Sermon A Pentecost L.22 2017 King of Kings, New Windsor September 2-3, 2017
Are you starting school this week? If you are, maybe the teacher will give you a syllabus. Or if you’re the teacher, you’ve probably written a syllabus. A syllabus is a document distributed to students at the beginning of an academic course; it includes things such as an outline of the topics to be studied, a list of the books to be read, a schedule for readings and assignments and tests, and a list of the teacher’s expectations of the students.
If you’re taking an automobile mechanics class, the syllabus might include a list of things you will learn about cars and when, such as the parts of the engine and how to fix a flat tire or replace the brake pads. If you’re in a math class, your syllabus might contain a list of the page numbers of problems you’ll have to solve each week. If you’re studying English, perhaps your syllabus will consist of a schedule of readings and book reviews and journal assignments and a term paper.
Or maybe, instead, your teacher will give you a course description. If you’re starting kindergarten, the teacher might say, “You’ll be learning your full name and address and how to read and write your letters and numbers. We’ll spend some time reading and some time working with numbers and some time on the computer and some time on the playground. You will have to work hard and have fun and treat others kindly.” The teacher’s course description is an overview of what’s coming up and what will be expected of you in class, just like a syllabus.
If you were starting school with Rabbi Jesus this week, what would your syllabus contain? What would the course description entail? If Peter or James or John—or Mary or Martha—had recorded a syllabus of their instruction from Jesus, if Bartholomew or Andrew—or Johanna or Mary Magdalene—had committed to memory a course description for “Following Jesus 101”, what would the syllabus contain? What would the course description entail?
Well, if the disciples had recorded a syllabus for the first 15 chapters of Matthew, here’s how it would read: the calling of disciples……how to minister to crowds… ……how to approach anger, retaliation, prayer, and judgment…..the stilling of a storm……parables (and explanations of the parables)……feeding five thousand—and then four thousand……and the Confession of Peter, whose story we heard in last Sunday’s gospel. For this part of the course, “Following Jesus #101”, the syllabus would offer some pretty cool stuff: learning parables and other wisdom, watching the rabbi heal people who were ill, feeding hungry people, and performing dramatic miracles. Would you choose to follow Jesus, if you perused that syllabus?
Well, that’s only half the syllabus. In today’s gospel lesson, just after—immediately after—Peter has confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God—just when we might think the climax of the class has been reached and it’s time for the final test, Jesus turns to the next page in the syllabus, a page that none of the disciples had anticipated, and “Following Jesus 101” takes a turn for the worse. First, Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must “go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed, and on the third day be raised”.
So far this course has been about teaching and preaching and healing, about restoring life, not about suffering or being killed. So far the course has focused on God’s love and care for God’s people. Suffering and being killed just doesn’t into fit this syllabus! Why should Jesus, the one anointed by God, the Messiah, the one chosen by God, need to suffer and die? We can relate to Peter, who rebukes Jesus: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” Maybe Peter thinks that Jesus picked up the wrong syllabus by mistake; maybe he is just trying to steer him back to the course description on teaching and preaching and healing, on restoring life. But Jesus will have none of Peter’s attempts to dissuade him from the true syllabus; he rebukes Peter right back, even calling him “Satan”.
And if that isn’t enough, Jesus continues on the topic of suffering and dying, and things get even worse. Not only must Jesus suffer; so must his followers. While “Following Jesus 101” includes learning Jesus’ wisdom and witnessing his miracles, that isn’t the extent of the syllabus. Today’s gospel reading marks a shift in the syllabus. “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus tells the disciples, “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.” “Following Jesus 101” isn’t only about learning from Jesus and watching him do the works of God; it’s also about entering into his life, about following his way, which is eventually the way of resurrection and new life, but only after suffering and death.
