Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen +
Paul was a tentmaker. This is a detail that often gets overlooked when we think about this pillar of the New Testament church. We remember him as a faithful apostle, a fanatical evangelist, a frequent visitor of prisons, and a fervent letter-writer, and all of these things are, of course, important aspects of his life and ministry. But Paul was also a tentmaker. He worked with animal hides, stretching and stitching and sewing and setting up tents that could be used for all sorts of uses. In reflecting on this week’s texts, I’ve come to the conclusion that this detail is much more than simply a throwaway, something the author of Acts includes to add incidental information about Paul. On the contrary, it’s my conviction that this seemingly insignificant fact bears greatly on Paul’s mission and on the ministry we share with him.
You see, I’ve made my fair share of tents. No, I’ve never trafficked in animal hides myself, and I’ve never been much for stitching or sewing, but I know my way around a tent – or at least I did in my younger years when I went on frequent camping trips as a member of the Boy Scouts of America. During my time in scouting, I was a part of dozens of trips to various sites in Michigan and Ohio and West Virginia, and though the details of all of those campouts differed greatly, there was one constant – the tents. Whether we’re talking about the small tents that we used to sleep and hold our gear or the large open air tent that served as our central meeting space, there was nothing more important when we showed up at our campsites than setting up the tents that would be our shelter during our stay. When they were constructed well – and when the weather cooperated – things were good. When we cut corners or didn’t take our time – or when the weather conspired against us – well, let’s just say things were much less enjoyable. By and large, the tents made or broke every trip I ever took.
It’s not just my past experience that makes me think Paul’s tent-making is a significant detail in today’s readings, however. There’s also the matter of another tentmaker whose story is told in Scripture: God. Let me explain with just a few examples. In the Old Testament book of Exodus, chapter after chapter is devoted to God’s instruction to Moses and the people about the construction of the wilderness tabernacle – also known as the “Tent of Meeting – within which the people of Israel could bring proper worship and encounter God during their years of wandering without a home. Later, at the opening of John’s Gospel, the evangelist tells us that the Word of God (who was with God in the beginning and was himself God) became flesh and dwelt among us – or, in a more literal rendering of the original Greek, “set up a tent and camped among us” (John 1:14, my translation). One last example: the New Testament book of Revelation closes with a description of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth. What does it look like when God establishes a home in that city? Scripture says, “Watch this! God’s tent is in the midst of humanity! He will set up camp with them, and they will become his people, and he will become their God!” (Revelation 21:3, my translation)
Still think Paul’s tent-making is a meaningless detail? At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, this morning’s passage from First Corinthians has everything to do with how we set up camp as God’s people. Let’s turn to that reading now:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:10-18, NRSV)
Paul, the tent-maker, urges the church at Corinth – a church he established himself – to be careful about dividing themselves into different factions and, as a result, causing the community of Christ to be torn apart at the seams. The problem of division that faced the Corinthians is, of course, a problem that faces the church of today just as acutely. Instead of being content to live under the big tent established by God in Christ, we and our fellow Christians have set up our own smaller tents – Lutheran and Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Reformed, and on and on and on. Even worse, we’ve allowed other labels to divide us further – liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive, liturgical and charismatic. We’ve certainly come a long way from the prayer of Jesus that we would all be one for the sake of our witness to the world.
So – in the words of Paul – what are we to say about these things? Is there anything we can do to stop the trend toward division and disunity? If there is, it starts with acknowledging our complicity in the fragmentation of the church, and continues by looking to the one in whom we find our identity: Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and who has been raised. He, after all, is the one who set up camp in our midst, and who drew us to himself when he was lifted up on the cross for our sake and for the sake of the world. In a very real sense, the tent established by Christ is held up by the cross that was once planted on a rocky hillside outside Jerusalem called Golgotha, and that same cross has now been planted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. As Christians, people who have set up camp in our own communities so that we can welcome others into relationship with us and with God, we would do well to make sure that our tents are held up by that same cross rather than by our own ideas or innovations.
