I have seen in my lifetime the gains of the civil rights movement in the United States, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of apartheid in South Africa with Nelson Mandela as president. I have seen South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It would be hard to convince me that God does not look down on the affliction of his creation, hear the cries of suffering people, and desire their deliverance from their oppressors, thereby giving us reason to see his purpose and take hope. It would be hard to convince me that the world was not created for justice, charity, relationship, compassion, and goodness.
– John E. Smith
It may be difficult in any age to hold onto hope in the face of the complex of worldwide evils unleashed daily. But Smith’s conviction is the proclamation of the church, and it is based in the focus exemplified in Jesus, Jeremiah, and Paul throughout their own struggles.
Singleness of will is the image of Jesus for this Sunday. Singleness of intent governs Jeremiah’s prophetic work. And singleness of task is Paul’s admonition to the church.
The kernel that stands at the heart of this Sunday’s scripture readings comes from divine promise that the practices of love, prayer for enemies, and commitment to forgiveness is the way of our lives together in God.
Jesus continues to prepare the disciples for what awaits him in Jerusalem. Peter's incredulity at what Jesus foretells stands in for the reaction of all who had eagerly anticipated the Messiah: torture and death for Israel's savior simply were not part of the plan. Jesus' rebuke of Peter (“Get behind me, Satan!”) recalls Jesus' experience in the wilderness where he dispatched the devil with “Away with you, Satan!” (4:10)—a similarity that is certainly intentional on Matthew's part.
Verses 24 and following reveal what kind of Messiah Jesus is and what kind of followers he calls. Instead of taking up a scepter or a sword, Jesus takes up a cross and asks the same of those who would be his disciples: “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Self-denial here is not the erasing of one's inherent worth; it is, rather, the abandonment of all self-assertion driven by fear and the desire for power. It is, in other words, the complete refusal of violence.
The familiarity of verses 24–26 has often led to a tepid and confused theology of the cross; one which assumes that my private anxiety—a difficult relationship, financial hardship, uncertain health—is my personal cross to bear. . . [T]he cross Jesus speaks of in Matthew 16 and elsewhere does not represent the sum total of our personal worries and aggravations. It is, instead, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer claimed, the suffering that comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ alone. The cross, Bonhoeffer insisted, is not random suffering, but necessary suffering; it is rejection for the sake of Jesus Christ.
– Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of Religious Studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
The preacher will want to set the assembly’s focus on Jesus’ determination to be guided by the cross.
Jeremiah’s lament arises from the persecution he has received for having taken in (“eaten”) and digested God’s word. He must prophesy, and the resulting pain is immense.
Jeremiah’s witness is analogous to that of Jesus. Both must fulfill the Lord’s commands, and both suffer greatly for it.
Jeremiah lives in the tension between the world the way it is and the presence of God, which is a judgment upon the world. In that tension, he cannot help but suffer from the pain of indignation. He cannot know God and be at peace with the world.
– John E. Smith
We are left with the question how we can know God and remain at peace with the world. The answer is that we are not at peace with the world as it stands in need of redemption. At this point, Paul’s epistle to the Romans turns the situation of the Christian community toward the tasks set before us.
Paul writes Romans 12 . . . about how congregations regard and treat one another, how they face evil and deal with it together. . . The task of the church is to be Christ's truthful community in the world, an end-time community in which Jesus is the center, tangibly providing alternative ways of corporate living. Of particular importance is how we deal with our enemies and nemeses in our own congregation.
– John E. Smith, a Methodist pastor for many years.
Homily Service 41, no. 3 (31 Aug 2008): 178-189.