Sunday, June 23, 2013

Having What Matters

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” So wrote the famous Yale Divinity School Professor, H. Richard Niebuhr, some 76 years ago, summarizing the easygoing comfortable kind of Christianity that even then seemed more and more to characterize our contemporary culture. But it’s a tendency to which Jesus’ disciples were themselves already susceptible, as today’s Gospel [Luke 9:18-24] illustrates.

Jesus began, unthreateningly enough, by asking, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” That’s a question a pollster could ask and a social scientist could answer. It requires no personal commitment from the respondent, just honest observation. Except that the disciples were hardly disinterested observers! They were already committed – sort of.

So Jesus asked them the key question: “But who do you say that I am?”

We, of course, with hindsight’s perfect vision, already know the answer. So we expect Jesus to applaud Peter when he says what seems so obvious to us. But instead Jesus rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. What’s that about?

We, again with hindsight’s perfect vision, already know the whole story. We understand – or at least think we understand – when Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly … and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Peter and the others didn’t understand. Why would they? They hadn’t lived through that part of the story yet. And nothing in their background had prepared them for the idea of a suffering messiah. Given our modern fondness for a friendly, affirming Jesus, a suffering Savior seems not much more attractive today than it was then.

If, however, the cross was a non-negotiable for Jesus, what about those who purport to follow him, who claim to have clothed ourselves with Christ [Galatians 3:26-29], who have made following him the highest priority, outranking all other identities? Jesus insists that only his passion, death, and resurrection really reveal who he is. So he defines his followers in terms of how fully they identify their experience with his. “If anyone wishes to follow me,” Jesus insists, “he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Those are strong, stark, challenging words, which we ignore only at our peril.

In our psychologized society, Jesus’ words will certainly sound harsh, demanding, exclusive; and following him has to seem dangerous. In a world in which we not only want to have it all but increasingly expect it as a matter of “right,” Jesus makes it clear that following him means not having it all but having what matters instead.

Homily for the 12th Sunday in ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 23, 2013.

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