In the Name...
The story is told of a young curate who was sent to a parish with an insufferable rector. After serving there a couple of years, he obtained a posting at another parish and used as the text of his farewell sermon Genesis 22.5 where Abraham says, "You stay here with the ass. I will go yonder to worship."
There are times we can become exasperated like that with people and reading this morning's Gospel, one can almost imagine Jesus shaking his head and saying, "Why me, Father; to have such klutzes as these for my disciples?" Here he was, trying to explain the main reason, indeed, the whole purpose for his life and ministry to his closest followers, his chosen twelve, and what does he get? An argument.
Imagine his frustration with the unbelief of the disciples. Though perhaps the word disbelief would be more accurate. It's not that they didn't believe in God, and they certainly knew Jesus was somebody special, but, what shocked them in today's gospel passage was the idea that Jesus was planning to leave them. Yes, that's right. Jesus told them that he was to die on the Cross and they couldn't handle it because of what it would mean for them.
Here was the greatest man that they had ever known - a man who said things the like of which they had never heard before, a man who did things the like of which they had never seen before. And now he was telling them that God wanted him to be killed. This is too much. It doesn't make sense. What have they been following him for? What's going to happen to them? And so, Peter, on behalf of them all, takes Jesus aside and begins to set him straight.
No, no, no, Jesus. You go to Jerusalem to be enthroned as the new King David and restore the Covenant. Think of all the good you can do. You have the power. Take the glory. At your command, a whole religious and social revival can be ushered in. Israel will become a great kingdom again and that's what Messiah-ship is all about. And, of course, we'll be there to help you.
This is truly one of Scripture's most dramatic moments. Jesus lashed out in rage. He shouted abuse at Peter loud enough to be heard by all. "Get behind me Satan." Actually, I'm not allowed to say in church how that really translates. Suffice to say this isn't the way we imagine Jesus talking and acting. But, he did. You can imagine the stony silence which must have followed.
Why was Jesus angry? Because the disciples were trying to do something people do every day. Something people do every day. They were trying to reshape the will of God to suit themselves. Adjust the teachings of Christ so that they wouldn't require a lot of sacrifice or explanations. The disciples wanted Jesus to be a Messiah according to their expectations. They wanted him to come down to their level. And we do the same thing.
The Gospel is not a big secret. The precepts of the Church are not obscure or unclear. Love God with everything you are and have, and love your neighbour as yourself. Pray, fast, tithe; receive the Sacraments; study the Bible; practice the devotional life.
It's all really quite plain and simple. But, there's a human tendency to minimize what that means, to tailor God's words and expectations into something more personally comfortable. No surprise to read that only 25% of people say they use the Bible as a guide to make decisions. The fact is that a lot of folks like Christianity for what it teaches about the life of the world to come, but, aren't all that keen on the bits that teach about life in the here and now.
That's the real reason a lot of churches are in trouble, these days. It's not because the economy's bad, or that fewer families have time for things, or that the planets are misaligned. It's because their members have gotten into the habit of minimizing what the Church teaches and it shows in the way they feel and act. We call it "nominalism" and it has a real impact on potential converts. After all, why should a non-church-goer join a church whose members act as if they don't really believe in it?
Look at the churches that are doing well. What's different about them? They have the same Gospel and precepts. They also teach we should love God with everything we are and have, and love our neighbour as our self. Pray, fast, tithe; receive the Sacraments; study the Bible; practice the devotional life. All this is the same. The difference is that their members really buy into what their churches teach and they are as proud to belong to them as much as some people are proud to be football fans or ex-Marines or Americans.
Actually, that's a thought. Lots of houses around here have football flags or Marine flags or American flags outside. How many of you have an Episcopal flag outside your house? Have you ever thought about it? How about an Episcopal sticker or window cling on your car? Just an idea.
The disciples weren't very keen on what Jesus was saying about God's will for him because it would mean something for them and they had an easier option for themselves in mind. It didn't involve a lot of work. It didn't involve a lot of explanation.
Jesus made it clear, however, that that wasn't going to do. He knew nobody was going to follow them if they showed that they were not really committed to following him. "Those who are ashamed of me," he said, "and my words...of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Somehow, I don't think I'd like God to be ashamed of me.
One of the prayers at our devotion of Stations reads, "grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace".
For nominal church members that's a contradiction. The Cross is something they want to avoid, just as the disciples did. Church is supposed to be about what God does for us, not what he wants us to do for him.
The strange thing, though, is that when we do walk in the way of the Cross, when we let the priorities of Jesus take precedence over the priorities of the world, we experience the presence of God, we see his hand at work in us and through us, and we sense his peace in ways we never thought possible. Indeed, as Jesus knew well, it is only through the Cross we learn how to truly live. And how to rise when we die.
God made two choices in Jesus. He chose us over himself. And he chose us despite ourselves. How do we respond?
In the Name...