasn’t just for Jesus. It’s God’s plan for all of us too.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) It hardly seems like an appealing way to start a new religion.

Yet this is just what Jesus said to the disciples.  He told them he would have to suffer and die –and that they would too. “For those,” he said, “who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In case we think this saying about losing our lives is some kind of mistranslation or aberration of Matthew’s gospel –Jesus says pretty much the same thing in all four Gospels (Mark 8:35; Matt 10:39; Luke 17:33; John 12:25)

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.  The past two days were beautiful examples of service and sacrifice in our church. People worked together to honor Kathy Anderson’ life and accompany her that last mile into the arms of our Lord. But here in our gospel today it is clear to Peter and the disciples Jesus is talking about something more. In the world that Jesus knew, crucifixion was not a metaphor for servant leadership. He would actually be crucified. His was making a connection between himself and the world of people suffering and being tortured. Jesus’ words foster an honest awareness that the path to life leads into suffering—among the poor, among the sick, among victims of war, disease, and/or famine.

Imagining Christian faith and Jesus’ way of the cross leads to a privileged freedom from suffering and sacrifice, or maybe a ride on Joel Osteen’s yacht, is pointless fantasy. Jesus’ words call us out of both privilege and fantasy, and reveal the teaching of many religious circles for what they are: escapist and irresponsible.

Your idea about who and what you are is too small, Jesus says. Let me show you who you were created to be.  Let go of your petty fears, your love of comfort, and your egoistic striving to succeed.  Let go of your small “self,” and awaken to the grandeur of yourself rooted in God.

Life does not consist in holding on to what you have, but in being a gift for others.  As we enlarge ourselves we expand our vision to becoming God’s partner in healing the world. The path to this greater self goes to and through the cross.

Briefed on God’s grand plan for personal and cosmic transformation, Peter spoke for the disciples and for every Christian ever since when he quietly took Jesus aside and told him, ‘No!  There’s got to be some other way.”  There has to be an easier way than the way of the cross.  It doesn’t make any sense.  They’ll kill you, Jesus. They’ll throw your body on the trash heap.  Everything you stand for will be forgotten.  Everything we’ve worked for will be wasted.

Peter’s not a bad guy. He’s not a bad Christian.  As we read last Sunday, Peter is the rock upon which the church is founded. But here, he becomes a stumbling block. Peter is like a lot of us with our own ideas about how to make the church great success.

Jesus said, “No.”  Jesus says “no” to us.  The cross says “no.” The cross is God’s no to our small self and a pathway to becoming part of a much greater self that includes God and God’s love for the world.  The unconditional gift of God’s love is powerful medicine.  It comes with a sharp rebuke for the way we live our life now.   Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2) 

Take up your cross and follow me. The resurrected life we are promised awaits us on the other side of our baptismal death in which we are transformed into the likeness and image of the living God. The way to abundant life does not necessarily lead to a prosperous life.  Jesus’ vocation involves suffering as well as glory.  If you love one another as I have loved you, Jesus warns, it’s going to cost you some hurts and disappointments.  You’re likely going to experience some grief and rejection.  You may even be reviled and betrayed. Life is about more than where to live; what to do; and who to live with.  The central question is who and whose we shall be.  We are called to dwell together in God all the days of our mortal life and beyond. We are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Salvation comes not to those who call Jesus “Lord,” but to those who do what he says (7:21-29).  Jesus’ Great Commission includes teaching people “to obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20).  To be Jesus disciple is to trust in God’s dream for a better world, no matter how unlikely or how foolish that dream for peace may sound to worldly ears.

The tension between being respectable and being faithful is a tale as old as time.  In our first reading today, forty years of faithfulness to God’s call won the prophet Jeremiah a beating (20:2), death threats (26:8), imprisonment (37:15), being thrown down a well (38:6), and being derided as an unpatriotic traitor. He was an isolated man of “reproach” among his own people (15:15).  Maybe that’s why early Christians thought of Jeremiah as a Christ-figure: in dying to self we live to God and for others. In losing our life we find it.

Can we say yes to God’s no? With a song on our lips and love in our hearts, we pray for Christ to walk by our side and make us his servants. We carry his cross and to share all his burdens and tears. Then with the family of each generation saved by Christ’s love, with the earth and the sea and the sky we’ll sing to the dawn of the Lord’s day. And let God’s people say, Amen. (ELW #808)

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