13th Sunday after Pentecost

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

I think there are two types of people in the world. There are those who enter a new relationship cautiously, deliberatively, who especially resist saying those three little words, the first time. They may know that saying the words I love you, implies something more than the giddy, dancing way we feel. In fact, some people seem to recognize that saying I love you, can feel like a loss, loss of one’s individuality, self, independence, freedom. They’re just not sure they can muster up the courage to go that far.

Then there are the others, who seem to throw caution to the wind. I love you! they exclaim easily, updating their status, adding little hearts around their profile picture, blurting out their affection quickly. They’ll deal with the repercussions later.

I suspect Peter is a bit more like that impulsive bunch. Last week, Peter was praised for answering Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded boldly and emphatically, “You are the Messiah, the son of God.” I think he could have added the words, “And I love you!” Jesus called him a rock, and promised that God’s church would be built on that confession.

But by today[i], the discussion has turned more serious. It’s as if last week’s gospel focused on “Where are we in this relationship?” while today Jesus follows up with, “And here’s what will change for us now.” And it’s not good. Jesus explains that he is going to face opposition, suffering, rejection, and a cross. Jesus implies that his friends can anticipate loss and pain, too.

Peter hadn’t really thought through the implications of what he was professing.  “Whoa, I can love you,” Peter seems to say, “but let’s not get carried away.” Peter isn’t ready for the implications of what this love will cost him. He isn’t comfortable seeing what Jesus is willing to do with his love. He isn’t ready for the changes that a commitment to Jesus will make in his life.

But to claim Jesus as the Christ, to confess that Jesus is the presence of the God of Life who is ushering us into the promised reign of justice and love, means we are ready to live in the life of that new reign right now. And that means we there are things we will give up.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. “It’s one thing to say you love me and want to be my disciple,” Jesus explains, “but trust me that you will lose the life you’ve known along the way.” That’s the problem.

This summer has been book-ended by racial injustice and unrest. From the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha this past week, and all of the protests that followed each, we’ve been forced to address issues of systemic racism all season long.

The conversations we’ve had in small groups using the Dialogues on Race this summer have guided our discussions, and many of them have come back to this question: Why do we keep resisting the call to change? Why after years of racial justice demonstrations, and anti-racism commitments, do we face the same types of injustice?

It’s hard to acknowledge that the blocks over which we keep stumbling are our own privilege and comfort, and we don’t like giving them up. It’s not going to be enough to put up a Black Lives Matter sign. We’re going to have to do the work of dismantling white supremacy in our institutions, and that’s going to take sacrifice.

We’ve witnessed a reluctance to change in our dealing with this pandemic, too. It has just been so hard for us as a society to agree to give up our freedoms,         our craving to make our own choices, to follow our own desires, to serve our own comforts, rather than to take the precautions and accept the limits we need to take to shut down the spread of the virus. It’s so hard to admit that choosing freedom and comfort is costing us the future, that our impatience with the restrictions is keeping us from experiencing the very behaviors we’re missing.

Could this be what Jesus means by when he tells us we need to lose life in order to gain it?

Pastor Emmy Kegler describes how hard it is to take up the cross. I don’t want to, she admits. I’m exhausted. I just want to get back to normal life, to eat in restaurants, to worship in public, to hug my loved ones. I want to believe I’m a good person, and that racism doesn’t exist.

“But to follow Christ,” she continues, “is to take up the cross – to be a public witness against the violence of the world; to willingly reveal the sin of political and religious powers that cannot accept a story of love and mercy; to refuse to let humanity stay in its hate and fear; to believe wholeheartedly that there is more to life than this. For what would it profit me if I kept everything – every protection and privilege and power – but lost my soul?[ii]

Joy Moore of Luther Seminary describes Jesus as encouraging a dismantling[iii], not only of white supremacy, but of all kinds of things structured into our lives. The reign of God that Jesus comes to bring us requires life as we’ve known it to be dismantled. The built-in prejudices and oppression, isolation and resentments, will all need to be broken down. We’ve become so complacent and accepting of the status quo, that its breaking apart feels frightening and undesirable to us, even though it will ultimately bring us back into life.

Jesus uses such stark language. He calls our reluctance to let go of our old ways demonic. (“Get behind me, Satan,” is nearly the same language he uses when tempted in the desert, Matthew 4:10.)

But God has never been about to let us go there. Remember, this saving our life that Jesus talks about isn’t about securing God’s love for us. God was the first to declare love in the relationship. God created us in love and for love from the start. God has never and will never stop loving us. Jesus will love us to the end, will love us to the cross.

This saving our life he’s describing is to experience God’s ultimate promises for us now. So when we join Peter in declaring our belief that Jesus is the way into the heart of God, it is not to make God love us, but it is to awaken us to give up our way of self-absorption, self-focus, and comfort, and discover a fuller life waiting for us. When we realize that the reign of God will restore all creation into the loving, just, peaceful society we long for, we find true life there. We may lose the life built around our vanity and self-satisfaction, but we are welcomed into a life of community, mercy, and reconciliation. We may risk giving up our independence, but we receive true life in care of our neighbor.

You may remember that it was after another impulsive attempt to confess his love for Jesus by walking on the water with him, when Peter slipped down into the waves. But Jesus reached out to pull him back into life. So in today’s gospel, Jesus refuses to let Peter slip back into complacency, destruction, and self-absorption, but pulls him back into life lived for others again.

“I tell you,” Jesus assures him, “there are some standing here who need to see the reign of God, even before they die.” Jesus invites us to begin living in the promised goodness of God even now, so that others can experience life before death.

Jesus invites us to live the life that Paul called the church in Rome to experience[iv], a life of rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is losing our life to find it: being patient in suffering, persevering in prayer, contributing to the needs of those around us, extending hospitality to strangers, living peaceably with all, serving our neighbor, feeding even our enemies, and of striving not for the easiest way, but for the way that leads to true life for our neighbor. Even through sacrifice and suffering with them, even now, while socially distanced, we find that in the midst of all of it, we are held up, we are comforted, we are saved, we are loved, we are made alive.

Thanks be to God.  Amen

[1] Matthew 16:21-28.

[2] Emmy Kegler, @emmykegler  · Author. August 27, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/emmykegler/?notif_id=1598544726477695&notif_t=page_post_liker_invite&ref=notif

[3] “Dear Working Preacher: Security or Stumbling Block? Joy Moore, Luther Seminary. August 25, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5450

[4] Romans 12:9-21.