Today, brothers and sisters, we celebrate the power of the cross, which brings us all into God’s camp, and we bear witness to that power made real in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. As Ike is baptized into Christ, we will have the joy of welcoming him into this community, a community that bears Christ’s name, and his life will be forever marked by the cross that brings the promise of healing and wholeness to our world. Let us pray that we might remember today and always that we, too, are marked with that cross, the sign of God’s love and the seal of our unity in Christ, and that we might devote ourselves to the task of welcoming all people to dwell with us in Gods camp, in the light of God’s presence, and in the power of Christ. May it be so among us. Amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
The story is told that Reb Hillel, one of the most important rabbis in the first century, was approached by a Gentile – or non-Jewish – man with a challenge: “I’ll become a Jew if you can teach me the whole Torah while I’m standing on one leg.” The man clearly had some understanding that the Torah – the term used by the Jewish community to refer to God’s instruction to Israel, particularly that instruction contained in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – was an expansive collection of traditions, customs, and rules that helped the people of God live in relationship with one another and with their God, and he assumed that it would be impossible for Hillel to cover that much material in a brief period of time. In fact, tradition says that the man had already visited another famous rabbi, Reb Shammai, and had been sent away sternly. Knowing he would win his challenge, the man proceeded to lift his leg to begin the challenge, and Hillel spoke: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and learn it.”
Turning to Mark, we can see that although the scribe in today’s reading isn’t exactly like the man in the story above, both encounters result in summaries of Biblical teaching that, on their face, make the practice of walking in the way of God somewhat simpler, and, let’s be honest, that’s something all of us can appreciate. After all, who doesn’t appreciate a concise summary? There’s a reason that book series like “How-to for Dummies” and “Cliff’s Notes” have enjoyed a certain measure of popularity for decades. Especially in a world where we’re conditioned to respond to soundbites rather than sustained reflection on the events that are swirling around us, the approaches of both Hillel and Jesus to their questioners are welcome. “Just think about how you want to be treated by others, and then treat them accordingly…” “Love God and love your neighbor, and you aren’t far from the kingdom of God.”
On closer reflection, though, these summaries aren’t as easy as they appear. “Love God and love neighbor” sounds simple enough. “Don’t get so bogged down! Just worry about loving God and your neighbor and everything will take care of itself!” In fact, people often use this dual commandment to dismiss the concerns of others who wish to pay attention to the details of living the life of discipleship. The problem, of course, is that the details are what help us to make sense of what it means to follow these commands in every area of our lives. Jesus’ teaching, which seems simple at first, actually leads us to ask all kinds of other questions. What does it mean to love God with our whole hearts? Our souls? Our strength? Our minds? How can we love our neighbors or ourselves if our love for God is supposed to encompass everything? How does love of self relate to love of neighbor and God? And just what does it look like to love our neighbors, particularly when they are doing things that we don’t like or which we believe to be wrong?
Obviously, we need more information, and as Christians we find that information by looking at Jesus and the example that he sets for us by his life, death, and resurrection. Christ shows his love for us and for the world by – as he said back in chapter 10 – serving others rather than being served, and, ultimately, by “giving his life as a ransom for many.” In walking that path, Jesus also demonstrated his single-minded commitment to God’s purpose for him, a commitment he maintained even when it led him directly into situations of conflict and opposition. As we seek to discover how God is calling us to show our love for neighbor and to demonstrate our commitment to God, it makes sense to begin where Jesus does: by taking up the cross, denying ourselves pride of place in our own imagination and living, and regarding the interests of others as more important than our own. As we’ve seen throughout Lent so far, those things aren’t easy, but they are part of what it means to follow Jesus “on the way”, and doing them has the potential to allow us to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves more fully. When we turn from our preoccupation with self, we can recognize more clearly God’s gracious presence around us, and live with gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. When our focus shifts from ourselves to others, we can see the need of others more clearly and be led to meet that need with confidence and trust in God. When we put to death the false self-images that we construct in our own minds, we can live more fully as the people God has created us to be and become more fully aware of God’s love for us.
