Date: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost — August 31, 2014
Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Context: As I’m out of town this week we’ll be using the traditional lectionary readings for this Sunday. A word of note for some of the newer readers I’ve picked up in the past two months since migrating to WordPress.
It is the historic practice of the Church to read from Scripture every Sunday. Indeed, much of the historic liturgy of the Church (a liturgy that many congregations, such as mine, still use) is drawn from Scripture. The oldest practice of the Church was lectio continua – the idea that when believers gather together in worship they should read as much as they can of Scripture in a contiguous chunk. Rather than reading a few verses here and there, read all of Mark, for example. Once upon a time lectio continua might go on for hours!
Another practice just as ancient (and inherited from our Jewish predecessors) is the practice of lectio selecta – reading select passages from Scripture. As attention spans continue to shrink, lectio selecta has become the norm. Traditionally it involves a reading from the Gospel, as well as several other short readings – a psalm, a selection from the Old Testament, and a selection from the New Testament.
To help with this, lectionaries are devised to assist a minister with pre-determined readings. For many years a one-year lectionary was the norm (an example set by the Roman Catholic Church). From the start of the Church year in Advent (end of November), a set of readings would take hearers through the life of Christ up through the season of Easter (spring), before spending roughly the second half of the year on readings that emphasized the teachings of Jesus and the life of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church in the 1960’s revised their lectionary in order to provide a broader sampling of Scripture. The result was a three-year lectionary cycle. Every three years the cycle would begin over again. Each of the three years in the cycle (Year A, B, and C) would emphasize a different Gospel (Matthew, Mark, or Luke), with the Gospel of John used in all three years for the high festival seasons of the Church (Lent, Easter, Christmas, etc.). The readings on any given Sunday – particularly the Gospel and Old Testament lesson – are specifically chosen to work together in some way. Half the year the Epistle (New Testament) lesson also works with the other readings, and the other half of the year (to follow the lectio continua tradition) it doesn’t – it just works through pretty much entire books/chunks of the New Testament.
My personal tradition is to use the three-year lectionary known as the Revised Common Lectionary – which is based on and developed out of both Catholic and Protestant input on the Roman Catholic lectionary. My particular denomination further adjusts the RCL to create our own lectionary – for reasons that nobody seems able to adequately explain to me other than that we can be a stubborn lot.
This summer, however, I’ve opted to abandon the RCL in favor of creating a lectionary that emphasizes and highlights the Old Testament stories of the Bible – stories we likely first heard in Sunday School but haven’t probably heard much of since. However, as I’m traveling a fair bit this summer, several Sundays (including this one) will use the traditional lectionary to accommodate guest pastors.
Jeremiah 15:15-21 — The verses assigned for this day are encouraging and hope-filled, yet they come in the midst of dire avowals on the part of God to visit punishment upon his people, a people that includes his faithful servant Jeremiah! In verse 10 Jeremiah laments that his fate is bound up with the fate of God’s people under God’s anger. While traditional interpretation reads this very personally (Jeremiah’s personal lament on his personal faithfulness), further scholarship sees ties to some of the psalms, so that Jeremiah is not necessarily only lamenting for his own fate, but interceding on behalf of God’s people. This is likely how verses 15-18 should be read as well, continuing as they do from verse 10. As such, God’s response in vs. 19-21 should be heard not just as a personal guarantee to Jeremiah, but as prophetic for God’s people as well. Punishment may come but so will restoration, and the final restoration will be one that no enemy will ever be able to undo.
Psalm 26 — This is likely a difficult Psalm for Lutherans to hear and speak. It sounds so boastful, so bragging! The emphasis is so heavily on our own works! Surely this can’t be Biblical, can it?
But this psalm can also be read in terms of laying out the ideal, the goal towards which we strive. Scripture is pretty progressive in that it acknowledges the vital link between thought and action, action and thought. These are not isolated things but part of the whole. To allow the Holy Spirit to continually improve our actions, we need more than just negatives—don’t do this!, we need positives—do this instead!
Who do I hope to be in Christ? Solid and steadfast, unwavering in my faith regardless of the situation (vs.1-3). I hope to be consistent—guarding my self and who I go to for advice and wisdom (vs.4-5). I hope to worship in the Lord’s house assured of my forgiveness in Jesus Christ, with an open and full heart (vs.6-8). I hope not to find myself in the lot of those who choose different paths— those who reject the Lord’s Word and way (vs.9-10). I hope to be a person of integrity, standing firm not in my own strength and identity but to the identity given me by God the Father who created me, God the Son who redeemed me, and God the Holy Spirit who works within me towards that day when who I aspire to be is actually who I am (vs.11-12)!
Matthew 16:21-28 — We are a culture obsessed with self-definition and self-determination. Yet the center of our life in Christ is supposed to be one of obedience, one of willingly suffering if it means faithfulness to our Lord. One that holds even life itself and all the blessings we hope for in it as insignificant compared to what our Lord has already done for us and promised to us. How do we reconcile these two very different mindsets?
Most of the time poorly, I suspect.
We are apt to fixate on how we think the world should treat us than on following our Lord. We are more apt to celebrate our material blessings than to celebrate being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.
So we should see ourselves in Peter. Peter who is sure that Jesus just needs to realize that He’s confused about what should happen next. Peter sets out to correct Jesus and turn him away from his premonitions of death. In the process he contributes to the same sort of temptation that Jesus faced from Satan in the wilderness after his baptism—you can skip all that suffering and dying stuff. You don’t have to be obedient to God. You can be obedient to me and my ideas instead!
Jesus makes it clear that this isn’t going to work so well. Obedience to him is likely to put us directly in opposition to the world, and the world doesn’t take kindly to people who refuse to play by its rules. We should hear Jesus’ words here being spoken to his disciples—all of whom will suffer and all but one will die prematurely for following Jesus. He is not speaking metaphorically. Discipleship may require us to pick up the instrument of our death and carry it to where the world will kill us with it. Jesus’ hearers knew about crosses all too well. They were hideous and awful and terrifying, and every good citizen’s goal was to do whatever it took to avoid ever having to bear a cross. How terrifying to hear Jesus tell them to prepare to pick up their cross to follow him!
When we want to reduce Jesus’ words here to dealing with smaller scale suffering, we need to be careful. Suffering can come in many shapes and sizes, but what Jesus has in mind here is brutal, devastating, life-ending suffering. He knows full well that his hearers don’t think of crosses as minor inconveniences, but rather the end of all things in this world.
Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to this lightly, nor does He call them without the promise of life and hope, just as God speaks words of hope and comfort to Jeremiah. Suffering will come, and God’s main focus is not the elimination of suffering from your life and mine. He is concerned with the reconciliation of all things, in which course our suffering will be taken up and transformed into glory one day. Not on our terms. Not by the terms of the world. But on the terms and in the timing of the Creator of the Universe who was willing to send his own Son to suffer and die that we might be reconciled to him forever.