Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

There are some dangerous texts in the Bible. There are justifications for genocide, slavery, and the oppression of women. This is part of why we read them together, because there’s safety in our numbers. But there’s also Romans 12, where Paul tells us to love without bounds, to bless our persecutors, and to repay evil with good. There’s something dangerous in that, I think. Most of the Bible has been misused at some point, but this kind of passage has maybe been misused more than most. It’s like how we misuse the Beatitudes (blessed are you when you mourn, etc.) by teaching them like a moral lesson. We read this stuff and then tell people, “This is how you must be.”

The danger is that when I preach, you listen. When the Church speaks, the world listens. When we tell people they must be good, they hear us. Women and men in abusive relationships hear that they have to be more giving to their partners, even though they really know they must leave. Kids in a world with bullies in it hear that humility means believing what the mean kids say about them, and they learn to hate what’s inside them that tells them they’re better than this. Result-oriented people hear that real goodness and genuine love are pie-in-the-sky fantasies, and they decide to get on with the results and leave kindness to ministers and other sissies.

What’s really spiritually dangerous about this is that people hear (what they think is) God’s judgment in this, as if you’re only lovable if you do this precisely right. Maybe the church tries to “hate the sin, love the sinner,” but when we tell people how to live, they primarily hear hate and judgment. Now, let me confess my hypocrisy here: not only do I fail to live up to my own standards and those Paul presents in Romans, but I also know I’ll probably end up judging someone before I finish this meditation. But let me also lament that I hear this passage as judgment too. I hear my need to rest as a mark of laziness. I hate how I live comfortably but deny hospitality to others. I feel shame when I follow my gifts rather than being happy with what I might call “humble” work. I fantasize about “winning” over my adversaries. When I combine these echoes of judgment and the knowledge of Jesus’ perfect pattern of life, I get a profound inadequacy to preach to you – or to live out the rest of my Christian life. What’s dangerous is that just as many people learn to avoid God from the church’s ethical preaching as from advertising, entertainment, or peer pressure. We’re invited to say great stuff, but it’s all too easy to get it completely wrong.

So Jesus began talking about how he must go before the judgment of the religious elite and be put to death. Peter was shocked: God’s Messiah is supposed to win, not be killed! Many of us would rather just ignore the “death” part of this story, I know. That suggests that we probably understand Peter’s shock even better than some who would claim to take Jesus’ death more seriously than we do. Too many sermons sound like Jesus’ death made perfect sense to God and to the world. Take a shallow reading of some of the New Testament letters, put in some language about the “perfect sacrifice without blemish,” and you can worship the cross as an altar. Well, Peter didn’t know that yet. I’m not sure Matthew, the Gospel writer, ever makes sense of it this way. Jesus’ death is “necessary,” but it’s necessary in some other way.

Jesus must go before judgment, suffer, and die, because that’s what religion does with God. We inevitably find ourselves binding God to our purposes, taking over the work of judgment, and preaching new life as if it were the wrath of God. Peter clings to Jesus’ perfection, his image of God, his standard of conduct – and Jesus calls him the Tempter, an obstacle in the way of the Good News. We become the same way when we tell the world to meet Jesus’ standard or else. Perfection itself must die if God’s Good News is to be revealed. God’s own self submits to our inability to allow God’s reality into the world. And so it happens. This isn’t the most offensive part of the story, it’s the most inevitable: if Jesus was half of what we say he was, we have to have killed him. If anyone ever really lived in genuine love, they got had. If anyone ever tried to defeat evil with good, evil won. This is just how the world is, isn’t it?

But look again: the cross is empty. The knowledge of God’s grace is still with us. Christ is risen, and death does not have the final word. We’re not commanded to live perfectly or God will put us to death; instead, God comes even into our death so that we might be raised into life. We’re not judged by an indignant and wrathful avenger; instead, the one who knows perfection (as his own self) submits to our judgment as the ultimate way of demonstrating our freedom from judgment. Jesus doesn’t just go to death, but through death to victory and life restored.

Paul tells us not what we must do, but what we become able to do as Christ’s eternal life takes root in us. The rhetorical form comes across as an imperative, but hear it spoken in love. It’s an exhortation, not a command. It’s not “do this or else,” it’s “be free to do this.” We can do it – not by our selves, because then we could judge our success or failure – but by the grace poured out on the church, in mutual love and forgiveness. Paul describes this life of love in terms of freedom: freedom from self-preoccupation, freedom from worry about our status or resources, freedom even from the judging our own or others’ motives and actions. The life Paul describes becomes possible when it’s no longer used as a standard for pride and shame, when perfection is put to death.

So don’t let me end on an imperative either. What I want to say is that this cross is freeing. It frees us from the standard of perfection-or-else, because perfection itself used the cross to show itself stronger than death. It frees us from worry about our life or death (whether it’s physical, social, economic), because the love here was with us before we became who we are, and it will be with us long after who we are today ceases to be. It frees us to become who God is already making us, because it’s the symbol that who we are now can be remade.

The Good News is terrible news, isn’t it? We’ll be lost, dead, remade, found, born to new life, an d transformed beyond anything we can control or predict. So may it be. Thanks be to God.