As Lutheran Christians, we recognize that turning from self and turning toward our neighbors and God is something that we are all but incapable of doing on our own. Christ releases us from this bondage to ourselves so that we can be free to love and serve others. As a reminder of this fact, I’d like to commend to you a devotional exercise known as the “Litany of Humility”, which comes from the Roman Catholic tradition and represents a fervent prayer for God to direct our focus toward love of God and our neighbors:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart,
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled…
From the desire of being honored…
From the desire of being praised…
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted…
From the desire of being approved…
From the fear of being humiliated…
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes…
From the fear of being slandered…
From the fear of being forgotten…
From the fear of being ridiculed…
From the fear of being wronged…
From the fear of being suspected…
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I…
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease…
That others may be chosen and I set aside…
That others may be praised and I unnoticed…
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…
If prayer changes us – and I believe it does – then this prayer may be one way of tuning our hearts to Christ’s heart and helping us to discern how we can live out this great commandment – to love God and our neighbors – each day of our lives. Whether you use that litany or not, it is my prayer that we might see Jesus’ simple summary of the way of God not as an ending, but as the beginning of an on-going journey of discovering how Christ is calling us to live with love as the source and goal of discipleship. It will not be easy, but Scripture assures us that when we lose ourselves we will find our life in Christ. May it be so among us. Amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was growing up, I remember being in awe of the disciples, particularly the ones Mark refers to as “the Twelve”. I doubt I could have told you why I felt that way at the time, but I recall thinking that there was something remarkable about them. Their images adorned the stained-glass windows around the worship space in my home congregation. Their standards hung around the walls of that same sanctuary. I’ll admit that I always felt a small swell of pride when I walked by the shield that bore the mark of St. Andrew, a silver x-shaped cross on a blue field. As I got older, I came to realize that I was most impressed with their dedication to Jesus, their ability to drop everything at his word and follow behind him into a life of deprivation and uncertainty. I imagined that they were sort of super-disciples, and that I could never hope to be as good as they were.
As we’ve read through Mark over these last couple of months, I’ve found myself at times chuckling at the young me, the one who saw in the disciples an example for following Jesus that lay beyond our ability to emulate. That’s because I’m fairly certain that if I’d ever taken the time to pay attention to the full portrait of the disciples in the gospels in general (and Mark in particular), I’d have quickly realized that they were just as flawed as I was and still am. Today’s reading serves as a great illustration of this fact. As our reading begins, we find Jesus and those disciples again “on the way”, journeying toward Jerusalem for Jesus’ final confrontation with the religious and political authorities who have opposed him and his mission to proclaim the good news. Here, for the third time in the gospel, Jesus pulls the Twelve aside to remind them what awaits them when they arrive in the holy city: betrayal and arrest, condemnation, mocking, insults, scourging, cross, and death. And here, for the third time, the disciples respond to that message by making it abundantly clear that they didn’t understand what he was saying as they proceed to do or say something that directly challenges what he told them about his destiny. Think back with me. At the first prediction, Peter dares to tell Jesus that he’s wrong, and that God would never allow him to suffer or die. After the second prediction, the disciples decide to engage in an argument about which one of them was the greatest in God’s reign. Now, James and John come to Jesus with an outrageous request that sets the other disciples off again and reveals their utter lack of comprehension about “the way” that they were walking with their teacher and Lord. In the span of three chapters, the disciples show themselves to be almost completely incapable of understanding Jesus!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of smugly condemning the disciples because I think I’m any great disciple in my own right; God only knows how often I walk off the path that Jesus has set before me in pursuit of some goal that I think is more important or more faithful. But the awe with which I regarded the Twelve as a young man was clearly misplaced. In truth, I would have done much better to spend more time reflecting on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for mercy and healing.
Let’s take a look at his story with a focus on some of the details that can easily be overlooked. Jesus and the disciples arrive in the city of Jericho, where they encounter Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside – or, in keeping with our theme over the last couple of weeks, “sitting beside ‘the way’”. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is near, he calls out to him repeatedly, addressing him as “Son of David” and asking him to be merciful. He remains persistent in the face of stern rebuke, calling out more loudly until Jesus calls him over in return. Immediately, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps to his feet, and approaches Jesus. Bartimaeus repeats his request, Jesus declares that his trust has made him well, and Bartimaeus regains his sight. Then, without hesitation, he began to follow Jesus “on the way”.
What makes this story more worthy of awe than the stories of the Twelve? Well, it’s clear that Bartimaeus faced significant barriers to discipleship, most notably his vision – which had caused him to end up “beside the way” – and the many attempts to silence his cries by the people who knew him best. But beyond the obstacles, notice how Bartimaeus responded to Jesus’ call: even before he received his sight, he threw off his cloak, the garment that likely served as his only source of shelter and his only way of storing the meager income he received from begging – in short, his cloak was his security, a symbol of the life he had lived and which he was prepared to leave behind in an instant. Last, but certainly not least, like the rest of the disciples he immediately follows Jesus, though with a twist: Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way”, signaling that in a real sense he understands what he’s getting into in a manner that the other disciples don’t yet.
