Have you ever noticed that in the movies, the hero always gets begged not to go and save
“No, its too dangerous Superman– they’ve got Kryptonite.”
“No, Captain Kirk - Jim, you can’t do it, they’ll kill you.”
“James (as in James Bond), please don’t do go, I can’t stand to lose you.”
And then usually the hero leaves anyway, and then performs some heroic act. Sometimes the hero may get compromised for a while, like Superman with the Kryptonite, but they escape. They get themselves out of the jam and save the world in the process. Or maybe save the whole galaxy if its Captain Kirk.
And I’m glad. So are the Lois Lanes, and the Dr McCoys, and the many objectified women that James Bond has taken advantage of, I mean saved.
Because they are safe now. They can rest, and we can rest. The world is a better place because the hero has solved the world’s problems.
Maybe I’m weird, but that’s what comes to mind for me in the Gospel this morning.
Peter, learning that Jesus intends to put himself in harm’s way to save the world, acts just like Dr. McCoy, or Lois Lane. “You can’t do it, Jesus. I won’t let you. I’m going to do everything I can to keep you here, safe!”
But how can you blame him, really? We wouldn’t have the story of Superman or Star Trek without the love of Lois Lane for Superman or Dr. McCoy for his friend, Jim, and we wouldn’t have the passion of Christ without the love of Peter for his beloved Jesus and his fear of what he now knows will be a loss. If Peter just sat back and said, ”oh, ok, so you’re going to die, that’s cool” we wouldn’t think very much of Peter, would we?
The church has inherited Peter’s resistance to change and loss, through the ages. We go in centuries-long cycles, remembering who Jesus really is and forgetting in favor of staying safe inside a building, or preserving the Church as if it is ours and not Christ’s. We are just like Peter. We forget that the mission of the church is not to be comfortable or a made-to-order spiritual experience like a “Have it your way” Burger King cheeseburger but to be out there and vulnerable. But if we didn’t forget, we wouldn’t be very human, would we? The collect for the day takes this pattern of the Church into account by asking God for the increase of ”true religion”.
￼The architects of my seminary chapel tried to address this problem in part by placing the cross outside the building. At the front of the nave, there are windows, and the cross is placed outside the building beyond the glass to continually remind us that the mission of the church lies outside the walls of the building; that the purpose of worship is to feed us to go back out into the world and do the work we are called to do. Remember, we do not have a recession in the liturgy, but we process back out into the world at the end of the service to do the work we are called to do. The Church is never in recess so there is no recession. On the side of the seminary chapel is a wall of windows overlooking downtown Austin, again intending to draw us into the city, where the cross of discipleship pulls us. I have thought about that architecture often as we live here into our mission as the Cathedral for the City, with all of our wonderful outreach into the park and beyond.
But Peter is trying to preserve a different religion, in keeping Jesus’ body intact. Peter still doesn’t understand all that Jesus has taught- which has been primarily as a living example of healing the sick, and feeding the poor, and living on the street with those who have nowhere else to go, by building relationships with all different kinds and sorts of people– and only rarely by speaking in synagogues as the scribes or professors do. All of his relationship building has lead up to this ultimate moment of sacrifice.
Because the giving of Jesus’ life only makes sense as a saving action if Jesus is who he says he is: the Son of God, the Messiah: the Christ. If he is not, then his death is just senseless violence.
But even though Peter has said he believes Jesus is the Son of God, he hasn’t put the pieces together yet: he is waiting for the Superman that will put down the Roman Empire and free the nation of Israel from the Emperor. He can’t see how Jesus’ death saves anything.
And how much more confusing that Jesus goes one step further and says that not only will he die, but also that his followers have to take up the cross, too! How shocking that Jesus tells his followers– the disciples then and us now– that to follow him will mean taking up the cross, a Roman imperial death sentence. That’s a hard thing to hear.
