Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
August 31, 2014
I have used the selected scripture readings from the Common Lectionary for my personal meditation for over 30 years but only began using them for preaching when I started doing interim ministry. I exercise some freedom with this, but I don’t want you to think I picked out certain passages to send you pointed messages. Instead, I want to lead you in listening for the voice of God to speak from scripture into our circumstances as individuals and as a congregation. Typically, we will read the Epistle or sometimes the Hebrew Scripture passage before the sermon, and I will tell the Gospel as part of my message. As I have soaked in these passages for today, I have been aware that I’m preaching before I’ve begun to get to know you. As you listen for God today, see if you hear what I think I have been hearing. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
Everything we read that follows “Let love be genuine.” is a montage portrait of genuine love. It is not a check list of moralisms like Ben Franklin tried unsuccessfully to use for personal character development. Genuine love is not individual qualities but operates in relationships. Mary Hinkle Shore, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brevard, North Carolina said about this passage, “Don’t try this alone.” Because they happen in relationships, genuine love and life are messy. We are to give the same quality of love to those who are our enemies as to our dearest friends.
Jesus was never interested in exterior conformity to arbitrary rules but knew that interaction with people reveals our interior character. Twice he said, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks." In Matthew 12:34 it was addressed negatively to his critics and in Luke 6:45 as positive encouragement to his disciples.
When Paul wrote that responding to enemies with love would “heap burning coals on their heads,” he was alluding to Deuteronomy 32:35 and quoting Proverbs 25:22. This is not ultimate revenge but about wooing hostile folk to the love of Jesus.
Jesus is neither the teacher nor example of genuine love, but its ultimate expression, embodiment and empowerment, which is apparent in Matthew 16:21-28. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 27“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Jesus’ redemptive mission was accomplished by totally giving himself away in genuine love for all of us who were in rebellion against God, which is celebrated by the hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.
Following Peter’s great confession (Matthew 16:15), Jesus began preparing the disciples for his suffering, death and resurrection. He repeated this until entering Jerusalem for the last time. Though they didn’t understand until afterward, his genuine love wanted them to be ready.
Peter’s reaction indicated that they were expecting a triumphant messiah, not a suffering servant.
We can all relate to Peter’s reaction. We naturally recoil from death, our own or that of anyone we love. We want to believe that choosing right actions produces positive results. We have a hard time accepting that redemption comes by suffering. When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
As the Reformation unfolded in the 1500’s, violence was common between various Protestant and Roman Catholic princes and groups. Dirk Willems was arrested for belonging to a group that practiced believer’s baptism. He escaped prison in winter. Having lost a lot of weight on prison rations, he ran across a frozen lake to escape the soldier that was chasing him. When he heavier soldier fell through the ice and screamed for help, Dirk Willems went back to rescue him. Once pulled to safety, the soldier captured Dirk Willems and returned him to prison where he was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1569.
Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest in Nazi occupied Poland. In his friary he hid refugees from the Nazis, including over 2,000 Jews. He was imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1941 three prisoners disappeared, and the guards took ten men to be starved to death in a totally dark bunker to deter escapes. When one of them cried out, "My wife! My children!" Father Kolbe volunteered to take his place. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards gave him a lethal injection.
In one church I served, a man who had struggled with life for a long time, hit and killed a jogger with his car and fled the scene. In his despair he committed suicide. With their permission, the family of the jogger visited this man’s family to express their forgiveness and pray for them, saying, “We have both lost a son. May Christ comfort both of our families.”
Jesus told his disciples any who want to become his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. To deny one’s self cuts across the grain of everything in our self-fulfillment society. What could Jesus possibly have meant? When we are squeezed by the pressures of life, the interior quality of our love comes out.
Some have objected that the image of the cross would have been unintelligible to the disciples before Jesus’ crucifixion, but crucifixion was used by the Romans in Judea, so they understood not only it’s horror but also Jesus’ teaching of voluntarily surrendering your own life as an expression of love for unlovable people.
The Apostle Paul picked up on the profound, fundamental significance of such self-sacrificing love in Philippians 3:10-11. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”When I was explaining interim ministry to my mother, I told her I was not trying to make a church into a congregation I’d want to serve long term but to help them discover what kind of church God is calling them to be and helping them find the pastor God is calling to lead them to become the church for the mission to which God is calling them. Similarly, during your interim journey, the question is not about making your church suit your personal preferences but about letting go of what you’d like in a church to become a church that squeezes the love of Jesus all over people who need to know him.