When Jesus calls us to follow him, he really means us to follow: he invites us to take up a life of self-giving, sacrificial love, to live a transformed, Christly life in the power of the Spirit as Paul describes in Romans.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Ordinary Time, Sunday 22, year A; texts: Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Our lives are made up of choices, small and large, conscious and unconscious, which determine the shape and direction of life. The metaphor of crossroads is one which tends to work well for me, that many times every day we find ourselves at a crossroads, where we have to decide what the next direction will be for us. Sometimes these decisions look unimportant at the time but later, in retrospect, they were momentous shifts of direction. Other times we struggle with a decision that seems immensely important only later to discover it wasn’t such a big difference after all. Earlier in the book of Jeremiah than today’s reading, in chapter 6 the prophet uses this metaphor: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
This verse has become an important one in my discipleship, and it came to mind again this week as we see Peter’s struggles with Jesus’ view of what it means to be a Messiah (and by extension, what that means for followers of a Messiah like Jesus.) Peter’s joyful and confident declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, which we heard last week, is followed by his awkward rebuke of Jesus for describing the path of the Messiah as one of suffering and death. It’s as if Jesus and Peter are at a crossroads, and both agree that Jesus is the anointed one of God. But Jesus knows that means one path, and Peter thinks the other path is the more appropriate one.
I’m glad that Matthew doesn’t call Jesus’ response to Peter a “rebuke” as Mark does. Matthew seems to better understand Peter’s confusion and not need to hit him while he’s down. That’s hopeful, because I suspect we’d be pointing down the same path as Peter, were we to be looking at those crossroads with Jesus ourselves.
Of course, if we are followers of Jesus as we claim, that implies we are following Jesus. Willing to go where he goes. To take road of the cross as we stand at the crossroads and look for the good way. Because that’s what we need to learn most of all – that the path of Jesus, the road of the cross, is the right turn, it is the “good way” Jeremiah talks about. Jesus says it looks like a way of losing our lives, but in fact it is how we gain everything. It is the way of life, and rest for our souls, even if sometimes it looks anything but restful and life-giving.
So it’s important we understand Peter and Jesus and what’s at stake here.
Peter’s confession last week was a wonderful moment for him. He finally figured out who Jesus was, the Messiah, God’s Son. It’s not surprising that he expected such a person would have a career of success. Jesus’ teachings and certainly his healings and other miracles had convinced Peter that Jesus was God’s Son. Why wouldn’t he expect that Jesus would continue to show his power and continue to do well, eventually leading Israel to freedom? And Jesus praised him for his insight, said it was from God, and promised to build this new thing called “church” on Peter’s confession.
Jesus now simply needs to refocus Peter – and perhaps himself – on the idea that his Messiahship is not one of victory and power. This begins the downward turn of the story of Jesus’ ministry. As Matthew says, “From this time on,” Jesus began to let the disciples in on what he saw as his future.
It’s clear to Jesus that the resistance he’s beginning to receive will only go in one direction, especially if he is committed to non-violence and to a way which doesn’t use his divine power to his advantage. The struggle in his temptations in the desert at the start of his ministry now comes to reality. And his commitment then is as now – he will do this work as Messiah without recourse to his divine power and authority for protection.
But Jesus also wants his followers, his disciples, to know what they’re signing up for. So he starts to warn them of his future, of his path that will lead to suffering and death. If they are to discipline themselves by his standards, truly follow him, they will also need to make choices which set aside power, which live by non-violence, which incarnate God’s mercy and love even if they are opposed.
And this is the true meaning of Jesus’ invitation to take up his cross – for them, and for us. It’s not what many people seem to think when they use the phrase “my cross to bear”: for many, it means tragedy one suffers, difficulty that is unavoidable, even problematic other people.
That’s not what Jesus means. He means that all who seek to follow him are called to commit to make decisions at each crossroads of life which are like Jesus’ – self-giving, sacrificially loving, peace-making, grace-giving, mercy-making. And when we take such paths, it’s often inconvenient at the least, and sometimes truly causes us suffering. There’s a reason Jesus says today it looks like losing life, not gaining it. But it’s the path Jesus takes, so it’s the path we’re called to follow ourselves.
The beauty of the Lectionary is that today Paul essentially is describing that way of the cross for us, as he describes the transformed life of a follower of such a Messiah.