Perhaps because he regains his sight relatively late in the game, when his newfound vision isn’t obscured by everything else that has surrounded Jesus and caused people to perceive him wrongly, Bartimaeus is able to follow his new teacher “on the way”, even though he hasn’t received the insider information that the disciples have. Again, none of this is intended to cast the disciples in an unfair light. If anything, this fact reveals something about me – and, I suspect, about many of us: that sometimes those of us who should see Jesus most clearly have trouble looking past our own baggage to glimpse the truth about him and about what the life we spend following him is supposed to look like.
British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge was a popular commentator on religious and moral matters in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and his commentary was informed by his Christian beliefs. He wrote much about the problems that he saw were besetting society and decried a growing trend toward “Godlessness” in Britain. He claimed a robust faith, and his writing seemed to bear that out, and yet he had an experience late in his life when visiting Mother Theresa’s mission in Kolkata, India, that revealed how much he was missing of God’s presence in the world around him:
Suddenly, almost with a click, like a film coming into sync, everything has meaning, everything is real: and the meaning, the reality, shines out in every shape and sound and movement, in each and every manifestation of life…. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How could I not have understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear, is telling me about God?*
Brothers and sisters, God is moving all around us, and if we have eyes to see that movement, we will be truly amazed at what is possible because of God’s power and presence in the world. As we continue through this season of Lent, we may find that our vision is impaired by any number of things: our pre-conceived notions about how God is working in the world (or among whom God’s presence can be found); our own spiritual or emotional baggage that seems impossible to throw aside; the competing images of discipleship that play across our television screens or within our community; or simply the unwillingness to open our eyes to the Spirit’s movement in this and every place. If any of this describes you – the way that, if I’m honest with myself, it describes me – then perhaps we would do well to look to Bartimaeus, to call to Jesus for mercy, to throw aside the things that define us and hold us back, and to follow Jesus on the way with clear eyes and open hearts, trusting in his goodness and grace to bring us through death into abundant life. Let it be so among us. Amen.
*Malcolm Muggeridge, Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 10-11; quoted in Karen Chakoian, “Mark 10:46-52: Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 336-7.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
For all the time and energy that is often spent talk about eternal life among Christians, it’s telling that the story before us is the only one in Mark’s gospel in which this phrase actually appears. Since this will likely be the only time we’ll have a chance to reflect on this topic during our journey through Mark, it makes sense for us to take the opportunity to talk about it. What do we mean when we talk about eternal life? Well, it seems to me that most of the time we’re talking about something along these lines:
Some bright morning when this life is o’er I’ll fly away!
To that home on God’s celestial shore I’ll fly away!
I’ll fly away, O glory! I’ll fly away!
When I die, Hallelujah by-and-by! I’ll fly away!
In other words, the idea of eternal life is wrapped up with our fate after death – that is, when we speak of eternal life, we’re talking about the promise of life that transcends the reality of death. This is undoubtedly an important part of what the Bible teaches about eternal life, but it is by no means the sum total of Biblical teaching. We need look no farther than this morning’s passage to see that eternal life isn’t just about some time in the future, but about the life we’re living now. That’s not always an obvious point to us as Lutheran Christians because we are raised to understand that salvation – often interpreted as “eternal life” – is a free gift of God, given to us through no merit of our own as a result of Christ’s obedient suffering, death, and resurrection. I’m certainly not denying the truth of that belief. After all, when the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, Jesus does say that human effort is incapable of securing salvation! Even so, it’s telling that Jesus doesn’t respond to the young man’s question in today’s text by saying, “Don’t worry about it, I’ve got it covered!” Instead, he tells the man to sell off his possessions, give the money to the poor to store up “treasure in heaven”, and then to follow him “on the way”. What’s going on here?
The key, I think, has to do with how we understand the word “eternal”. We generally regard it as being synonymous with “everlasting”, and that’s partially right, but there’s more there if we dig deeper. The Biblical idea of eternity has to do with permanence, and it is tied up with the being and character of God. God was, God is, and God will continue to be as the ages roll on and on. In fact, the word we translate as “eternal” from the Greek has to do with the concept of “ages” of existence, and “eternity” is characteristic of something that lasts into the age that is yet to come. What does all this have to do with us? Isn’t this just theological gobbledygook? Well, if as Christians we believe that Christ’s coming represents the start of that new age – the advent of the Reign of God – then what does eternal life mean other than life that will last into that new age that has begun and will be brought to fulfillment when Christ comes again? And if that age has already begun, then doesn’t what we do now have something to do with the “eternal life” that the rich young man in today’s story asked about?
