A reflection on Proper 17, Matthew 16:21-28, by Laura Grimes
Like many feminist theologians, I have an ambivalent relationship with texts like today’s Gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and then that following him will mean picking up their own crosses. Such texts have been horribly abused throughout the centuries, as those in power have glibly preached that the oppressed should meekly accept injustice and abuse of all sorts as the cross laid on them by God’s will. Yet Jesus’ example of nonviolent resistance, truth telling even at the ultimate cost, and finding meaning in suffering and apparent failure has also been a source of inspiration and empowerment for many, and I have experienced the mysterious saving power of the cross in my own life as well. How can we preach and teach the cross in a way that fosters God’s work in the world and gives life, instead of draining and destroying it? This is a mystery and an ongoing challenge, but I think there are some clues we can find and share together. One of the most important for me is keeping the cross in the context of the resurrection and of the entirety of Jesus’ life and ministry, rather than separating these, as too often happens.
Those who remember Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” may recognize the title above as a twist on its central advertising slogan: “His Death Was the Reason for His Life.” The slogan perfectly summed up a movie which almost completely ignored Jesus’ life and ministry and focused on a long, graphic, and arguably anti-Semitic depiction of his suffering and death. I wouldn’t have exposed myself to it, or given Gibson my money for it, except that I was preparing for a job interview in which I had to teach a demonstration class on early Church Christology, and I decided to make it interesting for the students by bringing in movie depictions. As part of the preparation for that class I also watched “The Last Temptation of Christ” for the first time, and was intrigued to notice that the same slogan could sum up its thesis as well. Despite the very different ecclesial politics expressed in the movies, the Jesus portrayed by Kazantzakis and Scorese is equally focused on the passion as God’s will and the entire focus of his mission. The terrible temptation referred to was Jesus having a long and happy family life married to Mary Magdalene--which would apparently have disappointed the bloodthirsty God whom both movies see as the architect of the unjust torture and execution Jesus in fact suffered.
Rather than the dangerous slogan used to advertise Mel Gibson’s dangerous movie, “The Passion of the Christ”—“His Death was the Reason for His Life”, I propose that we remember, reflect on, and boldly preach the converse statement—“His Life was the Reason for His Death.” Did Jesus die because God was unable or unwilling to forgive human sin and renew creation without the grisly blood sacrifice of an innocent person? I don’t think so—this would be a God unloving, unlike Jesus, and unworthy of worship. Rather, Jesus died because his actions of faithfulness to God angered the religious and political establishment, and he refused to abandon the charge, and the people, entrusted to him by selling out, backing down, or running away.
In reflecting on this theme in today’s Gospel, it is crucial to remember what comes immediately before it in Matthew’s Gospel, the lection we heard proclaimed last week. Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is, and Simon Peter is divinely inspired to proclaim that he is the Messiah, the one anointed by the Holy Spirit to save and free God’s people. Jesus accepts the identification as the Messiah, praises Peter for his insight, and promises him the spiritual authority of binding and loosing. The disciples were no doubt thrilled, and probably began daydreaming of the messianic triumph that they assumed Jesus was planning. God had so often saved the people of Israel in concrete ways that involved freeing them from political injustice and oppression, and they certainly faced an unjust and oppressive situation under the Roman yoke. They would naturally assume that Jesus was another Simon Maccabeus, and start honing their weapons and planning their recruitment speeches. So Jesus first forbade them from telling people he was the Messiah, and then went on to describe the shape of his messianic ministry in today’s passage. Matthew emphasizes this point at the beginning of this pericope by calling him not just “Iesus”, but “Iesus Christos”—a detail unaccountably left out of the NRSV and most English translations. He will not lead an army into Jerusalem, he tells them; rather, he will be executed there and eventually rise again. And when Peter demurs at the horrifying thought, he rebukes him as a Satan, a stumbling block and a tempter just like the devil who invited him to seek worldly glory and power at the beginning of his ministry. What Peter was saying was that Jesus should either give up his ministry and run away or take on the same violence used by the oppressors, and this was what Jesus refused to do—to gain the whole world by losing his soul. And his choice led both to the resurrection and, in some mysterious way, to a powerful outpouring of God’s healing love in the world.
I have several crosses that express this paradox and this saving power by being twined with leaves or flowers rather than the suffering body of Jesus. There is a bronze one given by my department chair at Rosemont college when I moved from the Roman Catholic to the Episcopal church, and another with a butterfly bought when I reconnected with the director of my thirty day Spiritual Exercises retreat, a widow and grandmother now bravely managing Parkinson’s disease. Another is a brightly painted Mexican purple cross with pink flowers, bought in Advent as I finished a healing semester teaching at the University of Portland. The most recent is a small silver-toned cross that was given by an amazing woman I met at an Al-Anon meeting, with the Serenity Prayer on the other side. She too lives with both PTSD and bipolar disorder, and took time for a long lunch in which she shared her experience of God’s presence and healing power and held me as I sobbed my guts out about my own illness and my son’s. She took the cross off her keychain and it now hangs on mine, so I see it on a daily basis and am reminded to turn to that prayer I am only now coming to appreciate, as I slowly move into the gutsy, loving community centered around Twelve Step spirituality : “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Acceptance does not mean celebration of pain, or numbness to feelings, or seeing life’s traumas and suffering as God’s will. It simply means releasing denial and facing reality, and as much as possible, compassionately and reverently contemplating our own experience and that of others. It means trusting that, like Moses by the burning bush or Mary Magdalene standing lovingly by the cross, we are on holy ground--that God is grieving with us, accepting all our feelings, and helping us to find new life in any way possible. If we can stay in that difficult place, turn to God’s love, and support each other in that challenging task, I believe that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will be with us in the pain and indeed grant us, as she did him, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.