Following Jesus is about more than being generous and cooperative people. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, God reconciles all creation to Godself.
The Rev. Beth Ann Gaede
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 22 A
Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
If you follow New York Times columnist David Brooks, you probably saw this week’s reflections on a question novelists and poets, philosophers, theologians, and maybe you have long pondered: Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally bad? Are people mostly generous, or are they mostly selfish?
As Brooks lays out his argument, he first cites a recent psychological experiment in which 200 people in seven nations around the world were each given $10,000, free, and then reported how they spent the money. On average, the participants spent more than $6,400—nearly two-thirds—to benefit others. (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/31/opinion/human-nature-good-bad-generous.html)
Brooks then goes on to cite a Harvard researcher who says: “Across a wide range of experiments, in widely diverse populations, one finding stands out: In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.”
Brooks concludes, “Humanity hasn’t thrived all these centuries because we’re ruthlessly selfish; we’ve thrived because we’re really good at cooperation.”
I’m going to dare to assume that, people being people, Jesus’ followers were pretty much like the folks these scholars studied—basically generous and cooperative.
So if that was the case, why did Jesus say, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24)? Couldn’t he assume people would listen to their good instincts and, hoping to make the world a better place, follow his teachings and imitate his ministry? Why did he talk about denial and the cross—that scary-sounding stuff?
As so often happens when we read the Bible, the context of a passage provides clues about it. And last week’s Gospel lesson is indeed helpful. There Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (v. 13) The text goes on:
And Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” (vv. 16–18)
Peter, it seems, really gets it. He understands who Jesus is, what his message and mission are. He’s all in for Team Jesus! Three cheers for Peter!
But today, continuing with the next verse of Matthew’s gospel, we learn that Jesus starts to tell his followers what lies ahead for him: “He must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (v. 21).
And how does Peter respond? “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Not surprisingly, Jesus scolds Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” (vv. 22–23).
Oh, Peter! He was so close, looking for all the world like a faithful disciple—and he totally blew it! After walking in Jesus’ footsteps, sitting at Jesus feet, breaking bread at Jesus’ table, even being designated as the rock upon whom Jesus will build his church, Peter doesn’t understand who Jesus is and what he is about.
Peter is not the only one who has trouble grasping what it means to follow Jesus. We gather from the apostle Paul’s letters to various Christian communities that he is in good company. That’s why Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:
Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; … Be patient. . . . Live in harmony with one another. . . . Live peaceably with all. . . . If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. . . . (Romans 12)
Paul is describing a transformed life. He’s telling these folks, in detailed, practical terms, to be generous and cooperative.
But wait! What about the research David Brooks cites that says human beings are generally decent to one another? Do they, do we, really need a list like Paul’s?
Well, the thing of it is, Jesus is more than a model of neighbor love. Following Jesus is about more than being generous and cooperative.
I’m not minimizing or dismissing the value of Paul’s guidance for the Christians in Rome. Hardly! Paul is a wise teacher, a good pastor, and of course we need to pay attention to him.
But Jesus the Messiah, God’s anointed one, is inviting Peter and the other disciples, and us, to work toward a much grander vision. God’s yearning is not only to create generous and cooperative people but to reconcile all creation to Godself.
When we view the life of love, patience, and peace that Paul talks about through the lens of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, we see an entire cosmos that is healed, whole, and connected. All things, even the rocks, trees, and stars, are restored. All relationships are just.
As Jesus warned, following him is not easy. Jesus’ suffering, our suffering, is real. The cross, the cross Jesus asks us to carry, is heavy. Participating in God’s grand vision demands courage and stamina. But Jesus’ suffering and death are followed by his resurrection. And in that resurrection, the powers of sin and death that divide creation are overcome.
Maybe people do have a capacity to be generous and cooperative. (We can continue to debate that point, if you like.) But in Jesus, God is working to overcome everything that interferes with the wholeness of creation. All things are reconciled by God through Jesus. We are reconciled—to one another, to all creation, to God. In this journey, we find life. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen