Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 22) – Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday’s Readings:

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Earlier this summer, I was listening to a soccer match on the radio while I was cooking dinner. It was the US Men’s National Soccer Team, playing a crucial match against Portugal in the World Cup, the biggest and most-watched sporting event on the planet. The US was ahead and closing in on a victory that would have clinched a berth in the next round. With the game pretty much in hand, I started talking to Katie and focusing more on dinner, when I suddenly noticed the announcers talking excitedly. The next thing I knew, a goal had been scored, and I threw my hands up, thinking that the US had gotten a second goal and sealed the win. Seconds later, however, I realized I was wrong. It was Portugal who had scored a late goal, tying the game and making things much more difficult for the US team going forward in the tournament. The fact that the US had given up that late goal was bad enough, but what made it worse for me was the fact that I had been so excited about what I thought had happened.

Take that feeling and multiply it 10, 20, or 100 times, and you might begin to approach how the disciples must have felt when they heard what Jesus had to say in this morning’s gospel reading. Just minutes before, as we heard in last week’s gospel, Jesus had congratulated Simon Peter for his bold confession that he believed his teacher to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God., and this knowledge surely excited the disciples to no end. They were following God’s Son! The time was finally coming for Israel to be delivered, for all their people’s suffering to be ended, for the Romans and any other powers that threatened God’s people to be defeated and sent packing. This was what they had all been waiting for, for as long as they could remember. Then, in an instant, Jesus dashed their hopes, trading their dreams of victory and peace for a harsh prediction of more suffering, more shame, and the death of their beloved teacher. It was too much for Simon to take.

Jesus has strong words for Simon after he is taken aside and scolded for his talk of what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and rightly so. But can we really blame Peter for his reaction? We, too, live in a world in which it seems that the forces of sin, death, and the devil are winning the fight. War continues to rage between nations and people, sometimes by those who twist and disfigure peaceful religions to suit their own quests for power and influence. Fear and mistrust continue to rear their ugly heads within our own nation, and calls for justice are met with overwhelming force. Disease ravages our brothers and sisters in West Africa, and even attempts to raise awareness and money to battle conditions like ALS – through campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge – are met with scorn and condescension. What so many of us crave is exactly the kind of divine intervention that Simon Peter and the disciples wanted from Jesus: swift, complete, and lasting victory that puts an end to everything that afflicts us and this world.

But we don’t worship that kind of God, the kind who sweeps down in anger and vengeance to strike violently and obliterate people who are often acting out of ignorance and fear. The God who came to live among us in the person of Jesus wields power in ways that are much more subtle, ways that allow for transformation and rebirth and renewal – see the centurion at the cross who participated in the crucifixion of Jesus before he realized that the man on the cross was truly God’s Son. We worship the God whose presence and power took on human form, and who willingly suffered death and rose again so that we might know that death doesn’t have the final word – see the disciples transformed by their encounters with the risen Christ. We worship the one who walked in our midst to show us what God’s love looks like in real life, love that risks vulnerability and the possibility of pain, love that doesn’t follow the rules for their own sake, love that breaks down barriers and changes lives – see the apostle Paul, who turned from persecutor of the church to proclaimer of Christ.

As disciples of Jesus, we are called by our Lord to bear the cross, to recognize that lives lived in pursuit of justice and peace and love are far from safe, but that they also have the potential to change the world. As we deny ourselves – laying aside the desire for more power, more influence, higher status, the need to be right – we make room in our lives for the kind of love that Paul talks about in our second reading. Let’s look back at that passage again:

9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Pick just one of these examples of authentic love and imagine how it might transform one of your relationships! Think about how each one of them requires something in us to die, and how that death can bring forth new life. Remember that we are called to live this way, not so that God will love us more (as if that was possible), but so that others might recognize God’s presence and know that love for themselves. Ponder how this kind of love can make a difference in our community, our state, our nation, our world!

Brothers and sisters, today’s gospel reading may have dashed Simon’s expectations, but it also represents our hope and our calling in the world. As we go forth to live as disciples of Jesus this week, may God grant us the strength to follow the way of the cross and show genuine love to all, so that the grace of our Lord Jesus might be known in every place, and the reign of God might be revealed throughout the world. Amen.

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