The way of Christ – a way of life and love and peace – stumbles us out of our way of death, breaks open our hearts to be like God’s, and heals all things.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 27 A
Texts: Matthew 21:33-46; Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Philippians 3:4b-14
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Jesus is a stumbling block. A rock that breaks things into pieces.
Jesus says so, not his enemies.
He quotes Psalm 118, “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” We know that Psalm. We sing it every Easter morning, rejoicing that Christ, the rejected stone, the Crucified One, has been raised from the dead. Is the Rock on which we build our life, the Cornerstone of the hope of the universe, the Foundation of the Church.
But that foundation, that rock, that cornerstone, trips people up, causes them to stumble? Breaks them into pieces? How can Jesus be both cornerstone and stumbling block?
Jesus is just telling the truth, nothing more.
Jesus isn’t threatening to break us in pieces or knock us over on our path if we do wrong. He’s still God-with-us, the Risen Christ, whose love for us and the creation never ends, the foundation of our hope. But he’s saying, following me means you will fall over me when you try to go your own way. You have habits, behaviors, attitudes, that need to be broken and gotten rid of, or you can’t follow in my way.
In First Corinthians, Paul said the cross of Christ is a stumbling block, not only to others, but even to us. It’s not just a stumbling block to our minds, though, to understand what God is doing at the cross. Today Jesus says it’s also a challenge to us in our everyday life, our discipleship, our following.
“Lose your life to find it,” Jesus says. Following the One who loses his life for the sake of the world means that’s our path, too. And that’s a huge stumbling block to us. We fear being knocked out of our comfortable way of doing things. We fear letting go of things, fear the pain we might feel. But if you’re following Christ and nothing ever causes you to stumble out of your own path, nothing ever is broken out of you and lost, you’re probably not following Christ.
You don’t have to fall over Jesus at all, though. You can dodge the stumbling block. Just don’t follow Jesus.
No one is forced to follow Christ on the path of self-giving, losing love. If you don’t want to stumble over Jesus, or be broken open, just go your own path and you’ll never encounter even a misstep.
But if you see that Jesus’ way is a way of life and hope for you and for all, you won’t be able to dodge the stumbling block.
If you believe that a way of love of God and love of neighbor is a way that will heal the world, if you know that Jesus’ way is a way of making peace, of merciful justice, if you see that love of enemies is the hope of reconciliation for all people, then Jesus is going to be tripping you up a lot in your everyday life. Breaking you open.
Because the way that dodges the stumbling block, avoids being broken, is a way that we see all too much today. That appalling display last Tuesday night in the “debate” is just the ugly face on a world where far too many live for themselves, whether others are hurt or not. The hatred we see for others in our leaders, in our culture, the systemic problems that cause so much needless suffering, the destructive selfish behaviors that shock us to see even in ourselves, these are all on the path that avoids being broken and tripped up.
The path of life Jesus offers the world, the path that looks so wholesome, and good, and fulfilling, and hopeful, is found by stumbling into Jesus’ way and being willing to be broken open for love – love of God, love of neighbor, love of the creation.
But remember: on Christ’s path you are always, always with the One who loves you with an eternal love.
If you follow Jesus, yes, you’ll stumble over taking up his cross, you’ll be broken open. But you’re following the One who tells you daily you are forever loved in the heart of the Triune God, and that life follows death, healing follows suffering. You’re following the One you trust with your life.
When Israel heard the Ten Commandments, they must have been a bit of a stumbling block. They learned that living into them was hard. Habits needed to be broken, new paths taken. But the Commandments were given them by the God who took them out of slavery in love and led them to a new land. The Commandments showed a way for the community of God to live and thrive, even if they meant sacrifice, and they came after they’d all seen for themselves how loved they were by God.
Paul says the same thing to the Philippians today: he’s been so changed by belonging to Christ – a belonging that has cost him dearly many times – he’s learned nothing is too hard to let go of if it means becoming more like Christ’s love, that even losing all things is gaining because of God’s love in Christ that owns him.
They could have had a party in this parable, you know.
They could have enjoyed a rich harvest of grapes, realized that they didn’t own the vineyard and in gratitude shared the produce with the owner and with all their neighbors, and celebrated. Feasted. Sipped wine made from their own grapes. Instead, they killed the owner’s representatives, even the owner’s son.
But that Son willingly died to give them life. Rose from the dead to reverse the judgment that they’d lose the vineyard. Came back to say, “now that I’m alive again, could you please live in this vineyard that you don’t own in such a way that all share in its fruits? All are blessed?”
The way of Christ calls you to stumble from walking your own way, a way of hurt instead of healing, a way of hate instead of love, and that’s actually a good thing, because it leads to joy and celebration. The way of Christ breaks habits that harm you and others and the world, and that’s actually a good thing, because it leads to mercy and justice. A harvest of abundance in the vineyard of this earth, enough for all.
“You are my beloved,” God says to you in Christ. “Let me trip you out of your way that leads to death, break open your heart to be one like mine, and you will find life you never dreamed existed.
And so will my whole creation.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen