March 4, 2012
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
The Buddhists say “All life is suffering.” I’m not sure I believe that is always true, but there certainly are times when I agree. The question that bothers me—and I’m guessing some of you—is that the suffering doesn’t always seem to be meted out in proper proportions to the proper people. All of us probably know someone who is gentle, kind, and well-intentioned but who seems to always be dealing with an illness or death in the family, or who loses her job the same week her husband leaves her and the car breaks down and the house burns up, or something like that. And we might be scratching our heads about why such horrors befall her while that complete idiot we also know somehow keeps getting promoted at work, and is married to someone far too good for him, and is in perfect health, and whose life is overflowing with blessings he seems unable (or at least unwilling) to appreciate. Right?
We live with the sometimes hidden or unspoken—but pervasive—attitude that if people are wealthy and successful and happy, they have earned it. If they are struggling and horrible stuff is happening to them, well, they must not have been trying hard enough. Or they must have done something to deserve it. Obviously, God is punishing them. In our world, losers get voted off the island and winners get gold medals. It’s the theory of karma—that sooner or later, we all get what we deserve.
And it’s precisely because this is a dominant social understanding that Peter has such a hard time with Jesus talking about suffering and dying in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter grew up, like everyone else in the Jewish community, awaiting the Messiah. They had been waiting for centuries. Prophets promised that the Messiah was going to lead them from oppression into freedom, from unrighteousness into holiness, from despair into hope. Peter and his friends had heard stories about what the Messiah would do and be, and had imagined the Messiah as a mighty and powerful king—a Midas of the Desert, who turned everything he touched into gold. They had imagined that the Messiah would relieve the Jewish people from the occupation and oppression of the Roman government, and everyone would live happily ever after.
So when Jesus describes to his friends how he is expecting to spend his time, his money, and his energy—as well as how he expects them to spend theirs—Peter panics. Be rejected by the religious leaders instead of welcomed by them? Undergo suffering, and not experience relief from it? And then, ultimately, be killed!? No, no, no! Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, saying, “If you are the Messiah, the special chosen one of God, things should go well for you! The Messiah will have no trouble overthrowing the Romans and making life better for us all. The spiritual leaders will embrace your changes in our religious institutions. If you live a Godly, righteous life, and lead us toward the same, you will be popular and successful in all you do.”
Poor Peter. He means well, and surely we understand his point. The problem is that he has lost sight of where he is in relation to Jesus. He tries to tell God how things should go, instead of allowing God to lead. Any kid can tell you that the appropriate spot for a follower is behind the leader.
If Peter had remembered the stories he must have heard as a child about Sarah and Abraham he would have known that God’s mind does not work like any other mind. Only God would come up with the idea to have his 100-year-old, not-very-faithful servants give birth to a child through whom God would build a nation. Peter seems to have forgotten that God chose to work through a murdering coward like Moses to lead the enslaved people of Israel from Egypt into the promised land. Or schemers like Jacob or Rebekkah to build a community. For a moment, Peter seems even to have forgotten that God chose not religious scholars or princes to become Jesus’ disciples, but in fact, a bunch of fishing buddies without much to recommend them.
God seems often to choose unlikely candidates to do God’s work. And once chosen, God often leads those people into situations where they seem largely out of their depth and out of their comfort zone. I speak from experience. But then God does something wonderful—like part the sea, or make bread fall out of heaven, or enable the fishermen to feed the hungry with a sack lunch, announce good news in the marketplace, and build an institution we now call The Church. If God can use those losers, then God can use us.
The trick to living as God calls you to live is not to expect to be a great choice. The trick is to follow the leader. Make sure that you keep your eyes so firmly on Jesus that you don’t miss a step when he leads. You know this from aerobics or yoga class. If you don’t know the routine, stand behind someone who does and copy. You’ll catch on, and before you know it, someone will be standing behind you! It’s nothing to be ashamed of or to boast about. It’s just the way it works. Peter should have been standing behind Jesus, following those feet as closely as possible, and instead of pushing his way to the front, and giving directions, instead of following the ones given to him.
