Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Who Then Can Be Saved?

As we work our way through the second half of Matthew's gospel in today's readings, we find Jesus taking care of some of the "details" of the Kingdom he is establishing. He is reassuring the apostles that those who follow him, and suffer for it in this life, will find rest and peace in eternal life.

But before that we have the recurring lesson that I can't reach heaven by my own efforts. In the discussion about camels pass through needles easier than the rich enter heaven, The disciples say: “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds, “For men this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” Self-reliance, a virtue Americans in particular love ( "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" sort of mentality), fails us when it comes to getting to heaven. Jesus knows that we want to be self reliant, and so he continues to repeat this lesson that this doesn't work. You can't earn heaven. You can't work for heaven. You can only accept heaven as a gift from the God who loves you more than you deserve. 

But nonetheless, work and do good. Do good for God by doing good for others. This is the proper response to God's love for you. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Peace or the Sword

All the readings today point to the cost of discipleship. For Jeremiah in the first reading, the cost of following God was almost his death at the bottom of a well. Jesus in the Gospel lays out clearly the cost of discipleship. The cost is division, and maybe even the loss of everything we want to hold onto. And then, sandwiched in between the story of Jeremiah almost dying in the well and Jesus' promise that parents and children will be turned against each other, we find the letter to the Hebrews saying, if I may paraphrase, "Come on, you still haven't even shed your blood yet. You call yourself a disciple?" Wow! Apparently following God involves more than butterflies and unicorns, so let's take a look at what this is all about.

Let's focus on the Gospel first. First off, notice who Jesus is speaking to today. This lesson isn't addressed to the crowds or to a big group like some of his lessons are. This lesson is given only to the disciples. This lesson, that he came to set fire to the earth and to cause division, would be a terrible opening line if he were trying to convert people to his cause, but it works great to teach people who are already converted about the true cost of following him. So this lesson is to teach the disciples of his day, and us also, what the cost of following him is going to be.

To understand the reading today, we need to have a sense of how the Gospel is arranged. At this point in Luke's Gospel, things are starting to build to Jesus's crucifixion and death in Jerusalem. A couple chapters before today's reading, near the end of the ninth chapter, we passed a watershed moment in Luke's Gospel where Jesus "set his face to go towards Jerusalem." We heard that reading back on June 30th as we slowly work our way through Luke's Gospel this year. From that point forward, everything in Luke's Gospel has Jerusalem as the background. Everything from that point forward has Jesus's pending suffering and death, and ultimately his victory, as the background. So we have to read today's reading with Jerusalem, and the suffering it represents, as the backdrop.

So with Jerusalem as the background, Jesus wants to warn us today that following him may come at a cost. For some people, it may not. For some people, they are Christian, all their family are Christians, all their friends are Christians, and they go through life pretty unchallenged, without ever having to sacrifice for their faith. Blessed are those people. But for most of us, discipleship comes at a cost because not everyone understands why were Christian. Most of us have people in our life who have rejected this Christian faith that means so much to us. And when you have people disagreeing on such fundamental things as religion, you can't help but have division in the world.

And yet, even while Jesus promises division in today's reading, we know that in other places he has promised peace, he has told us to work for peace, and we even call him the Prince of Peace. How do we reconcile these two things? I think we have to recognize a couple things. One: there is evil in the world, and it is totally opposed to Jesus. Two: to be at peace with this evil means to be divided from Christ, but to be against this evil means to at peace with Christ and united with him. And I'm talking about  the big evils that allows things like abortion and slave trafficking to continue even today and the "little" evil that causes each of us to sin dozens of times a day. If we don't oppose evil in the world and in ourselves then we aren't at peace with Christ. I think sometimes we are passive towards the evils of the world out of a misguided sense of peace. We think "Jesus called us to love everyone and live peacefully, so maybe I shouldn't vocally oppose abortion, unjust wages, or unfair immigration laws in my country." But to not oppose these things means to be divided from Christ, while opposing these things and risking the division that opposition causes is one of the things that unites us with Christ.

As we start to recognize the cost of discipleship that Jesus is warming us of, lets look at the second reading, the Letter to the Hebrews. This letter reminds us today that what we are shooting for is heaven. Because heaven is the goal, no sin or anything else is worth it. That cloud of witnesses that the reading references is the saints in heaven, these saints surround us daily, and they encourage us and help us in this battle against sin and evil. But look at what this letter says, again, paraphrasing: "Because we are surrounded by these witnesses, these saints, let us work towards heaven and rid ourselves of everything that holds us back." Again, if heaven is our goal, nothing else is worth hanging onto at the expense of gaining heaven.

In the midst of all these readings about cost and sacrifice and division, the Gospel Acclamation grounds us in our reason for hope. The Gospel Acclamation is the Alleluia verse we sing right before the Gospel. Today we sang "My sheep hear my voice, says The Lord. I know them and they follow me." In the midst of the difficulties of the Christian life, in the midst of the sacrifices we have to make as Christians, The Lord, whom we call the Good Shepherd, is with us the whole way. He isn't standing afar off, hoping we make it to him, no, he is running this race with us. We only run this race towards heaven, we only do good each day, by relying on him. So accept bravely the cost of discipleship, and all the division and sacrifice that goes along with it. Because we know if we run this race to the end we will be united with Jesus in heaven even more perfectly than we are united with him on earth, and that makes all the sacrifice worth it.