Lectionary 22A (September 3, 2017)

It’s been an eventful week. As a result, we may have forgotten last Sunday’s Gospel. When Peter boldly confessed to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” Jesus responded, “And you are Peter, “The Rock,” and on this Rock I shall build my church.” I remind you of this because today’s reading follows immediately: From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of the powerful, be killed, and be raised. “The Rock” pulls him aside and says, “God forbid!” which translates a phrase that Hebrews used to say, “Far be it from us to worship pagan gods!” It’s like Peter says, “I’d rather blaspheme than allow this!” To which Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are a stumbling block in my way.” Same guy within a matter of minutes is The Rock and a stumbling block. The term “stumbling block” comes from Leviticus 19:14, “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind.” The rabbis would expand this to mean: you shall not give occasion for sin, or you shall not hinder the faith. The Rock upon which Jesus builds the Church may also be a hindrance to faith, an occasion for sin, something that finds people already at a disadvantage and then preys on them.

Can the Church be a stumbling block? The Church should be the worldly community in which the Holy Spirit makes and grows faith. When something’s been around 2,000 years (as the Church has), it has ample opportunity to get some things wrong. One of today’s Gospel verses, Matthew 16:24, has been gotten wrong a lot. Jesus issues a daring challenge: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So, Churches have told slaves, “Slavery is the cross you must bear”; domestic violence victims, “Battery is the cross you must bear”; women, “Subordination to men is the cross you must bear.” When the Church does that, it makes itself a stumbling block in the way of Jesus. Christ calls us into the future. This sort of thing says, “Shut up and suffer. God says so.”

I saw Church become a stumbling block last week with the publication of the Nashville Statement. You may have heard of it. A hundred and fifty evangelical theologians and leaders signed a document that claims to refute on biblical grounds the faithfulness or goodness of any sexual relationship outside of the marriage of one man and one woman. The statement comes from a theological position on human nature called “complementarianism.” Complementarianism says God created male and female, and both are equal in the sight of God…but, here and now on earth there are obvious differences which everyone should recognize, and which in practice make women subordinate to men, divide the sorts of jobs people should have, etc. Male and female “complement” each other, so they are the only ones who can marry.

For many of us this is familiar territory. Perhaps we are tired of it. With Hurricane Harvey’s devastation still being revealed, this may be the furthest things from our minds. When an official statement like this sweeps into the news, I am compelled to respond. The Bible authorizes, either through its narrative or through the code of Law, the union of one man and one woman. Also, one man and one woman and any concubines or “associate wives” the man has. Also, one man and one woman and any female slaves the woman owns. Also, one man and his brother’s childless widow. Also, a rapist and his victim. Also, a male soldier and his female prisoner taken as spoils of war. Also, any slaves ordered to breed like animals for their masters. The items on that list cause varying degrees of alarm or discomfort for us today. I don’t mention them to endorse them. I’m not announcing some lifestyle change at the Leitzke house. Rather, I mention this because this is the world of the Bible. These possibilities were the status quo.

Our notion of what makes a marriage has cultural factors. Our culture produced the single nuclear family as model. That’s our status quo. That’s not God. Now, that’s obvious if I say it that way, like how a couple of weeks ago I said, “Washing your hands isn’t God.” The status quo is not God. But you’d best believe I turn it into God much of the time! Keeping things nice and normal and predictable becomes God for me. Anyone who’s ever messed with my schedule knows that. The status quo is an idol. Paul Tillich once famously defined faith as one’s ultimate concern in life. He writes, “In true faith the ultimate concern is about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy.” Finite, temporary things, become our ultimate concern. Things like the status quo. Things like gender roles. Things like what constitutes a family. Things like Peter’s good friend, Jesus of Nazareth, staying safe and healthy and continuing his preaching and teaching tour.

Peter would rather be found guilty of blasphemy than see his friend and teacher suffer and be killed. That’s not “wrong” of Peter; it’s simple mammalian empathy. Jesus’ words, though: they get me. Everyone’s gonna die, Peter. Everything is changing. The present is fleeting, quickly becomes the past, and is gone but for the memory. The loss of the moment is a death. Everyone is dying, Peter. The question is, Will we die clinging to what is lost, or Will we die faithfully, facing the challenge of the future and following Christ into it?

Christ in Matthew is facing one heck of a status quo. In addition to the aforementioned biblically acknowledged gender roles: God’s law is being used to ruin people emotionally, spiritually, and financially; Samaritans and foreigners are considered dirty and inferior; women are marginalized, children are marginalized, the sick are marginalized, the hungry are marginalized, and it’s all legitimated by the faith. And the faith leaders are backed by the power of Imperial Rome. Most of the time it is quiet and orderly because that is the way the powers like it. They’re in power now; if things got exciting, they might not be in power any more. The capacity for brutal violence is there, but it is best lurking under the surface, holding people in their place without having to make too big a deal out of it. Christ is going into the heart of his people’s power and of Roman power in Palestine. He will challenge it peacefully and nonviolently, and in doing that he will force to the surface the brutal violence of Rome and of his people. The cross is the result of Jesus challenging the status quo.

And the cross is how Jesus defeats the status quo. In one sense, there is no more hiding the brutal violence of the world. This is a world that would rather publicly torture someone to death than allow him to feed hungry people, treat tax collectors and prostitutes like human beings, or suggest God loves foreigners. The cross brings that to the surface. And now we wear it around our necks and put it on walls and banners so we don’t forget it. In a sense, the cross defeats the status quo by vividly revealing that we have made the status quo into an idol and that the world will kill to protect it.

Yet that sense pales in comparison to the resurrection. That’s part of the “cross”: God raises Christ on the third day. The status quo tells you, “this is how it is supposed to be don’t mess with it,” when it doesn’t have to be that way. It passes off cultural norms as having the same inevitability as physical theories like gravity. Part of the status quo is: The dead stay dead. (That’s generally a physical reality, as well.) The resurrection of Jesus Christ ruins that one. He didn’t stay dead. In fact, he can’t die again. He is really refusing to fit the rules of the status quo. The resurrection is God’s way of saying to the status quo, “No, it does not have to be that way.” We, Christ’s brothers and sisters, live with the hope that God’s message to the status quo is true for us.

For we are baptized into Christ Jesus, and therefore baptized into his death. We are dying. We don’t deny it. The Crucified Christ asks us, “Will we die clinging to what is past, or will we die faithfully, letting Christ raise us into the challenges of the future?” The Church continues to be the Body of Christ because Christ raises it to face the new. Our days of being the center of all public life in the 50s and 60s are gone, though they were once new. Now, it’d dead. Christ is raising us to new challenges: a culture still prone to stigmatizing any family that isn’t a nuclear family; a society struggling to decide who has a right to basic human dignity; and a natural disaster that not only requires faithful recovery efforts, but which also directly challenges the prosperity gospel that entices so many. As we are baptized into Christ Jesus, let us so live: let us die faithfully with Christ each day, that he may raise us up again, that we may not be the stumbling block, but rather be the Rock.