Sermon for 22nd Sunday in OT 2014
Readings: Jeremiah 20: 7 to 9 (“You duped me, O Lord . . . ); Psalm 63 (My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God); Rom 12: 1-2 (“be transformed by the renewal of your mind”); Matthew 16: 21-27 ( Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”)
GET BEHIND ME SATAN! Such harsh words. Don’t you feel sorry for Peter? It only now occurs to me that Jesus isn’t name-calling here. He may not be pasting this label on Peter at all, but rather he’s calling out to the cosmos, defying evil just as he had done during the Temptations in the desert when he began his ministry.
Let’s examine why Peter’s words for Jesus’ safety and comfort trigger Jesus’ conscious battle with Satan and evil. To begin with, “comfort and safety,”’important as they are, do not comprise our highest values or our ultimate goals. Granted, a spirit of “comfort and safety” in God’s care for us is foundational for faith’s dynamism to grow but that is different for our financial and material security. We all depend upon that too much. It is clear the Holy Spirit’ thrives on appropriate risk-taking on God’s behalf with the risk Jesus took taking up the cross the greatest risk of all.
Taking risks on how we explain the mystery and power if the Cross, opening ourselves to deeper in our understanding of this incredible mystery, always beyond our complete comprehension, can provide a stronger faith foundation for us. After all, Peter misunderstood what the Cross could do. Who can ever fully fathom the wisdom of God? Yet, try we must.
Traditionally, the Church understood the Cross as Jesus making restitution for our sins to God the Father. The father required complete selflessness, total self-giving on Christ’s behalf in order to return the world to its proper balance. Jesus was understood as the sacrifice God demanded in order to forgive the world for its obstinacy, arrogance and defiance of God.
Using their Hebrew backgrounds, the biblical writers naturally equated Jesus with the Passover Lamb of Sacrifice whose blood alone could assuage God’s anger and God’s appetite for complete surrender—a complete surrender only the Christ could accomplish. Christ’s blood offered to God would then cover over and ultimately wash away the sins of humankind. Many Fathers and Doctors of the Church continued to use this analogy through millennia in attempts to understand the reason for the Cross and why Jesus had to suffer for our sake. Pastors and preachers continue to build on this analogy to this very day. And these concepts remain an important way of approaching the mysticism and mystery of the Cross beyond our understanding.
Still, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of courage continue to impact the collective human mind and the Church’s imagination over the centuries. Modern scholars of the past 100 years or so, and especially the last 30, have been inviting us to see new paradigms, new ways of understanding and appropriating the spiritual benefits of the Cross. They respect the Tradition and the tools for discovery the Spirit endowed each generation. But clearly, new generations don’t understand the old biblical language, its metaphors and allusions. Today’s theologians insist on asking the same questions former Christians and people from other faiths continue to ask. And, honestly,the question we, too, ask: “Why has God been presented as so blood-thirsty all these years?” The response: God is not what these metaphors imply. If Jesus is truly the full revelation of the Living God, must we not understand God through the lens of Jesus’ life? And that is what the new theology and new evangelization does. It looks to Jesus who lived his life with the people, for the people, forgiving the people. Just as God has done for centuries in other ways, the Cross invites the gift of free will to play out its consequences all the while offering not condemnation, but love, kindness and forgiveness. Thus the way of the Cross became the constant source of hope for positive change and transformation for all the world. Our theologians now say what many of us have felt or sensed all along: God did not demand Jesus’ sacrifice. Humanity did. God gave humankind what we wanted, what we demanded so that we might learn from the consequences of our actions. God has always done this and always will. Isn’t that how the Bible plays itself out? Isn’t that how our world plays out to this very day? So, in truth, God surrendered to humanity’s sins in the same way Jesus surrendered to the Cross.