I think it does. We are introduced into that life by means of God’s grace – the invitation to follow, the gift of Holy Baptism that joins us to the family of God, the declaration of forgiveness and renewal, the meal of Holy Communion that sustains us on the way, the conversation and consolation of our brothers and sisters who are united with us in a bond that is stronger than anything that this world can bring against us – and in response to that grace, we follow Jesus in living lives of significance, lives in which we strive to pour ourselves out in service to God and our neighbors for the sake of the world that God made and loves. The rich young man in today’s reading wasn’t enjoined to give up everything he had simply so that he could be “right with God”, but so that by selling his possessions he could support those in need as a sign of God’s will for justice. In the same way, we live in obedience to God and in response to Christ’s call to follow not so that we can enjoy God’s favor, but so that we might be a blessing to others. To put it another way, we obey the call to follow Jesus so that the life that we live now – a life characterized by grace and love and peace with God – can resonate in the lives of others, and thereby last into the age that is coming.* Again, this is not something that we do for ourselves or that comes from within us – it is a gift of God, as the apostle Paul says, so that no one can boast. Yet it something that we can “work out” in our own lives once we’ve received it – through prayer and study, through turning our focus outward and seeking opportunities to give and share and extend kindness to others, perhaps through fasting from things that distract us from following the way that Jesus lays out before us.
This, in the end, is the problem that faces the rich young man. He has apparently been very successful economically, and – if his account of his obedience to the commandments is to be believed – very pious. Yet he has neglected the weightier matters of righteousness and justice, with the result that all his wealth and status, though they elevate him in the eyes of the world, have no lasting significance, nothing of the “eternal life” that he asks about to begin with. By contrast, the disciples, who leave everything behind to follow Jesus, have given up their claims on the things of this world and their desire to be first – although that desire sometimes rears its head, as we heard on Wednesday night – and so God has given them lives that resonate with the “eternal life” that Jesus offers to all.
Back to that question: What must I (or you or we) do to inherit eternal life? First, to return to our particular Lutheran Christian emphasis on grace, we recognize it as a gift, an “inheritance” that we cannot earn. But once we recognize that fact, we also recognize that we are invited to respond to that gift with lives that echo into “eternity”, touching others with the grace and love and peace of God that is ours in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The old song isn’t wrong – some bright morning when this life is over, we’ll fly away. Until then, let us plant our feet firmly in this world and follow Jesus on the way, confident that eternity is now, and that Christ will continue to lead us through the pain of sacrifice and death into the beauty and power of resurrection life this day and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.
*This idea of “resonance” is inspired by Rob Bell’s fantastic book “What We Talk about When We Talk about God” (HarperCollins, New York: 2013), particularly the first chapter, “Hum”. It’s a fascinating, challenging, and worthwhile read that I don’t think you will regret. Check it out!
+Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Isn’t it amazing how a simple question can leave us speechless? I can’t tell you how often I ask my older daughters Evelyn and Isabelle what they’re up to and hear nothing in response. (I don’t want to tell you how often my wife, Katie, asks me a similar question and my selective hearing conveniently kicks in; I think that’s a topic for another day.) In any case, I think we’ve all had the experience of a well-timed question stopping us in our tracks, whether it’s from a friend or a family member or someone else that we love and respect. In this evening’s reading, Jesus asks just such a question of his disciples – What were you arguing about on the way? – and it has an almost immediate effect: a deep silence permeates a group of people who, just minutes earlier, had been engaged in a boisterous debate about how they stacked up against one another. At first glance, that question seems pretty straightforward, nothing more than a request for information. If we dig a little deeper, however, we find that Jesus was asking them to reflect on something much more profound, something that gets to the core of what it means to be a disciple.
Just this past Sunday, we read the story of Peter’s confession and Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain, but we also read Jesus’ first prediction concerning his ministry:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again… Then he called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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, and for the sake of the gospel will find it.”
Tonight’s reading repeats that theme again:
Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee He did not want anyone to know it, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”
In these difficult teaching moments, Jesus declared that he was setting a path before his disciples, a way that they were being called to follow. That language of journeying with Jesus became so important to the early church that, by the time of the writing of the Book of Acts, members of the church were sometimes referred to as “those who belonged to the Way” (Acts 9:2, NET) If we come back to the text before us tonight, we can see that Jesus’ question is a much broader and deeper one that it seems at first glance. “What were you arguing about on the way?” becomes more than a simple request for information about a one-time event. Instead, it represents a question about the path that Jesus has laid out for those who wish to follow him.
