A Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who will make us truly great. Amen.
Do you think Jesus ever turned to the disciples, irritated, and yelled, “What did I just tell you?” Or greet their frequent questions with the same exasperated sigh of a parent who has just been asked for the millionth time why her son couldn’t have a pre-dinner snack?
Last week, after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, Christ told his disciples the bad news: the Son of Man would be betrayed, beaten, and brutally murdered. Peter…well Peter didn’t handle the news well. And the bad news kept coming: not only was Jesus going to die, but following him meant taking up a cross as well. To be a disciple is to deny your self. “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
But that was last week. That was a chapter ago. After that, Jesus climbed the mountain with James, John, and Peter. He was transfigured before them, shining forth in radiant beauty. Then Christ drove a demon out of a young child. It had been quite a week! God’s majesty was on full display. Everything was great again.
And now the ragtag group of disciples is working their way to Jerusalem. We may be seven months away from Holy Week, but the disciples are only about a chapter and a half from the triumphal entry. The closer the disciples get to Jerusalem, the closer they draw to Golgotha, the more Jesus talks about the cross.
And so, on their way through Galilee, Christ returns to the topic of his approaching Passion: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him….”
Picture it: the disciples stare back at Jesus, blank faced. Dumbfounded. An awkward silence passes. Jesus turns around and starts walking, with the disciples following behind obediently but confused. Mary Magdalene and Andrew start talking:
“Uh, what was that about?”
“Hey, Simon. You’re the Rock. Tell us what he was talking about.”
“Yeah, c’mon Peter. Go ask for clarification.”
Simon Peter responds, “No way. Remember what happened last time? No way I’m gonna be the one to ask.”
“But someone has to. And you’re his favorite.”
That’s when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, chime in: “Well I wouldn’t go that far.”
“Yeah, after all, we were also on the mountain.”
“So one of you will go ask?”
They look at each other and then at Peter. “No.”
And the conversation kind of goes off the rails as the disciples start jockeying for positions of favor in the coming Kingdom, but none of them are willing to go ask Jesus what he meant. The closer the disciples get to Jerusalem, the more they misunderstand. As they approach that holy city, visions of messianic glory enter their head. They begin to think about the Son of David on his ancestor’s throne, about the freedom from Roman oppression, about the coming Kingdom, about great authority within the new administration.
They arrive in Capernaum, and the Lord asks the disciples what they were discussing.
And there’s more awkward silence.
This is where I think Christ rolled his eyes and yelled, “WHAT DID I JUST TELL YOU! We’re not heading for some lavish palace filled with gold. Get this through your heads: my throne will be a cross. You don’t understand what greatness is yet.”
It’s easy for us to sit back and laugh at the disciples’ misunderstanding. We have the benefit of hindsight; we have the end in mind. We know how the story ends. How comical – they still don’t get it! Those crazy disciples.
But how pervasive is their folly? The disciples’ arguments over greatness have lingered in the Church, have grown and driven sinful division and lust for power. How widespread is the lie that power is zero-sum? How often do we believe the lie that for us to be great, others must suffer? How soon after the Ascension did the Church begin pursuing selfish ambition? How quickly did we begin to covet the wealth and power of empires? How long did it take for bishops and pastors to start trampling on the poor while chasing prestige?
Saint James’ epistle is written to a Church already favoring the wealthy at the expense of the poor, giving the rich positions of honor at the Eucharist while sending the impoverished to stand on the margins.
Saint Paul wrote a similar letter to the Church in Corinth, condemning the practice whereby the rich got drunk off the Blood of Christ while sending the poor away hungry.
By the fourth century, the Bishop of Rome, the heirs of Saint Peter, enjoyed a lavish lifestyle.
In the middle ages, bishops across Europe rivaled princes and kings in their wealth and power.
Even as Martin Luther attacked the Roman church for its extravagance, he cultivated alliances with princes and dukes; famously, he allowed Phillip of Hesse to practice polygamy to ensure his continued support.
American Christian pastors mined Scripture to support slavery, and even divided the Church between North and South to maintain economic power for Southern slave owners.
In the lead up to World War I, theologians lent their support to the war effort; Adolf von Harnack, a Lutheran and strong proponent of the Social Gospel, joined with other theologians from across the Church in signing a major declaration supporting the first global, industrialized war; with German and English Christians cheering it on, the “Great War” killed more than ten million soldiers and seven million civilians.
Having not learned from the Church’s two thousand years of sinful mistakes, the past forty years have seen fundamentalist pastors lend their full-throated support to one American political party, eventually supporting torture and rallying around a presidential candidate who has boasted of the sin and the crime of sexual assault.
These sinful acts run counter to the Gospel.
Our pursuit of power has brought about the disorder and wickedness that Saint James warned about. Relentlessly chasing after “greatness” and earthly might, Christians of all stripes have supported monsters and devils.
With the pressures of this world pressing in around us, with such strong temptations pulling us away from Christ, what are we to do? It is so, so difficult to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses. So much of the world tells us not to.
Jesus has warned us about what will happen: The Son of Man will be betrayed and killed. And we know the price of following him is a cross.
Meanwhile, the powers and principalities whisper to us, “There is power here. Use it. Leverage it. You can be great again. Do you know what this person could do for you if you just tell them what they want to hear? What they can do to you if you oppose them? Bow down before them and receive your reward. Serve yourself and those who can help you; let everyone else fend for themselves. Money, prestige, social standing – it can all be yours if you just set down that cross.”
If the Church is so fallen, has given in to these temptations time and again, century after century, what hope can there be? If the great saints of the past have fallen so far, how can we hope to do any better? The litany of our sinful failings is long. Where do we find the strength to serve the least of these, to welcome those of little account, to carry the cross of self-denial? At the foot of the cross, when all seems lost, how do we carry on?
Beloved, do not be greatly troubled. Repent and believe, for we have this assurance: the Son of Man may be betrayed and killed, but on the third day, Christ will rise again. Death and suffering don’t have the final say. Violence does not have the final say. The powers and principalities do not have the final say. The wealth and esteem of this world will not last. The kingdoms of this world will crumble and fall. But the Kingdom of God will endure.
Through the glory of his resurrection, Christ has revealed the lies of the earthly powers; in handing himself over to be killed but rising again, Christ has revealed what true greatness looks like. The power of God looks like the Cross of Christ! And by conquering sin, the devil, and death, our Lord has set us free. Baptized into his death and new life, we are set free – free to be servants of all. United into one Body at through this most blessed Sacrament, we are nourished and given strength – strength to be weak in the eyes of the world.
Nourished by God’s grace in the Sacraments, we have been given the strength to renounce the devil and all his empty promises, to renounce the powers of tis world that rebel against God, to renounce the ways of sin that draw us from God. We have been given the strength to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of our Lord, and to strive for justice and peace – not just in Macon, not just in Georgia, not just in the United States, but in all the earth. We have been given the strength to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to love our enemies, to love one another.
My friends, our Lord has graciously forgiven our sins and given us the strength to endure all temptations. We will be tested and tried; we will fall. But Jesus the Christ will raise us up to the position of servants. He will continue to strengthen us that we might love the lowly, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, visit the sick and the imprisoned, welcome the refugee. In them, we see Christ. In them, we see Christ. In serving the least of these, our sisters and brothers, we exercise true greatness.