Sermon preached on Sunday, August 31, 2008 at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-18
We have spent the summer talking about the kingdom of God. It all began back in chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel when Matthew told us that Jesus went about preaching the good news of the kingdom (9:35), and sent his disciples out with the message that the kingdom of heaven had come near (10:7).
Then we spent several weeks hearing parables about the kingdom. We heard about a sower of seed, weeds sown among wheat, a mustard seed, a pearl of great price, treasure hidden in a field, and a net full of all kinds of fish.
In all these stories and images we learned that the kingdom was for everyone, everywhere in everytime (that is, it is catholic), that it had to be sought for and looked for intently because it is not under human control (that is, it is mysterious), that it does, however, manifest itself in reality, it is not a theoretical proposition (that is, it is actual), and that it requires our response.
There was so much good news in this message that the disciples were able to discern that Jesus was more than just a wise teacher, he was the long-awaited Messiah. We heard Peter lead with that confession last week. And Jesus said, “You are right, and on this message you will build a new community and this new community will hold the keys of the kingdom.
But that was just the up side. Today we hear the down side. To get to that wonderful place, where the kingdom is ultimately made manifest in all its ways, Jesus says he has, among all things, to die, willingly be killed.
Peter reacts with horror. He didn’t see this coming at all and, in all his impetuousness, denounces the very notion. “God forbid it!”
Jesus is as stern in his response as we ever see him. “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block.” And then he tells them the true implication of all this talk about the kingdom, to live into it truly and wholly, they will have to follow him all the way to the cross, deny themselves and take up the sacrifice of their own lives, for if they seek to hold onto their lives, they will be lost.
It may be a miracle that they didn’t just all turn and walk away at that point. Suddenly all that good news was threatening and frightening.
What does it mean to take up our cross and follow Jesus? What does it mean not to hold onto our life, but to be what we say in our prayers, “a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee?” (BCP, p. 336).
St. Paul this morning makes it all very clear as he winds down his long letter to the Romans. In his many words there are really four main points:
· Love and show honor to others even higher than to your own self.
· Be generous and hospitable even to strangers.
· Live in such harmony with one another that you weep when others weep and rejoice when they rejoice.
· Never avenge yourselves, leave judgment to God.
This is what it means to take up our cross: an absolute commitment to love and honor for others, to generosity and hospitality as a way of life, radical harmony in community, and a total leaving aside of judgment.
These things are not easy. In many respects they are counter-intuitive. They require conscious choices, over and over again. The become second nature for very, very few people. And they certainly are not the values supported by the surrounding culture. A world in which
· Loyalty first and foremost to self is paramount.
· To be too generous or too hospitable is seen as a threat to security, a value which trumps them every time.
· Everyone wants to play the melody, playing the harmony is a sign of weakness.
· Judgment is at least good political sport if not an outright way of life.
But Paul and Jesus tell us that these are not the values of kingdom living. They are the values of slavery and fear. Any good news to them is temporary and always, always at the expense of others.
But to embrace the values of the kingdom, to practice kingdom living, is to take up one’s cross, to live “a reasonable holy and living sacrifice” unto God rather than self. This is the choice we are called to make, and it is a stark one.
Thank goodness, thank God, that there are always second chances to get it right, that we serve a God who is himself hospitable and generous, loving, committed to our dignity, and who has left his own judgment at the cross.
We are bid to make choices and to try, try, try to live into the values of the kingdom. We are bid to get it right sometimes, and more and more often as we mature in our following of the God of Jesus Christ. But there is always forgiveness, thanks be to God. That too is the good news of living in the kingdom.