Sunday, September 3, 2023

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Things We Must Do — Rev. Brent Gundlah

One thing that became very clear during the recent pandemic is that people really don’t like being told what to do.

I mean, how many times over those three years did we hear about all of the things that we must do: wearing a mask, staying home, practicing social distancing; and all of the things that we mustn’t do: gathering in groups of more than ten, walking the wrong way down the grocery store aisle, singing in church.    And we all saw how well that went.

It really doesn’t matter whether such directives are phrased positively or negatively; people seem to find them infuriating either way, because the commands “Do this” and “Don’t do this” are just two sides of the same coin.

The surest way to get people to do something (or not do something, as the case may be) is to try and make them do the exact opposite. You probably would have seen a whole lot more covered faces in public places if someone had issued an order prohibiting the wearing of face coverings in public places.

While we may have become more aware of our tendency to look with contempt at any statement containing the word “must” as a result of the strange times in which we live, this is hardly a new phenomenon; and the gospel reading you just heard makes that pretty clear.

Today’s passage marks an important moment in Matthew’s Gospel. The four words that begin the first verse — “From that time on” — indicate that things have changed.

Up to this point, Jesus and his disciples have been ministering to eager crowds that have gathered around them everywhere they’ve gone throughout Galilee.      

Their work hasn’t been easy, and they’ve experienced difficulties at times — Jesus was rejected in his home synagogue, John the Baptist was executed by King Herod, Jesus continues to be hassled by the Pharisees, and poor Peter almost drowned in the Sea of Galilee.

But things have, by and large, been going okay for Jesus and his companions; they’ve mostly been met with enthusiasm from the masses and their following has grown by leaps and bounds.

In addition, right before our text for today begins, Peter, who has not exactly proven himself to be possessed of great insight concerning Jesus, seems like he might finally be getting it. In response to Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter pipes up with the correct answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” is what he says.

Jesus seems pleased with Peter’s newfound understanding — so much so that he declares Peter to be blessed; he proclaims that Peter is the rock upon which he will build his church; and he promises to give Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. At that particular moment, all must have seemed right with the world for Peter. But now, like I said earlier, things have changed.    

You see, while Peter’s answer regarding Jesus’ identity was technically correct, it was right for the wrong reason. Yeah, Jesus was, in fact, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” but Peter and Jesus had very different ideas about what that actually meant. And I’ll give you one guess as to who was right.

Matthew tells us, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering… and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This is what’s changed: for the very first time, Jesus foretells his own death and resurrection (he makes three such predictions in Matthew’s Gospel). And this is a big deal.

Up to now, the story’s been all about Jesus’s life and ministry amidst the people of Galilee. But now the focus will shift to the disciples and their journey to Jerusalem and, ultimately, the cross. They’re not even close to being there at this point — heck, Jesus and the disciples haven’t even begun the trip yet— but we know that this is where they’ve been headed all along.

As Matthew tells it, Jesus begins to show his disciples that they must go to Jerusalem. There’s that word again: “must.” And it quickly becomes apparent that Peter doesn’t want to hear that word any more than we do.  

Peter gives voice to his displeasure by responding with an ultimatum of his own: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” is what he says to Jesus.

And so we end up in the middle of a standoff between competing musts — Jesus explaining that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed, and on the third day be raised; and Peter declaring that this must never happen. Of course, it doesn’t end up being much of a standoff; we all know how this one is going to work out; we know that Jesus is right, but poor Peter doesn’t have any idea yet.

Then Jesus really lets Peter have it — he doesn’t seem to want to hear the word “must” any more than Peter did. Just as soon as Peter has finished telling Jesus what must never happen to him, Jesus, moved by what seems to be a mixture of anger and frustration, responds to Peter by saying, “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.”

Divine things versus human things; it really all comes down to that. The divine “must” versus the human “must.” And I’ll let you guess which one wins in the end.

The human must, given voice here by Peter, is relatively easy for us to understand because we live and breathe it every single day. And when Peter cries out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” it’s kind of hard not to believe that he might be motivated by self interest at least as much as he is moved by concern for Jesus.

It’s pretty clear that Peter wants to see his Messiah riding into town triumphantly, breathing fire and vanquishing his enemies, not suffering and dying; it’s pretty clear that Peter wants Jesus to remain by his side so that he can continue to bask in the glory of his presence; it’s pretty clear that Peter wants Jesus to protect him and his from them and theirs.  

But God wants something else — from Jesus and from us.

And if there was any doubt about this, then listen to what Jesus tells the disciples right after he lets loose on Peter: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Said slightly differently, true discipleship is not about you, it’s about everyone else; indeed, following Jesus is about anything but you. And it’s a completely different orientation toward life than we’re used to.

When Jesus explains that he must go to Jerusalem to endure suffering and death, we tend to understand it as being an order from God that Jesus must obey; we tend to think that Jesus doesn’t actually have a choice here, that this is and has always just been part of God’s plan. I mean why would Jesus actually choose to do any of this if he didn’t absolutely have to?

The truth is, Jesus does have to — but not for the reason we might think.

In a worldview that has self-interest as its guiding principle — that is based, above all else, upon what we want — Jesus’s willingness to give of himself for others makes very little sense. In such a worldview, Jesus would only do so if some external force — in this case, God — compelled him to do so.

But God doesn’t see things that way — and neither does Jesus. The divine worldview’s guiding principle is not self-interest, it is love. What does this mean for us? It’s not about what we want, it’s about what the world needs. Jesus ends up doing what he does because he must, but not because he’s following orders. Jesus ends up doing what he does because his love for us simply won’t allow him to do anything else.

How far would Jesus go for us out of love for God and for us? The answer, as we all know, is as far as anyone possible could. The more pressing question, though, is this: How far would we actually go for God and for each other? The answer, I think we all know, is decidedly less far. And that makes sense, because Jesus is Jesus, and we’re not.

So when he tells the disciples to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, I’m not exactly sure what his expectations for them are. Is he speaking metaphorically or literally about the cross? Does he really intend that they will meet the same fate that awaits him? I kind of hope not, but, truth is, some of them actually do.

But when it comes to the whole self-denial thing thing, I don’t think there’s any ambiguity at all — either for the disciples or for us — because loving your neighbor as yourself, by definition, means putting the needs of your neighbor on a par with or ahead of your own. And, to be clear, it means doing so whether you happen to “like” that neighbor or not.  

As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, it’s a whole lot easier for us to contribute to the needs of the saints than it is for us to extend hospitality to strangers, or to bless those who persecute us, or to feed our hungry enemies, or to live peaceably with all.

But, make no mistake about it, this is what we, as followers of Christ, must do — not because it’s in our best interest to do so, not because God has ordered us to do so, but because this is what true love of God and one another compels us to do. The question for us is whether we’re going to do it.

And, if you look at it that way, there really is only one answer.