St. Stephen’s, Oak Harbor
Blessed be the Name of God
Well, there it is! It’s unavoidable! The season and the gospel demand that we talk about it. No, I don’t mean the football season, though I’m very glad it has begun. I enjoy the fall very much because our bone dry garden is likely to get some relief and because I really like football. But the football season is not the season that demands our attention, and certainly the gospel is altogether innocent of the subtleties of football.
The same is true for the beginning of school. Important as that is, for students and parents alike, here again the gospel accounts know nothing of buying new school clothes!
No, the season in question is the political season which threatens to inundate us so obviously and so completely. Who did what to whom? Who will survive the legal struggles? What will national leadership look like as we go along?
These and other questions surround this Sunday and doubtless fill our imaginations and our conversations. That’s as it should be. Yet, even knowing that, our subject is not the politics of Republicans and Democrats, but rather the politics of Jesus.
“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our pain and grief to share.” It’s a song we have all sung no doubt and meant its meaning. But reading today’s gospel, I wonder if Peter would be able to sing that old song.
Poor Peter! He’s forever putting his foot in it! Earlier Matthew’s gospel reported Peter’s successful and then failed efforts to walk across the stormy sea to greet Jesus, only to be rebuked by Jesus, even as the sea came to calm. This morning, we have Peter getting yet another rebuke! Poor Peter!
Once Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, it was important to him to see that those who were following him knew what to expect, knew what lay ahead of him and, in consequence, what lay ahead of them. “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.” This was his opening gambit, the way he began to teach them what lay ahead. This is our first instruction, too. Traveling with Jesus carries the dark prospect of death, and the brighter prospect of being raised. These are the fundamental realities of the politics of Jesus. Death and Resurrection, but Death first. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem was a journey to death.
Peter, acting like a true friend, acting like any of us, simply could not abide the prospect of Jesus’ death and he said so. Jesus was his dear friend, after all. “God forbid it, Lord!” he blurted out. “This must not happen to you!” These words rushed from his heart and his mouth, not wanting to believe this portent, not wanting to imagine the death of his friend and leader. It’s quite an exchange! Peter pleads, “God forbid it, Lord!” and Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan!” What a friend, indeed! “Satan.” Surely not the way Peter looked at himself. Rebuked again, rebuked for missing the focus, for fixing his mind wrongly. Not friendly talk at all.
Then Jesus explains to all his followers, including Peter, what’s going on. He’s going to explain the fundamental rules of the game, rules that are the subversive heart of the politics of Jesus.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 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?”
The politics of Jesus are a frightening lot, presented, as here, in parables, cryptic sayings and seemingly circular conundrums, like what we have before us this morning. Following Jesus means losses, not gains. What kind of talk is that? Where would such a promise find its place in the political rhetoric afloat in our world just now. “If you follow me, you will have to lose your life.” Very simple. Very straightforward. Not very attractive.
In last week’s New Yorker Magazine, in an essay subtitled “How the Bible turned a history of defeat into triumph,” Adam Gopnik wrote, “…the force of the Christian example surely lies in the extremity of the deity’s abasement, tormented to death in the most humiliatingly imaginable way and left to be buried as a criminal.” [August 28, 2023, p. 66.]
“Following Jesus means losses, not gains.” Think of the other components in the broader constellation of Jesus’ expectations and promises. The last shall be first, and the first last. Not everyone that says to me “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven but only those who do the will of my father. You must not be like the gentiles whose leaders lord it over them; rather you must be servant of all, one who washes the feet of his friends. This is my commandment that you love each other as I have loved you. If you have not fed the hungry and clothed the naked, you have not fed and clothed me. If you have not visited those in prison, you have not visited me. If you have not done these things, then, before my father, I will not recognize you.
And think of the response Jesus’ mother made to the angel announcing her future. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” she begins, praising God saying, “He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” These are the values, the family values, that surrounded and formed the boy Jesus. Good things for the hungry and the rich sent away; the lowly lifted high and the mighty cast down. The social structure is inverted and the unexpected is the norm.
All this would not win votes! Any candidate making such demands or offering such promises would certainly have to find new work!
But, wonder of wonders, we have accepted these demands and promises. As they have been gathered and digested by the church over time, you and I are the bearers of these promises and the ones who act out these demands. We have promised. The Baptismal Covenant to which we commit and recommit ourselves at every baptism is the carrier of the politics of Jesus.
“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?”
“Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”
To each question, to every question, we have said, “I will, with God’s help.” We have promised and by so doing, become again and again the bearers of the values, the demands and the promises of Jesus. We have announced our intent to be Christ in the world.
Jesus invites us to follow, calls us to follow, and tries to tell us what to expect. Well, he tells us clearly what to expect but we, like Peter, don’t always get it right, though we may well think we do.
It’s not easy being faithful to One who expects such hard things of us, with death coming first. I’d just as soon not, thank you very much. But his claim on us is firm and everlasting, and we are therefore and thereby bound to him. And being bound to him, we are also held him, held fast.
The politics of the world around us invite us to choose between candidates and issues, to value some things more than others, to disagree and, under the worst of circumstances, to speak badly of one another. The politics of Jesus invite us to value the poor and hungry, to be questioning of what the Apostle Paul calls “the principalities and powers.” We are to seek to serve first, to be generous beyond self-regard, not to worry about our place in line, first or last, not to hold onto anything so tightly that we lose God. Not to fear death.
It’s not simple or easy, but it is clear. “What a friend we have in Jesus…’
Blessed be the Name of God