Matthew 16:21-28; Romans 12:9-21
Does it ever feel like the world’s collapsing?
In the news recently we’ve been hearing a lot of disheartening things: Gaza, Ferguson, Robin Williams, ISIS. Some of these things produce sadness; others, perhaps, fear.
But we are the church, the kingdom of heaven being realized on earth. God so loved the world that he sent his Son to save it. He healed the sick and befriended sinners. He taught us to put others first, to turn the other cheek, and to love our enemies.
How then are we supposed to respond to this feeling that the world is collapsing?
How are we supposed to respond to ISIS?
Some of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a German pastor and theologian who came into his own between the two world wars. A one-time self-proclaimed Pacifist, he took a very different stance when Adolf Hitler’s agenda of genocide became evident. In fact, he became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, rationalizing that in this particular case, the greater good for the world would be to see the world rid of Hitler. But before the plot was realized, Bonhoeffer was discovered and thrown into a concentration camp, where he was later killed.
Bonhoeffer is a hero, no denying it. But is this how we as Christians should respond to ISIS? Would it be okay, even a greater good, to send Jason Bourne-like spies to take out ISIS’s leaders selectively? Many Christians think so. But, on the other hand, many others do not.
Peter lived in a world he felt was collapsing.
In today’s Gospel, we encounter him responding to his world. Jesus is telling him and the other disciples about things to come. I must go to Jerusalem, Jesus says, where I will suffer at the hands of the religious leaders; and be killed. But I will rise again. For I have come into the world bringing a new kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, in which, someday, all will be put to rights.
This is the reality of Peter’s world. The Roman political system is in place. That’s how it’s been as long as Peter can remember. So he, along with Jesus and the other disciples, knows that someone claiming to be a Messiah—someone whose agenda is to establish a new kingdom—will meet political resistance. Surely he knows that violence is almost certain.
Moreover, the Jewish religious system is in place. That’s also been the case as long as Peter can remember. And Jesus doesn’t fit the mold. He’s ragtag next to the rabbis, scribes, and chief priests. Surely Peter knows that Jesus will meet resistance here. Surely Peter knows that suffering and death are a distinct possibility.
But his reaction shows that his world is collapsing: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
“Peter, this will happen, as it must. It is for the greater good.”
“But, Lord, it must not! I mean, this isn’t how I pictured it. It can’t be!”
“Peter, Peter, you only just called me the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And it is so! But do you so soon forget? You, the Rock, have become a stumbling block. You are not thinking divine things, but human things.”
How do we respond to a world that feels like it’s collapsing? How do we know if our responses are divine or human?
One response I’ve seen to life’s complicated questions is that faith is the answer. I heard this one as an adolescent wrestling through the difficulties of my parents’ divorce. Family had meant everything to me. Now my family was no longer together. Where could I now find purpose? Jesus Christ will give you purpose, youth leaders told me. And this is indeed true. But they went further. They told me that any depression I felt, that any suffering of soul, any problems I had would be healed by Christ—if only I had enough faith. Have you ever heard this message? The problem is that when bouts of depression did come, or other sorts of soul-anguish, it was now my problem. I didn’t have enough faith. I wasn’t a strong enough Christian. That’s why I was suffering. Yet didn’t even Jesus himself suffer?
Another response I’ve seen: Christianity is the answer. The people all around us, the Christians we know from church and other parts of life, these are the hands and feet of Jesus. These are the community in which you will find all manner of joy and blessings, I was told. Yet—you and I know—as much as we surround ourselves with such a community, we cannot escape pain and suffering.
Then there are the ascetics. These are Christians who believe that spiritual growth and maturity is actually found in pain and suffering. Is this the answer to life’s complicated questions?
All I can say to this is, I don’t know. I don’t know if the people who told me these things were actually responding in the right way to life’s complicated questions. I don’t know if Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the right thing when he engaged in that assassination plot against Hitler. I don’t know if the CIA should engage ISIS. These all seem like human responses to me, not divine responses. And in that case they would be stumbling blocks, like Peter was to Jesus.
But we do find a divine response to life’s complicated questions—in today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In a word, this divine response is love. “Let love be genuine,” Paul says.
He then launches into twenty-three imperatives painting a vivid picture for us of what love looks like—twenty-three divine responses to life’s complicated questions.
We don’t have time to consider each of these individually—we’d be here for hours!—so I exhort you to consider them at length later, on your own or with friends. But I will offer some observations.
First, love is not a feeling. Elsewhere Jesus tells us to love our enemies. And we think, “How in the world am I supposed to do that? I don’t even like my enemies!” Or we talk about forgiveness: how love forgives. But how am I to forgive someone who has hurt me so deeply? A lot of emotion gets wrapped up in our interpersonal relationships.
But look at all the imperatives Paul writes: hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; outdo one another in showing honor; bless those who persecute you; and so on. Love is not about how I feel towards another person—whether a friend or an enemy. Love is what I do for them.
A second observation: love is not about you. “Bless those who persecute you,” Paul writes. This goes back to the bit about personal feelings. Who wants to bless a meanie? But that’s just what Paul says. He also says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Come alongside your brother or sister who is hurting and just be there for them. And do the same when they’re happy—even if they’re a meanie.
But what about me, we ask? What about when I’m happy or weeping? Where’s my love?
It’s a good question. And I would hope that your friends and loved ones take Paul’s exhortation to heart—that they do in fact rejoice with you when you rejoice; and that they weep with you when you weep. But they might not. And, besides, that’s not the issue here. It’s not about you in this sense. Instead, it’s about how you treat others. It’s about your responsibility to come alongside your neighbor in his or her time of need. Love is about denying yourself and putting others first.
And a final observation: love forgives without reciprocation. “Never avenge yourselves,” Paul declares; and my favorite verse in this passage, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
We are to do acts of love—it’s not about how we feel. We are to put others first, whether the other is friend or enemy—it’s not about me. So what happens when we feed an enemy, or we give an enemy a cold drink, and that enemy continues to hate us?
This is what happens. We ask forgiveness where we need to; and we don’t expect our enemy to ask forgiveness from us. And we forgive; whether or not our enemy forgives us! Love is not reciprocal. Love overcomes evil with good.
The world is complicated, certainly. It saddens us. It frightens us. At times it feels like it’s collapsing all around us.
How do we respond?
With divine, genuine love.