As we enter the season of Lent, I wonder how we might answer that question if Jesus was posing it to us. Given everything that Scripture teaches us about what it means to live well before God and in relationship with others, what kinds of things do we continue to feel compelled to argue about “on the way?” Perhaps some of us are still carrying on the argument of the disciples, comparing ourselves to one another and – consciously or unconsciously – making our own assessments of how we rank among our peers. Perhaps some of us still argue about the reality of our mortality, choosing to ignore or deny that, as the prophet Isaiah says, “all people are grass” that withers and fades. Perhaps some of us argue about what is central to our lives as God’s people, seeking opportunities for division and dissension rather than ways to be reconciled and restored to relationship. Perhaps some of us still argue about what it means to welcome others, especially those who differ from us by virtue of race or ethnicity or religion or gender or any other category that we can use to separate ourselves from others. Perhaps some of us still argue about the reality of God’s grace, believing either that we don’t need it or that we can’t possibly have received it because we still don’t deserve it (even though part of us knows that that’s the whole point of grace in the first place).
However you or I might answer that question, it is a good one for us all to ponder, especially as we enter this time of self-reflection and turning toward God. What things in our lives make us anxious and cause us to lash out at others? Who are the people who rub us the wrong way, and what does our reaction to them say about us? What keeps us up at night with worry and distracts us from stepping boldly down the path that Jesus sets before us? How can we fix our gaze on the one who leads us forward and leave behind the things that keep us from following Jesus in our calling to be last of all and servant of all? I invite you consider these questions – not so that we can wallow in guilt over how we stray from the way, but so that we can be more attentive to the one who calls us to go on this journey alongside our brothers and sisters in this community and throughout the world.
The same motivation lies behind our practice of receiving ashes as we begin this season of Lent. Yes, they remind of us the terrible realities of brokenness and mortality that are part of our existence as human beings, but they also remind us of the cross, which alone has the power to free us from our sin and from the fear of death that threatens to keep us from living abundantly. Our awareness of our condition before God and our brothers and sisters is not intended to induce guilt. Instead, it allows us to reckon honestly with how that condition affects us, our relationships, our conduct, and our lives, so that we can seek grace and strength in the one who has marked us with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit and who came to dwell among us so that he could be our guide on the path that leads to life.
Dear friends in Christ, today we begin anew our journey on the Way. As we step forward together in faith, let us pray that God will open our eyes to all that distracts us and causes us to follow other people and things down other paths. Let us pray for the courage to be last of all and servant of all for the sake of our neighbors. Finally, let us pray that in the sign of ashes we might find renewed hope and clarity of vision on the road ahead. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Complementary Text: Psalm 41:7-10
Preaching Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8
We gather today to celebrate the “Transfiguration” – or changed appearance – of our Lord Jesus. The second half of today’s reading is the traditional text for this day, recount Jesus’ encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop in Galilee. The first half, however, would seem to have nothing to do with the event of “Transfiguration”, and if you’re having a hard time handling both halves of this text in your head at once, I suspect you’re not alone. I have no doubt in my mind that as Peter, James, and John headed down the mountain with Jesus, their heads must have been spinning out of control, and you can hardly blame them. It had been a confusing week for them and for the rest of the Twelve, their emotions rising and falling like a roller coaster at their rabbi’s teaching and at the amazing things that they had witnessed.
It had all started six days earlier, when Jesus had asked his disciples to tell him what other people were saying about him and his identity. They’d responded with what they’d heard. There were some people in the crowds who thought that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist, the forerunner who had preached powerfully about the Reign of God until he had been killed by Herod Antipas, one of the ruling elites who was threatened by his message. Others thought that Jesus was the prophet Elijah, who famously had been taken up into heaven and who, tradition said, continued to live in God’s presence as he awaited the coming of the Messiah. Still others thought that Jesus was one of the other prophets, like Jeremiah, who had been killed for their witness to God’s word. When Jesus turned the question on his disciples – Who do you say that I am? – Peter blurted out, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus praised him for recognizing the truth… and then told them all that they were forbidden to tell anyone who he was! What’s more, he followed up this miraculous scene of revelation with a brand new teaching – a prediction of sorts, that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer death at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. It just didn’t make any sense! How could the Messiah die a brutal death by crucifixion? What was to be gained by keeping Jesus’ identity a secret from the crowds who would follow him anywhere if they just knew who he was? Simon, naturally, stood up to speak for the group, and he took Jesus aside to talk some sense into him. Suddenly, Jesus doubled down on his teaching, calling Peter Satan for trying to oppose him, and insisting that the path of discipleship was also a path that lead to suffering and death!
