When I was in Kindergarten, or maybe first grade, one of the things I loved the most about Sundays was everything after church. It’s not that I hated church, but “church” was Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses; “after church” was cookies and juice in the fellowship hall, and—perhaps most important—going home and watching the Lone Ranger on TV. I would spend my week wondering how the previous Sunday’s cliffhanger would be resolved: what would happen if they took off the Lone Ranger’s mask? Would the Lone Ranger get trampled by that stampede?
Batman ’66 was also good at cliffhangers, putting the searing questions on the screen to read: “Will the world’s greatest criminal mind egg-stract the true identity [of Batman]?” “The answer to these and many other terrifying questions tomorrow night, same bat time, same bat channel.’
Matthew starts this portion of the gospel by saying, “From that time on” — from what time on? From the time that Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and from the time that Jesus starts to talk about “building my church.” From that point, Jesus begins to talk about his passion: his betrayal, his death, his resurrection. Matthew starts with the phrase “from that time on” because in order for us to grasp the context of this portion, we need to remember the previous portion where Jesus asks the disciples who others say that he is and then asks them who do they say that he is. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is critical to this passage. It’s on the basis of this confession that Jesus takes the disciples apart from the crowds and begins to instruct them.
This is the first time in the gospel that Jesus predicts his passion; he will teach the disciples about this three more times and even then, when his suffering and death occur, they aren’t prepared.
Prophets of old were persecuted and killed (2 Chronicles 24:19-21 and 36:15-16) and based on the arrest and execution of John that Baptist, perhaps Jesus knew that the only road he could be on was one that led to suffering and death. Or perhaps he thought that this would be the way that the disciples would understand the *why* of his death. Good prophets aren’t like by leaders, they’re persecuted.
Greek word perididomai means “delivered” and “expresses the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility at work in the suffering and death of Jesus.” In pursuit of God’s will, Jesus knows the road he must walk. It’s more than “fate” or “destiny” – God’s will isn’t a riptide that grabs us against our will or control and pulls us out into the ocean depths. God seeks our cooperation, our agreement. So Jesus isn’t delivered into the hands of the leaders and scribes like he’s a package from Amazon; he cooperates with the purposes of God.
Jesus cooperates with the purposes of God and wants the disciples to be aware of what is about to happen.
Peter, the Rock upon whose confession the Church is built, goes from blessed rock to rebuked stumbling block in short time—like any one of us would if placed in his shoes, even today. It’s possible that his understanding is confused by historical notions of being God’s anointed, or he personally doesn’t want to see Jesus suffer because of their relationship. It’s almost like the denial and bargaining stages of grief emerge at the exact same moment.
And while Jesus’ reply to Peter is just as shocking—I can’t think of anyone who would want to be called “Satan” by Jesus—I am reminded in this bit of name-calling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: “If you are the son of God…if you are the son of God, then you can’t die! God forbid it!”
Jesus, no, this is crazy talk. You can’t let the movement end. There’s so much left for us to learn!
What entertaining is that Peter doesn’t ask Jesus to explain what he means by “on the third day be raised.” He gets stuck on the suffering and dying part. The threefold, suffering, death, resurrection will later become for the Church both a confession and the way of discipleship.
This is the first time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection but not the last. Maybe the recurrence of this teaching is proof that the disciples continue to struggle with the coming reality of Jerusalem, as well as with the cross as the image of discipleship.
And now, centuries later, when we have a better understanding of God’s atoning work in the life and death of Jesus we still need the reminder that Jesus dies for us, “but not to exempt us from the cost of discipleship.” Judaism is often referred to as ethical monotheism—maybe we need a reminder that anyone calling themselves a disciple of Jesus is called to be an ethical Trinitarian. Anyone who would come after him—anyone who would identify themselves as a disciple, as a student, as a follower—let them take up their cross and follow.
Jesus death, in reconciling us with God, still calls us to embrace the cost of discipleship. Historically, “The condemned criminal who carried the horizontal bar of the cross to the site of crucifixion would have been subjected to taunts, humiliation, rejection, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death,” says one commentary. “The disciple who ‘takes up the cross’ is one who is willing to surrender pride, ego, status, comfort, and even life for the sake of the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ call to take up the cross has—for Matthew’s community—a very literal connotation; in their time Christians had been and continued to be martyred. Peter was crucified in Rome. The call to take up the cross for the community that originally heard Matthew’s gospel was not an abstract theological concept. It was real. Just like it was real for Jesus and the first disciples. It is important for the Church today, for disciples today, to wrestle with what it means to take up the cross in a manner that is just as real, if not quite so literal.
