Discipleship = Losing one’s life?

Proper 17A (RCL)
Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Reading last week’s Gospel, I was struck by the distinction Matthew’s Jesus draws between himself and the Son of Man. He asks, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and then, “But, you, who do you say I am?” Two distinctions: between “people” and “you” and “Son of Man” and “me.” Peter’s confession, of course, is “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” So, for Matthew, Christ and Son of Man are not the same.

This week, Jesus predicts his own passion, and Peter scolds him, “Mercy. Let it never be this for you.” Mercy, meaning “God have mercy.” Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying, “Come behind me Satan (which is the same vocabulary just a sentence or two down, “if any wish to come behind me.”). Satan shows up three times in Matthew’s Gospel: here, in 4:10, and in 12:26. In 12:26, Jesus asks, “If satan cast out satan, how will his kingdom stand?” In 4:10, after the three tempations, Jesus says, “Get away, Satan.” The word for “get away” is the same word as for “come” in “come behind me satan,” in 16:23. These two occurences are connected. Peter is tempting Jesus in the same way satan did.

Then comes the teaching on discipleship: if any wishes to come behind me, let that one. Peter is not intending the things of heaven, but the things of earth. And then, Jesus closes out the saying with the statement that there are those standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man (or the human being) coming in his kingdom. If this is not Jesus, who is it?

The Son of Man means two things in the Gospels: the human being (as in, “foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the human being has no place to lay his head”), or the one like the son of man from Daniel, the eschatological figure who reestablishes God’s reign. Or both things together.

If Peter is tempting Jesus, he is tempting him to understand “the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” an identity revealed, after all, by God, in human terms. You are setting your mind on things of earth, not of heaven. So, how do we understand God’s favor, being sons and daughters of the living God?

Jesus, as the Christ, establishes his church on the rock of Peter’s confession, the recognition of him as the Christ. But this is not the same as the apocalyptic figure who gives to everyone their just deserts, who punishes the wicked and vindicates the righteous. The Church is not an eschatological reality: it is a present reality. It’s purpose is here and now, in the interim. It’s not our business to set things to rights (to weed out tares), but to muddle along as best we can, with our eyes on heavenly things, in the meantime. The church’s business is forgiveness, binding and loosing, gathering up the lost and broken. The Son of Man will take care of things at the end — not our deal. But some of us standing here won’t taste death until we see the human being in his kingdom. The Church is to look for the royal dignity of every human being. We catch glimpses. But in the meantime, we are to give our lives to that pursuit. And it won’t look like success, or anything humanly defined for that matter. If we set out for success, for establishing the realm of God the way it is intended to be at the end of time, we will lose our lives, just as Jesus would have lost his if he had accepted Satan’s dares in the wilderness.

Moses encounters God in a burning bush. What a puny theophany! Why not in an exploding volcano? Why not in a hydrogen bomb? Why not in a supernova? A bush using oxygen to produce ash and heat. Don’t all bushes ultimately turn to dust? God is not going to set things to rights in any flashy way, overthrow Pharaoh and put the Hebrews (or Moses) in his place. Instead, God initiates a long process that will culminate in the formation of the Hebrews into a people, the people Israel, their entry into the promised land and eventually the monarchy and its overthrow.

God sets up an interim reality. We want the final reality, and God gives us a way to live together in the meantime — I think that’s what the Romans passage is about. For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s downpayment on the way things are supposed to be, but we have to live in meantime. And it’s not all victorious. There may be a son of man out there yet to come to set things to rights; in the meantime, following the Christ, the son of the living God involves us in looking for the royalty in all.

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