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Overcome evil with good

4 Search for the Lord and his strength; *continually seek his face.

5 Remember the marvels he has done, *his wonders and the judgments of his mouth

Last week in our reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus and his followers have traveled to Caesarea Phillipi, a town approximately 25 miles north of Galilee where Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is. They respond that some say he is John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah—all of them prophets from long ago. This line of reasoning has merit in that Jesus is following a long line of prophets. But then Jesus gets to the heart of the matter. He turns to those who have followed him from the beginning of his ministry and says, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter speaking for the disciples present says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirms his answer and notes that his insight is God’s gift to him. Jesus then lays the mantle of authority on Peter and tells him that the keys to the kingdom of heaven are his. He will build the church that will serve as a bulwark against the forces of evil that will threaten the followers of Jesus Christ.

But it doesn’t take long to realize that Peter does not exactly understand what following the Messiah, the Son of the living God means. Peter, rightly perhaps, thinks that Jesus as God’s anointed is going to lead God’s people to victory in the usual way. Peter remembers the warrior-king David and how he drove out oppressors and liberated the Israelites. When Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah or the anointed one of God, images of political independence are certainly on his mind. Nowhere does God’s Messiah lead to being tortured and executed as a shameful criminal on a cross.

Peter is shocked and heartbroken to think that punishment and death is Jesus’ path. So as every well intentioned friend would do, he takes Jesus aside to correct his skewed way of thinking. “No, man you are mistaken. You’re wrong, this can never be!” Peter, presuming his new status, tries to help Jesus “get back on message.” He fears for Jesus, but he also worries that this message will dishearten those who follow Jesus, dooming his brand new church to certain failure. Peter like the other religious leaders, wants Jesus to accept the world as it is—finding the way to being good and helping others without causing too much disruption to the status quo. But Jesus turns on Peter, condemning him in the strongest words, calling him “Satan,” the one who blocks the way to God. Peter has moved from being the rock on which the church of Jesus Christ will be built, to a stumbling block, like the devil in the wilderness, who tempts Jesus to turn away to save himself.

But Jesus is not done. Once he has rejected Peter’s plea, he turns to the other disciples and says, “If you are to follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your own cross. Trying to save your lives using the ways of the world, will only lead to losing them. Standing on the sidelines, accepting the ways things are as they way they have to be, leads only to death.

To the world in the time of Jesus, the cross was not a metaphor, but an instrument of agonizing suffering–a place of diminishment and humiliation. But to follow Jesus means a paradox, the only way to live life fully is to be willing to give it up in love.  Parents know this, lovers know this, that love requires to be fully alive the willingness to give all for your beloved. But followers of Jesus are also to be willing to give all for strangers and even, as in Paul’s letter today to the church in Rome to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And in doing so to “overcome evil with good.”  Bearing a cross means following in the way of Jesus and that means standing alongside all of God’s beloved children, drawing the circle wider and wider so that no one is left outside of God ‘s life-giving love, it means seeing in each other the goodness that is there and calling out that goodness so all may experience the richness of God’s blessings and a peace that passes all understanding.

As a follower of Christ, I am not just to work on moving beyond my own self-focused view of the world, I am to place the needs of others alongside and equal to my own. As a follower of Jesus, I cannot turn a blind eye to the cries of the world because I have been told—rather shown—what is demanded of me. This is not convenient or easy. But even Peter, who did not like one bit what Jesus was showing and telling him in that intimate heated conversation, received the message.

God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus has shown us what is required—to step outside myself, to take up my cross and follow, to do what may be hard to do what is just, to wash feet, to tend and feed his flock, to forgive others and myself, and to pray for those who persecute me and rejoice with those who rejoice.  A cross is not just something I wear to tell others who I am, but to remind myself of who the worlds needs me to be.

A few weeks ago in Charlottesville Virginia, students, preachers, people of faith and people of courage knew that they could not sit on the sidelines when white supremacists were coming to their town, to their state, in their country, spitting words of violence and hate against those who are vulnerable in our society. They could not just stay out of sight, looking on safely while people with sticks and shields, Nazi flags, and guns proclaimed that some are worthy and superior and some are expendable. People of faith took up their cross, faced down anger and fear, and put their bodies on the line for love. Some gave their own lives to be present.

In Texas, even as the flood waters from Hurricane Harvey continue to isolate and cause great suffering, people seeing the need of others have reached out to strangers, have offered shelter in their homes, have gathered supplies and taken them to those in great need, have helped neighbors begin the long work of removing wet carpet and destroyed furniture. A church in Houston is ministering to people who fearing immigration authorities are trapped in flooded homes and under highway bridges. A friend of mine who, even with water lapping against the front door of his house, took out his boat to go to the aid of others. The recovery, whatever that even means, will be long and exhausting. But with people willing to take care of others, the heartbreak and the work will be shared.

Jesus says that when the “Son of Man comes in glory, he will repay everyone for what has been done.” It is a word of promise to those who follow Jesus. Bearing a cross may look to the world like a tragedy, it also can look like a scandal, but in God’s eyes it is a glory. Whenever in the name of Christ we are willing to offer ourselves, our love, our gifts, and our time to serve any of God’s children, it matters to God. A life that cares for the sick, produces food for the hungry, hammers nails so someone can live in a safe house, visits the lonely, stands up for those who are vulnerable, may seem to be of little worth in the economy of self-improvement, but in God’s eyes it is the only way to be fully alive. It is the great paradox of the Christian life—that by dying, we live; by giving, we receive; in denying ourselves, we become fully who we can be.

 

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