Now we ask, “why does God surrender to us? Why does God put up with us?” ANSWER: Out of a wondrous Love that keeps on giving, a love that is constant and unrelenting. God surrenders to sin to keep the relationship going! For relationship is the heart of God. Indeed, God desires to embrace all that God creates. That is why Christianity insists God is Trinity- relationship itself. So, God surrenders in order to Love and forgive. It is time we accepted more fully how love and forgiveness are as inseparable as the Trinity itself: seemingly distinct one and the same entity.
We’re left with two questions: What sins are forgiven and how are they forgiven in the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ? The sins are nothing more or less than every source of human evil: hatred, jealousies, fears and angers, selfishness—especially when manifested in violence, in “scapegoat-ing” through self-righteousness. Jesus takes on the Cross on God’s behalf to expose the sins of the world, to hold up the mirror to the damage that we do to ourselves, to others, to creation. The method of forgiveness begins by having us look upon the innocent man suffering cruelties of individuals, church and state, allowing ourselves to be filled with sorrow. From sorrow comes compassion, sensitivity to victims and to the sufferings we cause for ourselves and for our world. But more was and is needed because filled with such honesty and sorrow, who then could withstand the guilt, the shame ? The truth is we could not and we can’t. Indeed, the cross offers us plenty of opportunity for self-recrimination but , thank God, not God’s condemnation. God offers deliverance instead. We appropriate that deliverance when we choose to admit our guilt, expunge our sorrow by making amends to our neighbors and to creation because God forgives us even when no others will. Indeed, the Cross invites us to allow our angers and fears, guilt and shame to melt away, allowing God to transform our desires for hate and violence into compassion for ourselves and others. Because of God’s graciousness, we can claim there’s always another day, another chance for us and others to change. But those ideas are just sentiment unless we fully engage in sorrow for our selfish acts, sorrow for denying the centrality of God in our lives and in our world.
You see, for the salvation of the world, The Cross engages us in sorrow to bring us into joy. It’s what we demanded not knowing how much it’s what we truly needed. God could not let humanity have the last word , miss the crucial step of sorrow aware of the suffering we cause because we run from sorrow and don’t want to take responsibility for it. If we had the last word, the triumph of the cross would be our satisfaction to seek revenge for it. Out for blood, we would have perpetuated blame, making others suffer for sins we commit to keep us in a false sense of superiority and blamelessness. That trend is what keeps us in the ways of the world as they are rather than what they might be / could be. Our last word would have perpetuated the realities of the disciples as we found them on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, living in fear and cowardice, seeking to blame and condemn. But the Cross of Jesus brought about the Resurrection, not blame and recrimination. The Resurrected Jesus speaks words such as “peace be with you,” “your sins are forgiven,” and “now go and offer the world the same.” Thus, building upon the old and infusing new spirit for today, we must understand the Cross as evidence that God is always good —not blood thirsty. Therefore, God worthy of worship, awe, reverence and gratitude—not fear. And that is the ultimate message of the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments.
GET BEHIND US, SATAN. It is time we began thinking in new ways, building on the old and learning from our mistakes. Inviting ourselves and others into new ways of approaching mystery, God’s majesty and the meaning of the Cross. We must engage ourselves in sharing the old truths in new and life-affirming ways to new generations of Christians and potential Christians. GET BEHIND US, SATAN, for unless you leave us, we continue to be short-sighted, to be self-centered, condemning others when we find ourselves coming up short, rather than transforming ourselves. GET BEHIND US, SATAN, for it is easier to blame than pick up the Cross to work for solutions. GET BEHIND US SATAN’ for we have been ungrateful for Jesus and what the Cross has done and still does for us. GET BEHIND US SATAN, don’t get in our way. For we want to approach the altar with humility today, not with arrogance but gratefulness, not with entitlement, but contrition. Our presence here today is yet another means of picking up the Cross to let Jesus empower us to be more sensitive, more patient, more hopeful, more courageous and generous. May this Eucharist offers us another chance to bathe ourselves first in sorrow and then in Thanksgiving to see things differently, our lives differently, to see and worship Jesus Christ in newer, stronger ways than we ever have before for our sake and for the sake of the world.