Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Taking the words in, letting them become a part of you – as all nourishing food becomes; this is what it is all about. But, truthfully? Sometimes the words – and the Word – causes me some indigestion; it unsettles in innards. However, in the end, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
In the empire, Christianity was classed as a mystery religion. When Paul talked about being “in Christ” and having Christ “in him” he was trying to express the mysterious indwelling presence of the Word – the risen Lord. For him it was to be possessed. “In him we live and move and have our being.”
Yes, belief and faith involve assent; but it goes far deeper than that. And so, that’s where I go in Romans and Matthew.
Paul is beginning his summation. He has been addressing the unity that Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Jews, and Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians all have in Christ. They are do love one another with mutual affection. They are to outdo one another in honoring the other.
These are words to be heeded at a time when various sects in various religious traditions – Christianity included – paint one another with a broad brush of misunderstanding and caricature. Interfaith relationships, ecumenical relationships, and relationships with agnostic and atheistic groups ought be tempered by these words; as should congregational relationships.
“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Wow. Really? Yes, really.
Jesus’ rebuke of Peter in 16:23 – Πέτρῳ, Υπαγε ὀπίσω μου – could be paraphrased, “Peter, get back in line! I’m leading; you’re following!” This fits with 16:23, “…take up their cross and follow me…” And, I suppose that is what Jesus says to us all, “Get back in line!” As congregational leaders it always behooves us in the midst of our leading to make sure that we are also following.
Jesus calls Peter a “stumbling block” – σκάνδαλον; skandalon; scandal. Jesus also uses this term again in 18:6 – “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!” Woe to those that trip up people endeavoring to follow Jesus.
Then comes the Matthew’s “theology of the cross” – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have been rummaging around in this a lot lately. I think that we have “cerebralized” (made up word, I know) “believing” way too much. The English translations of “belief” or “faith” are cognates of πίστις. But pistis – especially in an imperial context – has connotations of faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, and following. It isn’t so much a thinking thing as it is a doing thing.
“Theologies of glory” are theologies about the cross. The cross is seen as something – perhaps a substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction transaction – at which one looks and in which one “believes”; believes to be true. But it doesn’t really involve or affect the “believer”; God or some supposed divine economy is affected instead; affected in our stead. What this leads to, as Bonhoeffer pointed out, is “cheap grace” – grace that costs us nothing. However, the text (and I would argue even all Pauline theology) suggests that following Jesus – active faithfulness, fidelity, and allegiance – will indeed cost us something. It will cost us our very lives and way of living.
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death-we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time-death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”
Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
And the death of the old man – the old Adam – is a continual death; a death that affects us and causes us to continually realign our live; to get back in line. This is what Luther meant in his Small Catechism:
What does Baptism mean for daily living?
It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance; and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.
St. Paul writes in Romans 6:
We were buried therefore with him by Baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
What does this “newness of life” look like? It seems to me that this is what Matthew is describing; it is where Matthew’s gospel heads…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
It’s about discipleship: faithfulness, fidelity, allegiance, and following. It is about a way of thinking – as Paul says in Philippians, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” – but it is a way of thinking that cannot be separated from a way of doing and being. As Paul says in Acts 24:14, “But this I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors…” Discipleship is an active way of thinking and being.
The pericope concludes, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
I think that this applies to both individuals and congregations; for, as did Peter, we always follow Jesus with others; never alone. As we journey together through in this post-modern death of Christendom era, many congregations are trying to “save their lives”. Our Lord tells us that such an effort is a fool’s quest. It’s only as congregations lose their lives for Jesus sake that they will find life. The paradox of faith, belief, and following is that resurrection and newness only come through death.
It has been a privilege to write these pericope posts during the summer months. Next week Bishop Rinehart returns from sabbatical; rested, refreshed, and filled with newness of life.
If you are a rostered leader or church professional looking for a continuing education event in 2015, you might consider “In Search of Paul: An Aegean Odyssey” – hosted by yours truly. Last year’s participants speak highly of their experience and this coming year should even be better.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Don Carlson