A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 3, 2017: Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28
16:21 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.

16:22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

16:23 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.”

16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

16:26 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?

16:27 “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.

16:28 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.”

A Question or Two:

Some Longer Reflections:

You may have guessed by now.  I am weary of conventional religious answers, and distrustful of much of what passes for religion and religious practice.  Too much of it is too holy, too gladly separate from regular life.  And regular life is the only life we really live.

I am weary of conventional religious readings even when those readings have generated powerful theological understandings.

Consider, for instance, the matter of cross-bearing.

“”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” says Jesus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes The Cost of Discipleship and generations of Christians learn new and productive lessons about religious practice that knows the difference between cultural Christianity and actual faithfulness.  Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Christian self-understanding and to religious practice are immense.

And most of the sermons I have heard on The Cost of Discipleship and cross-bearing are religious.  And conventional.  And they are conventionally religious in ways that Bonhoeffer would (I think) find puzzling.  Christians, desiring a more energetic, more authentic faith have courted suffering in the name of carrying the cross.  Theologians, desiring to respond to Jesus, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther (not always in that order) have crafted theologies that focus on how the death of all things human (strength, righteousness, hope, intelligence) must precede our receiving life from God.  Some even have gladly proclaimed that God kills us (gladly) in order to raise us.  The problem with all of these reactions is not simply that they are masochistic (though that is a REAL problem).  The problem is that they are religious.  And conventional.  And they make of Jesus’ words a metaphor.

In the world that Jesus knew, crucifixion was not a metaphor.

People were actually crucified, and all of his hearers knew that.  Jesus’ words are not advocating religious athleticism.  His words establish a connection with a world that suffers, a world that is tortured.

Jesus’ words foster honest awareness that there is no path through life except one that involves suffering.  Crucifixion is not a fetish, it is a disturbingly common fact of regular life.  There has been no generation without war, not generation without disease or famine.  Imagining a privileged freedom from suffering and sacrifice is revealed as a pointless fantasy.  Jesus’ words call out both privilege and fantasy, and reveal them for what they are: escapist and irresponsible.

This must be considered carefully.  I suppose that we might, someday, construct a world in which people do not torture people.  I can suppose that we might construct such a world.  Someday.  But we have scarcely begun work on that project, and there are highly placed officials who have learned that it is politically expedient to feed revenge fantasies by calling for people in law enforcement and the military to be free to torture people.  Jesus’ offensive, shocking words about carrying a cross do not allow us to imagine a world that is easy or simple, or better than this one. We are not allowed to forget the parts we want to ignore as anomalies.  Torture, pointless suffering, slavery and it’s aftermath, all these things are real parts of the regular world.  Can’t we just get past that?  No, actually, we cannot.  Not even maybe.

So we need to re-translate, and re-hear, Jesus’ words:

The list can go on.  If you are not offended by items on this list, I have not done my job as an interpreter of the words of Jesus, because crucifixion was an obscenity in the ancient world, and everyone knew that.

“This must never happen to you,” said Peter, and his words seem to make more sense now.

“Get behind me, Satan!,” says Jesus, his words now revealing that our dream of comfort and easy equity is a dangerous temptation to which we gladly give in.