Sermons That Work

Paul’s Twelfth Chapter…, Proper 17 (A) – 2002

September 01, 2002

Paul’s twelfth chapter in the letter to the church in Rome and the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, both seek to open to us the mysteries of a life lived with God. Herein lies the heart of the good news. Characteristically, it is good news that sounds like bad news before we find a way to internalize it, live it, and experience it as truly good news. These are not theories, speculations that are placed before us. In fact, it would be difficult to find two passages more central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ than the two before us this fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Yet, it is hard to imagine a passage subject to more misunderstanding than Matthew 16: 21-27. And it is equally hard to imagine a passage more ardently ignored than the twelfth chapter of Romans.

Look at what happens to Peter. One moment he seems to grasp who this Jesus really is and what he is up to. But as soon as Jesus makes clear that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, Peter just cannot accept it. And as often as we read and re-read it, one suspects that we are all feeling a lot more like Peter than we ever will admit to publicly or in the church.

My goodness! Look at the fact that there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to Church Growth and Success in the worldliest of terms to get an inkling of just how seriously we “do not get it.” The church has accepted, hook, line, and sinker, the cultural expectation that bigger is better and comfortable affluence the unquestioned sign of divine favor.

In a country where corporate greed and corruption has reached new and unparalleled proportions, where instant affluence is regularly gained by winning a lottery or answering game-show questions, where wealth gained by acquisitive means — undisturbed by ethical norms — has become a daily story on page one of the Business Sections of our newspapers, and now more often simply on page one, how does talk about forfeiting one’s life really stack up as being more profitable than all the other available options?

Are we even capable of hearing that Jesus is talking about profitability?

And lest we think his question about what really profits life is simply rhetorical or aimed at a few rich and famous “bad players,” how about those of us who are caught up with nearly blinding fascination with “what it would be like” to live in any of life’s fast lanes without counting the cost? And cost is the operative word here.

As Dietrich Bonhoffer identified in the midst of the Nazi Holocaust, there is a cost to profitability and a cost for discipleship. What Jesus is saying in no uncertain terms is that there is no profit in simply acknowledging that God exists or that Jesus is Lord. There is a kind of “doing” associated with following Jesus. As Jesus must go to Jerusalem and all that going there entails for him, so there are certain things we all must do.

Must is a crucial word here, and Peter does not grasp that. In the blink of an eye, Peter goes from being a rock, the rock, and the foundation of the new community of the good news, to becoming a stumbling block, a skandalon or a scandal as the Greek text declares! Peter would like Jesus to go to Jerusalem and crush those in political, economic, and religious power. That, after all, would be the appropriate “doing” of God’s anointed would it not?

But as we all know, Jesus refuses to play that game. That is, Jesus musters no army, he wields no weapons of mass or even limited destruction. Nor does Jesus play the “acquire, accumulate, and consume” game, no matter how good it might be for the economy. He has no shares in publicly traded companies. He has no place to call home. He has no place to rest his head at the end of the day. Jesus relies on God and God’s people. He relies on a community of giving and sharing. He relies on others, God and others, not himself. He is not self-sufficient. And whatever he has, he is depicted as gladly giving away for the sake of others and for the sake of the good news.

“What is ours is yours,” he is frequently pictured as saying. And just in case Peter and the other disciples do not get the picture, Jesus promises to return to “repay everyone for what has been done.” (NRSV) That is, there will be an accounting; and that accounting will not be influenced by Arthur Anderson-style book keeping and creative audit procedures.

So what will it be? Will you pick up your cross and follow me? Or, does the thought of gaining the whole world or at least some substantial part of it still appeal? Either you’re on the bus or you’re off of the bus, but the bus is leaving the station right now.

Now this sounds like pretty harsh news indeed. And just reflecting for a moment on the kinds of choices Dietrich Bonhoffer made in his stand against the dominant culture of his beloved Germany and its quest for world hegemony makes the cost of discipleship seem even more harsh than we ordinarily think of it.

This is when we can thank the oft maligned Saint Paul for getting it just right and giving us the basis for a truly Anglican understanding of this, life’s greatest and deepest and most important mystery. For it is Saint Paul who sets out in the most transparent and crystalline prose that by the mercy of God we have each been equipped to become cross-carrying rocks of discipleship rather than stumbling blocks for ourselves and for others.

And further, Saint Paul says, we are not to think too highly of ourselves, or reach too far, but rather to accept and rejoice in the “measure of faith that God has assigned” to us all.

In the Catechism on page 855 in the Book of Common Prayer we acknowledge that “according to the gifts we have been given” we are to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world, here and now, where we are and while we are here.

And it is Paul who allows that we will not all do this the same way. Oh, that the church might ever grasp this central fact to being a disciple of Jesus Christ! We do not have to all march in lockstep together, but rather we are to exercise the unique gifts we have each been given in our own unique ways. Not everyone has the same gifts. Not everyone has to follow Jesus in just the same way as the next person. The best news of all being, of course, that no one is expected to do anything that God has not already equipped him or her to do.

Christian, beware, however. Because Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we are each of us expected to do no less than what God has equipped us to do. We can assume that carrying our crosses and becoming rocks instead of stumbling blocks is entirely wrapped up in being aware of what gifts we have been given and to exercise them faithfully in a cross-formed life of sacrifice and love. That is, right confession of Jesus as Christ must be joined with right deeds of love, justice, and loving-kindness extended to all. All, of course, meaning all persons and all of creation.

We have a hard enough time using our gifts in the service of all other persons, but are entirely reckless in the extension of our gifts toward all of creation. But it is here that we are promised the ledger lines of our lives will be balanced and audited.

The further good news is that people like Peter and Paul picked up their crosses, mustered a clear understanding of the gifts that they had been given, and, as Jesus commands, they “got behind” Jesus. It is this last imperative that we have, perhaps, most misunderstood. For it is like Peter that we too are commanded to “get behind” the man who must go to Jerusalem to confront the world of politics, economics, and religion with the good news of his Father’s kingdom.

Sisters and brothers, by the mercy of God, present your bodies and yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. For that is who we are: God’s holy and acceptable people. Our faithfulness to becoming the people God created us to be will be repaid in terms beyond all that we can ever hope or imagine. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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