At this midpoint in Jesus’ ministry, as he himself knows that his time is limited and that his proclamation of the reign of God will lead to his own death, he seems to give the disciples a chance to reassess their commitment to him. Perhaps they had followed him initially because he was charismatic—or because he set their hearts on fire for God—or because they liked hanging around someone who could still a storm. They may have chosen to follow him for any number of reasons. But now Jesus pauses to make sure that they understand that this is not a “fluff” course and that it will demand not just a book report or a lab assignment; instead, it will demand everything of them. It is as if Jesus is saying, “If you follow me, you will suffer. You will deny yourself. You will take up your cross. You will die. So, my friends, now that you know that I am not the Messiah you were expecting; now that you know that this is not a road to glory, do you still want to stay on it? Or do you want to return to your homes and your families? If you really want to follow me, you must follow me, even on the way to suffering and death.”
Dear friends, you and I are gathered here in worship because we are seeking to follow Jesus. In following him, we may, indeed, experience the way of suffering and death. What does it mean for us to suffer and to die? What does this mean, for you to deny yourself, to take up your cross, to follow Jesus? Certainly, for Jesus—and for many of the disciples and for countless martyrs throughout the centuries—the way was literally to suffer shame and spitting, torture and mocking—and then to be killed, or, more precisely, to be executed. It’s not so likely that you or I will face execution for our faith. So what does it mean, for you and me, as followers of Jesus, to suffer and die?
Let’s think first about what it does not mean. Following Jesus’ way of suffering and death does not mean that you take what comes to you with a martyr complex. It does not mean that you let a boss or supervisor walk all over you or that you stay in an abusive relationship. It doesn’t mean that you accept a diagnosis of cancer with no intent of treatment or allow a co-worker to practice racism on the job. Nor does it mean that you live for others with never a thought for your own needs, secretly priding yourself on your selfless-ness.
Following Jesus may mean, however, that you begin living in a way which is concerned not first with saving your life, or your reputation, or your standard of living, or your stuff, or your skin. Instead, it may mean to live in trust. To follow Jesus may mean that, instead of “holding on” to possessions, to property, to power, to outworn habits, to old grudges, to outmoded images of yourself, to your old agenda, you begin letting go. As you let go of false securities, as you stop protecting what belongs to you, as you cease holding on tight to what you claim as yours, you may actually save your life, even when it seems like you might be losing it. In the losing, Jesus says, you will find.
When you choose not to tolerate a classmate’s denigration of women or girls, you may lose your reputation as a “macho man”, but you may find your life. When you decide to give your favorite “hoodie” away so that a stranger who lost everything in a fire can stay warm, you may lose a garment, but you may find your life. When you tithe your income in thanksgiving to God, you may lose a weekly trip to the coffee shop or a second car or a new computer gadget or an evening at the movies, but you may find your life. As you let go of things that have been important to you, you may find a new self, a new identity, a new life. No longer possessed by your possessions, you may be freed—freed from the anxiety of materialism, freed from the need to have, freed perhaps even from the fear of death, freed to be the child of God that you are.
So now that you have the whole syllabus, will you continue in the course, my fellow student, my fellow follower of Jesus? Perhaps you’re worried about a pop quiz or the term paper or the final exam. Perhaps you’re not sure if you can keep up with the reading or hold your own in the lab. Maybe you don’t know about this suffering stuff, this dying stuff, this letting go and losing. Maybe you think this is a course you can never pass, even if you do all the reading, hand in all the homework on time, go to all the study sessions, and do all the extra credit. If so, you’re not alone. None of us really has the “stuff” to pass this class. None of us really can find life on our own.
But here’s the good news, my fellow follower of Jesus. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about passing the class. Jesus already enrolled in the class on your behalf; he perused the syllabus, he did the reading, he participated in class, he attended the labs, he wrote the term paper, he aced the final. Not only did he pass the class, but he graduated on your behalf. And then he took his diploma and wrote your name next to his. And when you go out on your way, he won’t send you out into the world alone. He’ll walk with you, and then he’ll accompany you wherever you go! Maybe he’ll even bring the syllabus along, so you can check on your progress on the way—your progress in losing your life—and finding it—in him. AMEN