Six days later, some of those same disciples had witnessed something that was almost impossible to put into words. Their teacher had stood on a mountain conversing with Moses, Israel’s great law giver, and Elijah, one of its greatest prophets. As if that wasn’t enough, his appearance had changed too, and the sight of him was so glorious that they could scarcely look at him! Then, a voice had spoken directly to them from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Surely this was the proof those disciples needed to help people understand who Jesus really was, and yet he insisted that they not say anything about what they had seen! Just as before, it didn’t make any sense!
It didn’t make sense, of course, because the disciples insisted that only half of Jesus’ teaching could be true; they wanted to believe that he would be glorified without needing to face suffering and death. Even after 2,000 years, we Christians find it so hard to hold these two fundamentals truths about Jesus at the same time, and so we choose the Jesus that we’d like to focus on. Many of us are drawn to the glorified Jesus, the one whose clothes shine a dazzling white and whose power and authority are without equal. Many others, on the other hand, find reflection on the suffering Jesus compelling. They ponder his wounds for our sake, and they rack themselves with guilt over each lashing, each nail, each moment of agony, until that suffering becomes almost an end in itself.
The reality, of course, is that both of these images of God’s Son are important for understanding who he is. If we focus on the glorified Jesus to the exclusion of the suffering Lord, then we place Jesus on a pedestal, at a distance from our broken and beautiful world, and we fool ourselves into believing that he can’t possibly understand our challenges, our struggles, our pains and fears and grief. On the other hand, if we focus on the suffering Jesus without remembering that he is also the Lord of glory, we risk making Jesus out to be a passive victim, a misguided man whose death was a tragic fact and nothing more. Matthew puts before us both the glory and the pain of Christ because we cannot understand one without the other, and we cannot understand Jesus unless we try to understand both his glory and his humiliation.
What does that matter? If Matthew is right about the life of discipleship mirroring the life of Jesus, then we who follow Christ are called to do so with the recognition that we share Christ’s life in all its fullness. We are called to deny ourselves and take up our crosses, to live each day knowing that discipleship is costly and difficult, to embrace the opportunity to serve others rather than ourselves. We are also called to remember God’s blessing upon us, to live in hope of God’s promised future, to remember that we are destined to share in the glorious presence of Christ, and to keep our eyes open to the glimpses of grace that are all around us if we care to look for them. This life of discipleship is an exercise in keeping before our eyes both the cross that kills and the empty tomb that announces life and freedom and victory.
We remember that truth, brothers and sisters, as we stand at one of the hinges of the church year. Behind us is the season that calls our attention to God’s glory revealed in Jesus. Ahead of us are the observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Great Three Days, a time for us to examine ourselves and recommit ourselves to the things of God. Let us pray that, in the season to come, we hold in our minds the glory and the goal of our Lord Jesus, and may we strive each day both to deny ourselves and to claim the transforming power of our Savior in our lives, so that we might bear witness to the love of God whose name is Jesus in all that we do and say. Thanks be to God! 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.
Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18 (16)
This morning marks the beginning of the “Time after Pentecost”, that long stretch of time following the celebration of Easter and Pentecost in which the church reflects on the gift and challenge of life lived in light of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Throughout this time we’ll be asking, in one form or another, a crucial question: What does discipleship look like? Our readings for today, especially that gospel reading from Matthew, make it clear that the answer to that question is neither easy nor readily apparent. Listen again to part of the challenge that Jesus lays before his disciples (and us):
34Don’t suppose that I came to scatter peace upon the earth. I didn’t come to scatter peace, but to wield a sword! 35Indeed, I’ve come to separate a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law. 36A person’s enemies will live within their own household! 37The one who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38The one who doesn’t take up his or her cross and follow after me is also not worthy of me. 39The one who finds his life will lose it; the one who loses her life for my sake will find it.
If you think these words sound out of character for Jesus, you’re not alone. It’s difficult to reconcile sayings like these with others that are recorded elsewhere in Matthew. How can Jesus say “Blessed are the peacemakers” and then turn around and claim that he came to bring sword and division? How can the one who urges us to love our enemies caution us against loving our families too much? What was Jesus trying to teach those first disciples, and what word is he speaking to us, his present-day disciples?
