13 Pentecost • August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15 • Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c • Romans 12:9-21 • Matthew 16:21-28
In the Name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning’s Gospel Lesson contains five separate sayings of Jesus that Matthew has stitched together. You can see the places where the verbal “needle” was used to stitch sayings together so they become part of the ongoing narrative, The use of the word “for” at the beginning of each saying is stitching, and it occurs four time in this selection.
The other obvious stitching words are, “Then Jesus told his disciples.” You will find “then” and “for” used a lot in Matthew’s narrative. I point this out because it is critical to understanding Jesus’ message. If we attempt to understand the passage as a whole, it doesn’t make much sense. But if we look at each individual saying, separate from the others, their meanings pop out clearly. So let’s walk through these sayings.
Jesus tries to forewarn his disciples about what he sees down the road—he sees a journey up to Jerusalem where suffering and death await. Jesus knows what he is doing and he wants his disciples to know it too. But. Peter objects. This is not the path to success, so far as he can see, and he mistakenly wants to protect Jesus; “This shall never happen to you!” he says. Jesus rebukes him with these stinging words: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Peter is making Jesus’ work harder because he cannot see God’s hand in Jesus’ ministry. He cannot see that suffering and death are the path to the salvation of the world.
Neither can we. We, too, cannot see that suffering and death are the path to the salvation. Jesus says to us, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Here’s the problem: We are programmed, genetically and socially, for survival. In almost everything we do, we first run it though a filter of “will this hurt me, or help me.” Survival means physical survival, keeping my skin intact and my bones whole; having enough food and housing for the next ten or twenty years. Survival means keeping a respectable image among my fellow human beings and avoiding humiliation at all costs. Survival means keeping my stuff safe—the valuable physical objects that fill my house and my car, that I have come to think are an essential part of me. We need to survive!
Except—that statement is a lie. We do not need to survive. We can die, and eventually, we will. Death awaits us all. We have trouble coming to grips with that fact, and we don’t notice that being alive is not a future event. Being alive is a “right now” event. Right now we are alive. Life, aliveness, liveliness, happens only in the now, not the past and not in the future. Right now. Worrying about the future kills off being alive right now.
Jesus invites us to let go. He invites us to loosen the grip of survival that kills our aliveness. He invites us to shake off fear for ourselves and for our survival, and to shift our attention to others, to love and care for them. He invites us to trust God, who made us and will take care of us.
This is foolishness to the world, of course. But it is where Peter is coming from when he declares that surely suffering and death should never happen to Jesus, God forbid! To this Jesus says: “What will it profit [you] if [you] gain the whole world but forfeit [your] life?” Where’s the benefit of trading the aliveness of “right now” for survival sometime in the future?
So we are invited to give it up; to give up this fearful struggle for survival; and to notice the truth that life is now, right now.
And then, in the back of our minds, we hear that tiny, anxious voice that says, “Do I have to give up Social Security? My savings account? My wonderful possessions? Do I have to stop planning for the future?” Certainly not. The problem is not with sensible measures to look out for ourselves and those we love. The problem is the anxious fear that we must let go of if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. “Let go and let God,” as the saying goes.
This is particularly important in this time of fear and anxiety over the covid-19 virus. Taking sensible measures like masking and social distancing are fine. But if we succumb to fear and stop living, letting our aliveness shrink in the face of fear; submitting to terror over the danger of infection—if we choose concern for survival over openness to being alive, then we lose the possibility of living in the kingdom. We lose our life, and there is nothing we can give to buy it back.
Courage, my friends! This will not last forever. I love you, and God loves you—passionately.