Our One, True Life

August 30, 2020
13th Sunday after Pentecost; Prop 17

Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

This week’s gospel and sermon are part two of last week’s. Last week we gave Peter full marks for answering Jesus’ question “who do you say I am” with “you are the Messiah.”

But in this week’s reading, we learn that Peter hasn’t fully grasped what God meant when God promised to send The Messiah, despite spending three years as a disciple of Jesus.

Peter and the other disciples had grown up under a government who ruled by violence and force. They’d been taught that the one with the biggest sword wins. So, we can’t be too hard on them for thinking this is the kind of savior God would send – a person who could build an an empire and an army with weapons in order to take power by force, to kill the ones who kill, to oppress the ones who oppress, to control the ones who controlled.

But this type of deliverance is centered on revenge and retaliation, not love and redemption and reconciliation. Forceful deliverance does not coincide with anything Jesus has taught them and shown them.

It is so incongruent with Jesus’ teaching that Jesus labels Peter’s words as from Satan himself. Seeking to achieve forceful power and control isn’t just a misinterpretation of God’s will, it is not even within the realm of God’s kingdom.

What Peter and the disciples had failed to understand is that Jesus’ form of subversion is far more powerful than any sword.

If you attempt to defeat those who have oppressed you with a bigger fist than theirs, then you are destined to live with the fear that someone else will come along and do the same to you one day. This method of power mongering is self-centered, and self-serving, and grounded in fear. Wanting to be “more powerful” than the next guy means that what you really want is power over someone else.

Jesus comes along and takes power and control out of the equation all together and replaces it with service and humility and unconditional love. This is a revolutionary idea that they’d never heard before.

And like last week, Paul in his letter to the Romans offers up an excellent sermon on how we follow Jesus and subvert the powers of this world, giving us a thorough checklist of Kingdom behavior, and explaining what we talked about last week – not conforming to this world but beings transformed by God:
Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil,
hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit,
serve the Lord.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
Live in harmony with one another;
do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;
do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil,
live peaceably with all.
never avenge yourselves,
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

That last one is key – overcome evil with good.

Jesus didn’t come to create a worldly empire. He came to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth and offer an alternative to the empires of this world.

Jesus didn’t come to build a building for his followers to gather in every week and then live by their own design the rest of the week. Jesus came to create a Church made of people, living in this world but not conforming to it.

World powers since Constantine have tried to rewrite this and force fit Jesus’ Way into their own narrative of power, serving up the gospel as a side dish to their agenda rather than as it is meant to be – a completely alternative way of living.

And churches as institutions run the same risk when we try to conform to or look like the world to attract others, when we water down the gospel message to “be nice” or to make ourselves comfortable.

For many, church has become a competition to see who can have the most people in the pews on any given Sunday, who can put on the best “show”, or who can bring in the most money. All of which have to do with our own need for power and none of which belongs in Jesus’ narrative of living on earth as it is in heaven.

Worshiping together in community is a critical means to an end, but it isn’t the end. It is a piece of our ongoing continuous spiritual formation that equips us to BE the church, the people of God, revealing Heaven on Earth by the Way of Love with all that we are and all that we have.

Jesus teaches that we, each of us, needs to be transformed by God’s love because that is God’s plan for overcoming the forces of this world – a collective group who know that only love can drive out hate, that only light can penetrate darkness, and who approach the world with an open hand of love rather than a closed fist of power.

And so, Jesus makes it personal, telling us to take up our cross, deny ourselves, ask ourselves the question: who do I try to control or hold power over by my behavior?

When we take up our cross, we can no longer hold onto the sword we think necessary to vanquish our enemies.
When we deny ourselves, we can no longer hold power over another human being.
When we follow Jesus, we can no longer follow anyone who isn’t also following Jesus.

Following Jesus means we set our eyes on God, not on any thing of this world.
Following Jesus means we let go of our desire for power and control.
Following Jesus means we let Jesus shape and transform the way we see the world, rather than letting the world define how we should see Jesus.

When we lose the self-centered, closed-fisted attempts to control the life the world promises us and turn to follow Jesus, we find the other-focused life of loving God and our neighbor gaining the life God had intended for us all along.

Following Jesus is our true religion, being continually nourished with God’s goodness so that we bear the fruit of the kingdom with good works for others.

And so, take heart, do not be afraid – Taking up our cross is always followed by resurrection!

Denying ourselves doesn’t mean hating ourselves because when we following Jesus we learn to love even ourselves!

Following Jesus is the life we are created to live and the life in which we are most truly ourselves – beloved children of the loving God. Amen.

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