Jesus is only teaching only the disciples, not the crowds. Matthew says, “He began to show his disciples…” “Restricting the address to the disciples has the effect of focusing the instruction on the meaning of discipleship to those who are already within the community, those who have, like Peter, made the…confession but are still ‘thinking according to human standards rather than the divine revelation.’ These words are not an invitation to discipleship for outsiders, but reflection on the meaning of discipleship for those who have already responded to the call of Christ.”
So what does it mean for us? What does it look like?
Jesus statement “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me” is articulated by Paul in the letter to the Romans: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…Bless those who persecute you…do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
I think a great example of how easily we can fall into repaying evil for evil is the grim satisfaction so many people, myself included, felt when certain characters in the Game of Thrones series met their demise. I’m not going to toss out any spoilers, no matter how many seasons back it may have happened. But if you watch the show, you know the satisfaction I’m talking about.
Putting it in the real world, though, we often express thoughts of hoping people get their just rewards—and we know that rewards are the last thing we’re thinking of.
I was reading an article recently that was talking about the beanball culture of Major League Baseball. If you follow baseball at all you may recall a recent game between the Tigers and the Yankees that had multiple retaliatory beanballs and more than one bench clearing brawl that one writer described as “more like the brawl from the Naked Gun than any contemporary base-brawl.”
Paul says we’re not to repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good. That’s something that’s not easy. That’s something that requires growth and maturity.
There is an internet comic called Coffee with Jesus which depicts a few recurring characters, well, having coffee with Jesus and talking about the challenges of faith and discipleship.
In one comic, Carl says to Jesus, “It’s so hard not to be a jerk when someone is a jerk to me first, Jesus!”
“You’re working on it, Carl.” Jesus replies. “It’ll take time to get to the point of repaying insult with blessing. You’re in training and I like your progress.”
“Wait,” Carl says, “You mean it’s not enough to let the jerk be a jerk and let it go? I’m to repay the jerk with a blessing?”
In the final frame, Jesus says, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Carl. You’re in training. That’s pro level stuff there.”
When I was ordained I was asked a series of historic questions from the Methodist tradition—questions that John Wesley asked those who would preach in the Methodist societies. There is a series of three questions related to sanctification and Christian Perfection: The bishop asks, “Are you going on to perfection?” And the candidates reply, “I am.” Then the bishop asks, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?” And the candidates reply with an uncomfortable laugh before answering, “I do, with God’s help.” The third question is, “Are you earnestly striving after it?” To which we all said, “I am, with God’s help.”
There is a pattern to those answers: “With God’s help.” Jesus says in the gospel, if you want to come after me, if you want to be my disciple you have to take up a cross. You have forego parts of your ego and some of your pride; it will cost you some comfort and some satisfaction. But there’s no expectation that you do it alone or by your own strength.
While there are lots of stories about tit for tat, eye for eye, or harm for good, there are few stories that name the grace of repaying kindness for evil. There is one story however that is quite amazing and it is the story of Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal found here. Forgiveness is the ultimate kindness to be paid to those who have done us wrong and while many of us may not experience the dehumanizing pain that Matthew Boger has been through (or even Tim Zaal) we probably all carry around our lists of those we would love to see “get what’s coming to them” like Arya Stark does in Game of Thrones.
Jesus says in the gospel, if you want to come after me, if you want to be my disciple you have to take up a cross. You have forego parts of your ego and some of your pride; it will cost you some comfort and some satisfaction. But there’s no expectation that you do it alone or by your own strength.
We have at the center of our life together, the table set by Jesus; the table that shows us the life and the cost of discipleship. When we gather at this table, we remember, and we are re-membered into the body of Christ. We hear, we see, we recall the atoning work of Jesus; and we see, we hear, we recall his words to follow after him in a life of vulnerability, love and sacrifice.
But in the midst of this hearing and seeing, we also pray for the power of the Spirit of God to be present among us and within us: “Pour out your Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts…that we may know the presence of the living Christ and be renewed as his Body for the world.” We pray for the Spirit to brood over our offerings and brood over us as a new creation in this world—that we may by the power of the Spirit, give life, give hope, give peace; in this power we are equipped to bless even when we are persecuted, to offer kindness even when given hate.