But be forewarned: following Jesus means taking up our crosses. Which means what, exactly? That we will struggle. I don’t believe that suffering is God’s will or that God sends it to test us or make us stronger. But I do believe is that if we attempt to live as Christ did, if our conduct and words faithfully express the truth about Jesus, we will encounter suffering. It’s not that God requires suffering from us. It’s just the natural outcome of living a life of radical love.
Think about Jesus. If ever there was anyone who did and said exactly what was right and just and good, it was Jesus. But—just as he predicted—he suffered. And he suffered not in spite of his goodness and mercy, but, in fact, BECAUSE of it. The political and religious leaders of the time killed Jesus for wanting a world with no losers, a world where the blind could see, the prisoners were freed, the guilty were forgiven, the outsiders included, and the hopeless overflowed with hope. That was hard news for people who wanted clear distinctions between winners and losers—in particular, because they were pretty certain they were the winners. So they rebuked Jesus. They punished him, and eventually executed him like a common criminal.
And Jesus says to those who love him, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
Are we up for that? Are we willing to listen to how God is calling us to be the church, even if it sounds uncomfortable to us? What if God nudges us toward activities that give precedence to strange people—even some we might consider “losers”—with weird ideas? What if following Jesus means giving up some of the ways that we’ve always thought about God, about church, about ourselves? We can smile indulgently at Peter for wanting to tell God how things should really go, but only until we see ourselves in his place, angry and confused that God’s way and our way are not, shockingly, synonymous. It’s all fine and good to talk about losing our life to find it until we realize that that “losing our life” might mean singing hymns we don’t like, or spending precious money on programs we think are silly, or accommodating groups we don’t “get.”
The Good News, my friends, is this: following Jesus isn’t just about carrying crosses and losing our lives, anymore than that is Jesus’ whole story. Suffering and death are not the end of the story. Judas’ betrayal of his friend—Peter’s denial of him—are not the end of the story. Our own inability to take up our crosses and follow Jesus by living the faith that we profess is not the end of the story. These moments are indeed part of the story, but they are not the whole thing. And they are certainly not the end!
You know as well as I do that the end of God’s story is always and forever wholeness, healing, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, renewal, and—above all—love! The end of the story is the cracking open of the grave, the ripping of the curtain that divides God from humans, the unstoppable blast of life and light into places of stagnation, death, and darkness. No matter what calendar you look at, Easter Sunday always, always, follows Good Friday. And not just for Jesus. For you too. For me. For Trinity Lutheran Church. For the ELCA. For the worldwide communion of saints.
Take, for example, the way Peter’s story ends. Peter, who is terribly afraid of the cross, and who is so like us in so, so many ways, is one of the people to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection. Jesus comes to Peter at his workplace, the seaside, and makes breakfast for him! Jesus breathes on him and offers him peace. Jesus shares with him the dream of caring for the “little lambs” of the world, asks him to keep the ministry going. No matter what boneheaded things Peter pulls, Jesus never stops loving him. I find that when I fumble and bumble my way through this faith journey, it is inspiring to remember that it was to our flawed and fragile brother Peter that Jesus says, “On you I will build my church.”
And so, my friends, this is the Good News: God is always for us, no matter who is against us–even if it’s we ourselves! God is for us even when we try to direct God’s ways instead of following them. God is for us even when we abandon and reject Jesus and his way of being in the world. God is for us, and this Word is still THE Word: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten child, that whosoever believes in him should NOT perish, but have everlasting life. God did NOT come into the world to condemn the world, but so that through Jesus the world might be saved” (Jn. 3:16-17).
It is for the sake of this world that God so deeply loves that we are called. It is for the sake of this beloved world that we are invited to be part of living God’s dream. Following Jesus may involve crosses and suffering, but whatever else it includes, it will certainly involve new life. With that assurance, let’s pick up our crosses and follow closely where God leads. God so loves you. God so loves Trinity. God so loves me. God so LOVES the world!
Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Susan Schneider