The first eleven chapters of Romans are Paul’s declaration that all – Jews and Gentiles – are included in God’s justifying grace. Now he describes what life in that grace looks like. Last week he began, “Therefore” – Paul’s great transition word – Therefore: “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
Therefore, since we have such grace, such forgiveness, since we cannot be separated from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, which was and is ours even when we are still sinners, therefore – we are called to discern God’s will and learn what this transformed life is like.
The next couple chapters are beautiful descriptions of such a life. They describe life down the path Jesus takes at the crossroads. What isn’t as evident in most English translations is that in these verses today are not imperative verbs, they are indicative, present tense participles for the most part. Paul’s not saying “Do this, be that.” He’s saying this: “Genuine love (non-hypocritical love, literally), is as follows.” And then he describes it. This section today is a similar construction, then, to his great love chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. And this is “genuine love”:
It is hating what is evil, and holding fast to what is good; love is loving one another with mutual affection and outdong one another in showing honor. Love is not lagging in zeal, it’s being aflame in spirit, it’s serving the Lord. Love is rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer. And love is contributing to the needs of the saints and extending hospitality to strangers.
All of this is a beautiful description of the Christian life. But it’s not an easy way to live. Every one of those characteristics requires attention at crossroad decisions, choosing a way of Christ rather than a way more consistent with our human nature.
How hard is it for any of us, for example, to outdo one another in showing honor? We want people to like us, honor us – yet Paul says that we shouldn’t think about that, rather, genuine love is focusing on making sure we honor others. How about being patient in suffering? How hard is that for us, to be patient and not complain to others? These are hard things – and that’s only the first half of the list, the easy half.
The way of the cross is not always easy, and there are lots of possibilities for people to take advantage of us when we live it. At verse 14, these possibilities become very real. Love is not repaying evil for evil, Paul says. Love is blessing those who are hard on you. That’s a hard way to live, a risky way. Love is overcoming evil with good, Paul says, and keeping away from vengeance. And as far as it depends on you, love is living peaceably with all. Life lived that way has no guarantees, Paul suggests, that the other will also be peaceable. If we live on this pathway, we are committed to living peaceably. Even if others are not.
And all this can be very difficult. To say nothing of potentially harming.
Which is why we look at Paul’s words in light of Jesus’ invitation: we are to follow Jesus, which means Jesus is with us on the path.
We’re not the pioneers of the path, Hebrews says, we’re following the pioneer, who “perfects” this for us, makes it complete. It is our Lord who makes this transformed life possible and hopeful. “Be transformed,” Paul said – it’s done to us by the Spirit of God given us by Jesus. So this is the shape of the Spirit’s work in us, that we are given the strength to walk the path of Christ, to make the choices we are called to make. And we have the joy that as we do so, we are following in Jesus’ footsteps, with him as our guide, our strength, our help.
And we are with each other – we walk on the path together and help each other. This is a key way that we are the Body to each other, and the presence of God, as guide, support, fellow travelers.
And we also have the promise that Jesus will always keep looking for lost sheep, so even if we make a misstep, a wrong turn, Jesus is going to find us and bring us home. So there isn’t ever a time for us to panic that we’ve taken the wrong path at the crossroads. It’s then that we need to sit down on the path, confess our sins, and ask our Lord to lead us to the right way.
The beauty of Jesus’ path at the crossroads is that it is, as Jeremiah suggests, the path of life and all good.
No matter how challenging it is to live as Paul describes, no matter if it looks like we’re losing, as Jesus suggests, when we do we find ourselves living a life worth living, a life connected to the love of God in Jesus and enriching and grace-filled with those around us. Imagine if everyone we knew and met and lived and worked with shared these characteristics – the world would be a beautiful place.
That’s not where it is yet. But Paul seems to think that it’s enough to focus on our own crossroads, “as far as it depends on us,” he’d say. Jesus may be calling to others to take up crosses and follow him in such life and joy. In fact, he certainly is. But all we are called to do anything about are the paths down which he invites us, the transformed life in the Spirit that he offers, the life lived in the grace and forgiveness he died and rose to bring.
Stand at the crossroads, the prophet says, and ask for the ancient paths, the good ways. It turns out Jesus is already on them, and inviting us to follow.
In the name of Jesus. Amen