Thursday, August 28, 2014

August 31, Proper 17, Transformations 1: Transforming Self and Sacrifice

Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

[Our Gospel today is only one-half the story. Let me start with the Gospel from last week.]

First, about the Gospel, then about Exodus, and then to our target, which is Romans.

Peter says to Jesus, “Yes, you are the Messiah. Now don’t throw it all away! The last thing a Messiah
should do is get yourself killed, especially by the Romans. That would mean you’re not the Messiah! The whole point is for you to be a triumphant winner, not a tragic loser. If you get killed, then you’re not the one we’re all expecting, and you’re not what I signed up for.”

I think Jesus responds to him so hotly because Peter was voicing a temptation so painfully real for him. You think he wasn’t constantly tempted to try it Peter’s way, the conventional way? You think it was easy for Jesus to figure out the right way to be the Messiah? “What am I, nuts? I’ve been born to royal status and I have power and potential and possibilities and I’m throwing it all away. Simon Peter, don’t you think I thought of that? You think I want to do it like this? I’m just trying to do God’s will. Which might not be what you people want.”

His people were looking for a War of Independence, a Revolutionary War against the Romans, and
Simon Peter wanted to be a Paul Revere. “To arms, to arms, the Redcoats are coming!” Well, the purple togas, actually. If Jesus had said, “Take up your arms,” thousands would have followed him. But he says instead, “Take up your cross.” The cross is not yet here a Christian symbol, it’s a Roman military symbol, it’s the Roman firing-squad, only not as nice. He’s saying, if you follow me, you’re in for it. Don’t misunderstand him. He doesn’t mean, “Give in, surrender, and do what they tell you.” Rather the opposite: “Rise up, rise up, but not with weapons, even though they will come back at you, and if you stay the course, your life is on the line.” When Jesus calls for self-sacrifice, he doesn’t mean giving up or giving in, he means a kind of empowerment, an active but non-violent engagement which does not yield to threats.

The thing about such self-sacrifice, the remarkable empowerment, is the freedom implied in it, the self-determination. You have to be self-defining, self-referential. Jesus determines his Messianic strategy not by any of the available Messianic expectations, not even from his closest friends. He determines his own strategy from his own imagination. And in this way he’s acting like the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush a thousand years before.
Moses says, “Who shall I say sent me?” He isn’t being cute—he really doesn’t know God’s name. He knew the names of the Egyptian gods and goddesses, and what each one controlled and which particular element each one expressed: the sun, the moon, death, the Nile, etc. He knew what name to call on whenever he needed a heavenly favor. But which god are you?

“Tell them Yah-weh sent you.” Or “Jahu.” We’re not sure how to pronounce it. They used to think it was “Jehovah,” but that was a mistake. It’s four Hebrew consonants: Yod He Vov He. It’s actually two verb forms from the conjugation of the verb “to be.” What does it mean? You can’t nail it down. There’s play in it. It’s got a spring inside it that keeps flexing open and closed.

It means: I am who I am. Or: I am that I am. Or: I am as I’ll be. I’ll be as I am. I’ll be as I’ll be. I’m who’s who I am. I’m who’s who I am. My name is Yah-weh, the Lord, capital L capital O capital R capital D.

I am absolutely self-defining, I fit no definition, I am absolutely self-determining, absolutely self-referential, absolutely non-dependent, absolutely free to be as I intend to be and free to do as I will do. I am the self-generating God, I generate my own existence, I did not arise within the universe, in fact I invented the universe, I invented the whole of idea of existence.

I am that free, and because I am so free, with no other obligations or conditions which limit me, you can count on me. Because I will be what I am, and in my very freedom is my faithfulness, my fidelity, my constancy and my integrity.

Mses has to wonder: You can say that, and we’ve heard ancient tales about the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but where were you these last four hundred years of our residence in Egypt, while we Israelites gave our due respect to Egypt’s gods and goddesses? And where have you been these last eighty years of our slavery and misery? Sitting above the heavens in your untouchable bliss of self-reference and self-definition? (The Bible doesn’t answer this.) What has this god ever done for us? And now I’m going to tell Pharaoh that you sent me?

How should Moses love this God? They had just met. How should the Israelites love a god who was only a memory? They had to learn to believe this Yahweh, and to learn all the pregnant meaning of the Holy Name, especially the freedom and the faithfulness, they’re going to have gain a lot of knowledge and then also go past knowledge into faith. They’re going to have to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds,” as the Epistle said last week, which transformation is a process, a journey, a long walk, “a long obedience in the same direction,” and it’s a process that you have to go through too, this Christian transformation.

In order to end up at today’s Epistle, Romans 12, the kind of behavior described therein, which is nothing other than a practical expression of the kind of self-sacrifice which Jesus calls for, a self-sacrifice which is actually and almost paradoxically a gaining yourself, an empowerment, when you see that it’s a cycle, a rotation, from self-sacrifice to self-determination to self-sacrifice to self-determination, if that cycle is driven by the double energy of your freedom and your love. Your self-sacrifice is done in freedom and when it’s also in love it generates a greater self, a freer self, a more self-determined self, a growth of soul, which is able to self-sacrifice and yet to experience that sacrifice as gain. It is the constant cycle of the cross and resurrection in your life. It’s part of the inner transformation of your soul and the renewal of your mind. It also requires a transformation of how you think of sacrifice, as something living and gainful.

Notice in Jesus in his combination of self-sacrifice and self-determination, his empowerment in his freedom and his love. He denounces the Romans and the Pharisees but refuses to hate them or hurt them. He prays forgiveness for his abusers as they mock him on the cross. He keeps to his course in spite of everything they throw against him. Jesus is constant and faithful, he is as he is and he will be as he will be, he’s being what God would be within this situation, for he is the image of the unseen God and in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and in a lesser way we are in God’s image too. Jesus expresses both God and you, at least your vision for yourself.

Last week I ended up talking about self-sacrifice as a key to Christian action in the world. There are many good things you do in the world that do not require sacrifice, but if you’re trying to figure out a strategy for specific Christian witness, you look for at least two things: first, that it means some measure of real self-sacrifice, and second, that it has to do with something right in front of you, in which you have real interest and responsibility, and for which you have gifts. And so the renewal of your mind means learning newly to see what is in front of you and also learning what self-sacrifice requires and what it does not require.

When Jesus says give up your life, he doesn’t mean what the world expects, like asceticism, giving up your ordinary life, your goods and family, like a Buddhist monk. He means you to keep on living in your daily life. Neither does he ask for heroes or martyrs: the only death that you must die is to yourself, to your own agenda and your expectations. But once you see what this yields, it then makes all the sense in the world. And you think, how did I ever want anything different. It’s the life described in our Epistle, Romans 12. “Let love be genuine.” Like God’s love for you.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.