Saturday, August 26, 2017

Throwing Away Your Life

Matthew 16:21-28, the gospel lesson appointed for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, has been called a "hinge" passage in the Jesus story.  In other words, the door has now been swung open towards Jesus' death.  All that came before this has prepared for this moment, and all that will follow will lead to the Cross.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer so famously said, discipleship means "adherence" to this One who is going to the Cross.  It is our decision every day as to how we will live out this call.

(The following questions are a way of getting at some of the fundamental issues for Law and Gospel preachers.  They are not meant to be exhaustive, but simply supplement many other fine sets of questions available to preachers.  For a more extensive discussion of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is a strong word of Law in this text, starting with the rebuke of Peter:  "Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me!"  The Law is also active as we are challenged to consider what we will gain if we forfeit our life.  Finally, Jesus announces that "the Son of Man will ... repay everyone for what has been done."  These words announce to us our need for confession and repentance.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  A Gospel word is absent here - a word that proclaims what God has done in Christ.  Of course, the presence of the Cross is felt throughout, but in this passage that presence is not felt as Gospel.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  It is always important to identify with those who are being addressed by the Word.  In this text that is first, Peter, who is rebuked, and then the disciples, who are challenged.  The preacher may choose to identify with one or both, but not with Jesus, who is giving this rebuke and challenge.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  There is much in this text which is a call to obedience.  Indeed this is what the call to discipleship is.  The call to deny self and take up our cross and follow is the classic call to obedience.  It is what we do in response to God's work in Christ.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Perhaps we can imagine several scenarios that would lead to a gospel ending: rebuked/forgiven; stumbling block/building block; setting the mind on human things/setting the mind on divine things.

6.  Exegetical Work:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic Cost of Discipleship, had much to say about this text:  "To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.  When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity.  It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life."(p. 95f)  Miles Stanford, another writer on the theme of discipleship, writes that we will do anything to "bypass the death sentence" of self. (Principles of Spiritual Growth, p. 52)  We are very adept at trying to convince God that "self-improvement" rather than self death is the way to go.  Stanford lays out seven alternatives to self death, including self-mortification, self-conquest, self-training, revivalism, and religious busyness.  We barter, we bargain, we plead with God, "Just leave my life intact, and I'll follow you." (Ibid, p. 61f)  Martin Luther, in his Heidelberg Disputations, also addressed this call to suffering:  "He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering.  Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general, good to evil.  These are the people whom the apostle calls 'enemies of the cross of Christ,' (Phil. 3:18) for they hate the cross and suffering, and love works and the glory of works." (Luther's Works, Vol. 31, p. 53)

7. Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Henry Mitchell always reminded us that celebration is part of any preaching of the gospel. This will be a challenge for the preacher this week as this text is bereft of a gospel word.  We will need to bring into play the results of Christ's cross to bring celebration to this text.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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