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.”
“I ate your words, and they were a joy,” Jeremiah says. Shades of Ezekiel 3:3, where Ezekiel ate the scroll, and the words tasted like honey. The vivid imagery is that of taking the Word of God and internalizing it. This also evokes Jesus’ story earlier in Matthew’s gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said the wise are those who hear my words and put them to work in their lives.
If we are going to be honest, however, the Word doesn’t always taste like honey. It doesn’t always go down easily. Sometimes the Word challenges us, and our way of life. The Word can cause some indigestion; unsettling our innards. It would do the preacher well to acknowledge this. 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 by Christ. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Yes, belief and faith involve assent; but it goes far deeper than that.
Paul is beginning his summation. Those who believe preachers should never offer advice, or suggest to people what they should do to respond to the word, should read Paul’s letters more carefully. As Wally Taylor, Mark Allen Powell and my other New Testament teachers said, Paul always begins with the indicative and then moves to the imperative. Indicative: This is what God has done in Christ. Imperative: Therefore… husbands, love your wives… outdo one another in showing honor… Show hospitality to strangers.
That last one seems particularly apropos, given our current debate over immigration.
Paul has been addressing the unity that Jews and Gentiles, Christians and Jews, and Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians all have in Christ. They are to 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 to 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.”
This week we begin a new section of the Matthew’s gospel. Matthew separates these sections with our first few words, “From this time on…”
Last week Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus praised him, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but God in heaven…” This week the worm turns. Jesus orders Peter to fall into line, and even calls him Satan. I almost wish both of these were read on the same Sunday. Peter is saint and sinner all wrapped up into one. He will confess and also deny Jesus.
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.
He also critiques Peter for setting his mind on earthly things, not heavenly things. Jesus’ followers are encouraged not to set their mind on earthly possessions, what you will eat, drink or wear, but rather to seek first the reign of God.
Then comes 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.” In recent days, the clash between white supremacists and counter protesters at Charlottesville have been highly politicized. The self-branded alt-right wants us to imagine a false equivalency between these folks. Preachers are sometimes afraid to touch these hot potatoes. While we never want to push our own political agendas, there are some matters that touch the moral bedrock of who we are as Christians. We must speak. As Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the midst of evil, is evil.” Being afraid to speak because we might lose members, or because we are afraid of losing our salaries, is hardly worthy of Bonhoeffer, who died in a concentration camp. And it’s hardly denying ourselves and taking our cross into the world. If you have ever wondered how we would have behaved as pastors in Nazi Germany, how we respond now might give us a clue. Who are we if we remain silent before the most critical moral issues of our day?
As Luther said, a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is. We pull back the curtain on both the law (the human condition) and the gospel (God’s response in Christ, and claim on the future).
A “Theology of glory” is also sometimes a philosophy about the cross. The cross becomes an idea about theology – perhaps substitutionary atonement or a vicarious satisfaction transaction – in which one “believes” to be true. But it doesn’t really involve or affect the “believer.” We don’t have to put our lives on the line. Following Christ is unnecessary. One can sit in an easy chair and believe theologies or creeds or facts about God.
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…
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 lives; 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? This is what Matthew is describing; it is where Matthew’s gospel heeds…
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, 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.”
The more we cling desperately to life, the more it slips through our fingers. The ship may be safer in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.
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.
I’m deeply grateful to Don Carlson for his work researching our texts these last few months. If you would like to learn more about the context of Paul’s letters, consider participating in our of our trips In Search of Paul.
 The Associated Press announced that it will avoid the term “alt-right,” preferring instead using more specific terms such as racist, anti-Semitic, white nationalist, white supremracist, neo-Nazi, etc., depending on the context. https://blog.ap.org/behind-the-news/how-to-describe-extremists-who-rallied-in-charlottesville