Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel
by Kristin Berkey-Abbott
The readings for Sunday, August 28, 2011:
First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 3:1-15
Psalm: Psalm 26:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b
Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21
Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28
This Gospel shows us a picture of Jesus who knows that he's on a path to crucifixion. With clear sight and clear mission, Jesus warns his disciples of what's ahead.
Peter has a typical reaction: "That will never happen." Peter reminds me of today's prosperity preachers, who deny the ugliness of the world, the difficulties of life, and the mission that Jesus calls us to do. Forget all that, the prosperity preachers say. Believe in God and God will shower financial wealth on you. If you don't believe me, look at the bestsellers in any Christian bookstore. It's full of books with titles like God Wants You to Be Rich. My inner cynic sneers: "Yeah and maybe God can do something about my wide hips. And maybe God could fix the leak in my colleague’s roof. And maybe God can make sure that the children of all my friends get good grades in school."
My inner cynic is perhaps too dismissive too quickly. If God appeared in my study this morning, God might say something like, "Yes, I could do something about your wide hips--and so could you, since you've done it before. Yes, I can fix that leak. If those children study, they're likely to get good grades." Then God would wait for me to stop whooping with joy, and God would say, "But I have a larger vision for the world. I have a different definition of the word rich. I'm creating my Kingdom not just in Heaven, but right here and now, on your planet, and I want you to be part."
We'll have all kinds of crosses to bear, Jesus warns us, and we'll lose our lives in all kinds of ways. But we'll get wonderful rewards.
It's important to stress that Jesus isn't just talking about Heaven, or whatever your vision is of what happens when you die. If Jesus spoke directly, Jesus might say, "You're thinking too small. Did I give you an imagination so that you let it wither and waste away? Dream big, dream big."
I'm rereading N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. He's got interesting things to say about our ideas of life after death, but he's quick to stress that Jesus doesn't just announce a Kingdom in some Heaven that's somewhere else. On the contrary--the appearance of Jesus means that God's plan for redeeming creation has begun. And we're called to help. Wright says, ". . . you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus' saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project." (204-205). He points out, "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within [our] world takes place not least through one of his creatures, in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image" (207). And for those of us who feel inadequate to the task, Wright (and before him, Jesus) reminds us of all the talents that we have at our disposal: "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).
For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus' mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King reminded us. The arc of history also bends towards beauty and wisdom and love and mercy. Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it's much harder to believe in God's vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But scripture and thousands of years of theology makes it clear, as Wright says, "We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere" (248).
We'll lose our current lives of bitterness, fear, hopelessness, and rage. But we'll find a better one as we become agents of the Kingdom.