Let’s start with the first part of that question. Jesus lived and preached in a society in which one’s primary identity was bound up with family. One’s place in society was determined almost exclusively by one’s family of origin, and bringing honor to one’s family was considered the highest possible social good. Obedience to God was undoubtedly important, but it was difficult for most people to imagine a scenario in which obedience to God and allegiance to family would have conflicted with one another. Jesus, of course, demonstrated the potential conflict at an early age. Matthew tells the story of Jesus and his family traveling to Jerusalem for one of the annual pilgrim festivals. The family does their religious duty, and at the end of the festival turns around and heads for home. About a day into the trip, Jesus’ parents realize that something’s not right: the boy isn’t with their traveling party! They frantically return to the holy city and search for their son, eventually finding him engaged in conversation and debate over the meaning of Scripture with the elders and legal scholars who gathered in the temple. When confronted with his parents’ anger at his disobedience, he responded by questioning them: “Didn’t you know that I needed to be about my Father’s business?” In a society that took for granted the easy identification between obedience to parents and God, Jesus’ teaching is a shocking word. The problem, of course, wasn’t that family was a bad thing; in fact, elsewhere in Matthew Jesus calls people to task for not honoring their commitments to family out of selfishness. The problem was that it was all too easy for people to make decisions based on what would honor one’s family rather than on what would demonstrate trust in Jesus. For those first disciples, there was a very real possibility that a disciple would have to make a choice between family and discipleship, and Jesus makes clear that allegiance to him needed to take priority.
So what are we to make of Jesus’ words today? Is Jesus telling us that we should expect the Gospel to cause conflict in our families? I don’t think so. Generally speaking, we don’t have to make a choice between loving our families and following Jesus. For the vast majority of us, putting those things in opposition represents a false choice, though it’s perhaps not difficult to imagine a scenario in which we might need to choose. More likely, however, we’ll need to think differently about the challenge that Jesus lays before us as present-day disciples. If family was the highest good in the first century, what might be the equivalent for us as twenty-first century American Christians? What sorts of things are vying for our attention or our allegiance as we think about the kind of costly discipleship Jesus is calling us to embrace? What would Jesus’ teaching sound like in our context? Whoever loves their individual freedom more than me is not worthy of me? Whoever loves their wealth more than me? Whoever loves their political ideology or party affiliation more than me? Whoever loves their reputation more than me? Whoever loves their country more than me? Again, the problem isn’t that these things are bad in themselves, but that they are often valued so highly that honoring them might create conflict with the call to follow Jesus Christ. However you might fill in the blank, Jesus’ call for us to take up the cross is the call for us to set aside anything else that might rival our allegiance to him.
Alongside the challenge laid down by Jesus in Matthew is the reality that Paul writes about in our second reading from Romans. He writes, “Don’t you know that those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have also been baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried together with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, thus we might also walk in a new kind of life. 5For since we have become one with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also become one with him in his resurrection.” We who follow Jesus are called to live cross-shaped lives, lives that bear witness to the truth that in Christ we have died to everything that keeps us from relationship with God. Later, Paul writes that we no longer live independently; instead, our lives are bound up with Christ, who loves us and lives in us every moment of every day. The challenge for us, then, is not to jettison everything else we love, but to place everything else in the proper relationship to the one who dwells within us by the power of the Holy Spirit. To go back to our earlier examples, we are called, not to reject everything that isn’t Jesus, but to ask ourselves “How is Christ calling me to be obedient in relationship to everything?” How does following Jesus change how I exercise my individual freedom? How does following Jesus change how I think about and use my income or wealth? In what ways do I value being accepted by others more than faithfulness to God in Christ? What difference does it make to think of myself as a Christian first and an American second? Each of us may need to ask a different set of questions, but all of us will have to think deeply about the challenge of discipleship.
As we do so, let us remember that challenge is always accompanied by promise. In Romans, we are reminded of the hope that sustains us as we do the difficult work of bearing the cross, or, as Luther puts, the work of dying to self each day. That hope is this: that we who have been united with Jesus in his death will also be united with him in his resurrection, that God is drawing us from death into life that matters now and lasts into eternity. In Matthew, alongside the hard saying about bearing the cross is that wonderful declaration: that God the Father has numbered the hairs on our heads and cares for us deeply and passionately, that none of the pain or failure we experience is unknown or unimportant to God. Above all, brothers and sisters, Scripture proclaims the profound truth that we are not alone as we ponder our priorities. Jesus goes ahead of us, giving us the guidance and the grace to take up the cross that calls for an end to business as usual, even as he dwells within us, showing us the way through that death into real and abundant life. Thanks be to God! Amen.