Starting with that first line from the James reading, we do give thanks for those who become teachers! Some of you heard that line and said “yes, thank God for teachers.” And those of you who are or were teachers (in any context), drew a breath and know the truth of the statement that you are measured against stricter standards in your vocation. It is a position that comes with power and authority, where your words have impact.
The tongue is a small part of our body that has the ability to inflict curse and blessing. We know this - it’s true for all of us. It's one of the reasons I give thanks that one of our baptismal promises is that we awaken every morning, a new day for reconciliation, connection and hope. The path of discipleship is one that has ups and downs, struggles and successes. It is not a one-and-done deal, it is a journey. And we see that in the gospel story today with Peter and the other disciples.
And then, a few lines later Peter is rebuked by Jesus “get behind me Satan!” And then, a few chapters later, Peter is the one about whom Jesus says, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.” And THEN, a few chapters later, Peter denies Jesus in the courtyard when he was arrested. Discipleship is a journey.
Jesus' true mission is to share about the kingdom of God coming near. And his closest disciples are not understanding everything at this moment. In this gospel passage, “Jesus upends everything we expect a messiah to be and to do for us. First-century Jewish messianic hopes varied, but none of them expected a messiah crucified by elders (lay leaders), chief priests (tall-steeple preachers), and scribes (biblical scholars). Writings like 4 Ezra (11-12), 2 Baruch (40, 72), and Qumran’s Damascus Document (6.7-11) dreamt of idealized rulers who would judge the wicked and restore Israel’s righteous. None of these messiahs handed their followers a cross to be shouldered en route to their own Golgothas. In no Gospel does Jesus say, “It is my responsibility to die for you, while you applaud my heroism.” Instead: “The Son of Man is ordained by God to suffer, die, and be raised. And so are his followers. Are you coming?”
Jesus accuses them - and us? - of their bring mind set not on divine things, but human things. What Human things? - power, glory, status, prestige, victory, wealth? Where are we putting our ultimate trust and hope, our faith? In our bank accounts? politicians? military strength? Scientists? guns?
Divine things - the Gospel reality that we must give in order to receive, lose in order to gain, surrender in order to triumph, and die in order to live. Take up our crosses and join God in pursuing the good, the compassionate, the risky and the holy - using our minds, gifts, talents, scientific discovery, curiosity, community building skills, survival skills, etc.
But our Christian life, following Christ, isn’t about our freedom - it’s about Christ’s authority over our lives. In Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will, he is clear that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We are freed by Christ. And then, we live our lives in thanksgiving. We are the perfectly free Lord of all AND the perfectly free servant of all, called to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. To learn, as James encourages us, to speak carefully, and listen. To learn from Jesus our teacher how to live cruciform lives - lives shaped by the cross.
Side note on crosses - cross vs crucifix (cross with Jesus on it; more common in Catholic tradition). Some shifted to an empty cross rather than a crucifix to emphasize Jesus’ resurrection - Jesus didn't stay dead. I grew up with empty crosses in my Lutheran church. As I grew older and encountered the crucifix, I found that one of the gifts of crucifix is that you see a human on the cross- see Jesus’ love that led to the cross. We know that both traditions, both images hold Jesus’ life, death and resurrection story. The cross is not just a cute decoration, but a meaningful one.
And when we cry out -help us, save us - we’re not crying out in despair, but rather, crying out to a God who we know hears us. You are the one, the only one, Lord, who can turn sorrow to joy, mourning to dancing, weeping to laughter. And, in any suffering, pain or despair, says, that’s not the end of your story.
In reflecting on this passage and following Jesus in light of the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, I was thinking about where discipleship and following Jesus shows up in that event and its aftermath. I know that many people who serve as First Responders and Military feel they're following their Christian call to care for neighbors and to care for the greater good in their service. Their love was seen in their call to action and to save others.
Whenever we have suffering and pain, the question of “Where is God?” comes up. That day was NOT an act of God, no matter what the perpetrators say. God in Christ is there in the suffering beside those who weep, finding a way forward. God was with those who ran in to help others no matter what.
And the other piece I think about Christian discipleship comes up in the aftermath of this event in building community with those who are different than us. For context here, the summer before 2001 I was studying in the Middle East. I spent the fall of 2000 in Turkey, Morocco and Egypt. I was learning about Islam, the history and culture of those countries and meeting many the people. My first thought on 9/11 was horror at what was happening. My second, because of that recent travel study experience, was “Lord let this not be Islamic extremists. Because if it is, there's going to be a backlash of hate that extends to all Muslims who do not deserve that connection who also are in horror at what has been done.”
I'm thankful that the ELCA, and many other churches, after the events of 9/11 redoubled their efforts to build relationships of trust and friendship with those in the Muslim Community and beyond. That is also Christian discipleship reaching out to those who are on the margins who are being persecuted for affiliation for sharing of faith not an ideology.
Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.Profile
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