Sunday, April 17, 2011

The God We Need

Sermon preached on Palm/Passion Sunday at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 26:14--27:66

Jesus: You will all become deserters because of me this night…But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee. Peter: I will never desert you. Jesus: Tonight you will deny me three times. Peter: I will not deny you. And so said all the disciples. (Matthew 26:31-35)

I’ve been talking during Lent about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus. Last week, in answer to the specific question, “How can we be in relationship with Jesus,” I said, simply, that we have to die. Not die at the end of our days on earth, but die to all those things in our life that keep us from relationship with God, with Jesus.

It ends up that the chief thing we have to die to is our need for God, or for Jesus, not to die. But we have to die to the God we want so that God can be the God he wants to be for us.

That is what is going on with the disciples—Peter and the others—in the story of Jesus’ passion and death. Three times they have been told that Jesus will suffer, be murdered, but then be raised on the third day. But that is not the Messiah they want, so they refuse to listen. And here Jesus, I think in a grand act of compassion, lets them know that they will all desert him. But listen, he says, it will be all right. It will not be your fault. It will happen because of me. Don’t worry, I will be raised and I will meet you back home in Galilee.

They don’t hear him. Their denial is deep. I will never desert you. I will never deny you. And Mathew tells us not just the leader Peter says this, but so say they all. I believe this denial of theirs was not just about miscalculating their own reaction to Jesus’ death. It was a denial of that death altogether. I’m not going to deny you because we are going to get through this like we have gotten through everything else, because you, after all, are the Messiah. And the Messiah is strong. How could the Messiah be vulnerable and still be the Messiah?

This has remained a stumbling block for followers of Jesus ever since. It messes up our idea of who God is for Jesus to suffer, to refuse to defend himself, and to passively accept death. We do not want this kind of vulnerability from our God. Our God is a mighty God!

Mighty in weakness, is, however, the God we get. Mighty in vulnerability and suffering. Mighty in death.

The God that God wants to be for us is the God of utter solidarity with us. “And being found in human form, he humbled himself,” Paul says to the Philippians, “and became obedient even to death—death on a cross.” Only then could he be highly exalted and become one to worship and confess for the glory of God.

Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, it has been said from the beginning served to take away our sins. I believe that is true, but I also believe it was far, far bigger than that. In Jesus’ passion and death God took upon himself the passion and death of the world. There is no situation so bleak, so horrible, so wrong, so seemingly hopeless, or so mundane where God cannot be found. God is not above it all, above all the world’s suffering and pain and, yes, sin. Jesus showed us God in the midst of all of it, ready to reconcile, ready to love, and ready to be our resurrection.

When I first came into the church, I really had no idea what the cross meant. I knew it was a symbol of Christianity and a popular piece of jewelry. I was taught that the cross was the great symbol of human sin and the lengths to which God has gone to overcome it. As I have been a priest who attempts by the grace of God to minister to those in pain, and as I have been a believer who has found himself flat on his back in the valley of the shadow of death, again, I think it is about so much more. The cross is about so much more.

The cross for me is a symbol of God’s absolute solidarity with us, a solidarity driven by a love I can barely understand and barely accept because it turns my whole world upside down every day. Nothing is as it seems—even the most horrific suffering and death, and even our most infinite capacity to desert and deny--because faith, hope and love have been proven to be incapable of defeat.

The cross is a constant reminder that our God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, is not the God we want, but is the God we need.

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