The piece that Peter didn’t get is the thing that neither Superman, nor Captain Kirk, nor any other movie hero can offer. There is resurrection after the cross. Jesus is going to save the whole world, and he invites his followers to enter that journey. A journey into vulnerability, not triumph, not status, power, or control. A journey of letting go, not of holding on. A journey of entering into the fragility of humanity, not of trying to manage it. A journey of not being afraid to trust in a power greater than our own ego. Can you imagine a church whose committees ran on such a structure? Or a world where being with each other and learning about each other was the way forward rather than political maneuvering, power, and war?
This isn’t a Superman movie where Lois gets to stay home and get some very cheap grace while Superman does all the work. This is real, incarnational grace. This is the real, hands on, dirty and messy love of God. This is true religion. Jesus isn’t trying to shame or guilt Peter. He is offering Peter an invitation to something Peter hasn’t understood yet.
￼This incarnational grace through the cross is the love of God that Jesus lived life on the streets of Jerusalem for. That he was born into a barn for instead of a nice comfy house, so that those who are born into challenging environments can feel Jesus as they bear their cross. Jesus ate with the poor, so that the unsheltered in Balboa park can know that there is a saving God with them as they bear their cross. This Christ lived with those that are sick and healed them so that people today can know that there is a God who walks with them as they bear their cross of pain and illness.
And Jesus lived in humility so that we can be reminded to work our ego and pride and trust that we in fact are not the ultimate authority. But letting go of that ego opens up a new possibility: a worth based not in how right you can be or how perfect you can make things but how much you are loved because of who you are, not what you do: and in that be opened to the messiness of this human life, that we might see the wondrous graces of a God that loves and interconnects all of us, even when we stumble, fall, and lose our way; a God who loves you when all the externals are stripped away and you stand naked and vulnerable.
It’s so easy to blast other traditions for prosperity gospel- especially this past week. Sometimes I wonder if we have set up our own version of the prosperity gospel that doesn’t require bearing a cross, where we focus on blessing without risk. I have to say, I was a little disappointed when I realized my preaching opportunity today was on “pick up your cross and carry me.” I’d much rather preach on God loves you, or we welcome all, or turning water into wine. There is blessing in our tradition, but what I realized in preparing for today is that if we are not careful, we end up with cheap grace- with blessing like Lois Lane waiting for Superman to save the world while we wait doing nothing. We are certainly not doing nothing at St Paul’s! But if the fundamentalist traditions risk overemphasizing legalistic behavior changes, I wonder if the mainline traditions can fall into a pattern of inviting into blessing and hospitality without talking about transformation; bearing our crosses in shared discipleship both in our inner landscapes and our outward journey of reconciliation.
It may not be fun, it may not be popular, but the cost of discipleship is an important part of faith. And it’s tricky, because it is not the same as working to earn God’s love, or any other perversion of grace. And I’m afraid without that regular and ongoing transformation- which can be quite painful, the church is just a club.
I will never forget when I went to seminary, I was in a small group where we were beginning the process of our formation as priests. A colleague who became one of my best friends said this: “I know that being here at seminary, a part of me is going to have to die. But that is so that another part of me is going to be able to be born.” I have always appreciated her courage in being prepared to sacrifice a part of herself for her faith. And I have never forgotten it, because she was right, and that’s not just for priests. It’s the very nature of baptism: we plunge into the water, a part of us drowning, and a new part of us rising. That new life is beautiful. And that doesn’t mean that the old part is ugly; it is just as beautifully human as Peter’s love for Jesus in today’s story, his reluctance to let Jesus die because he can’t touch or see the new risen life. That death and rebirth, along with the continual courage to face the new life ahead, that transformation, is not a one-time thing– it is our joy, our opportunity, to be open to and receive as a gift over and
￼over and over again as we live our lives in faith.
Because losing our lives is not the end. It is only the beginning. And that, my dear brothers and
sisters, is grace.
￼The Rev. Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 17A, September 3, 2017
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego
Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.