Filed under: Sermons | Tags: church, church success, postmodern, theology of cross
Monday mornings. Ugh. That’s the reaction many people have to them. Especially students. The freedom of the weekend, wearing pajamas all day, the choice between the two goods- watching morning cartoons or sleeping in- when Monday morning rolls around, it’s all over.
When I was a fourth grader, Monday mornings had even more reason to be dreaded. It was spelling pretest day. Ten new words, from Gasiorkiewicz G-A-S-I-O-R-K-I-E-W-I-C-Z during the stint of classmates’ last names, to principle and principal, P-L-E and P-A-L spelled in response to a sentence requiring the correct usage, would fill my neatly numbered lined paper.
My performance on Monday morning’s pretest would affect my entire week. Any words that were spelled correctly on Monday wouldn’t end up on the final quiz on Friday. Even if it was only a lucky guess, a correct answer on Monday proved my mastery of the word, and I wouldn’t have to be tested again. More importantly, I wouldn’t have to spend the entire week studying. Any missed would lead to my writing out the word or doing flashcards every day to ensure my success.
Once in a while, a Monday pretest would include words from weeks before. The idea was to see if the word had really been learned, if it had sunk into my brain, or if, after somehow scraping by with a correct spelling, I had let it pass out of my memory.
Our lessons and discoveries in life and in faith can be like those words. Sometimes known, sometimes learned, sometimes forgotten.
The disciple Peter seems to always be the student called upon. In last week’s lesson from Matthew, Peter pipes up with the correct answer: Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God. This week’s lesson has Jesus trying build on last’s- expounding what it means for him to be the messiah. Peter may have scraped by and passed the test last week (with some whispers across the desk from the Holy Spirit), but this week’s lesson is beyond Peter’s ability to grasp. He may have thought he had mastered the lesson with his confession: “you are the messiah,” but now that Jesus builds on that foundational word, “messiah,” Peter finds he doesn’t really know what it means.
Jesus explains that his being the messiah means that he is headed towards Jerusalem, the center of religious life, where instead of claiming power and glory, claiming his rightful place as leader, teacher, and God, he’ll be rejected by the religious authorities and the people, suffer, and die.
Peter’s success on the first test gives him some boldness, so out of his love for his teacher, he doesn’t even raise his hand, but blurts out, “God forbid it!”
Clearly, this is the incorrect answer. Jesus continues in his teaching, saying that not only is his path towards suffering and death, but that will also be the path of his faithful followers. For Jesus, what it means to be messiah is to enter into the suffering of the world, to give of himself, even to go so far as to give his life, in order to bring his presence and healing into all the world.
Our life as a faith community, a church, can sometimes find us stuck between pretest and final. We get caught, as Peter did, thinking we’ve mastered the whole lesson. Then we encounter Jesus teaching that there’s more to him than we’ve understood and assumed.
My school taught something they called “creative spelling.” When we were working on a writing assignment, we were supposed to spell our words the best we could, but not to get too hung up on being completely correct. We just needed to know what we were trying to say. We were supposed to focus on our goal, the task at hand: getting a story out, rather than spending all our time asking for the correct spelling of each word.
The church has been functioning for generations and hundreds of years with the “do what works” concept of creative spelling… and now it isn’t working any longer. Only 300 years after Jesus’ resurrection, the church’s task at hand started to shift from its original. Affiliation with the Christian church became advantageous. This continued into our recent generations. It’s why we tend to think that part of being a good person is going to church. Why we assume that people will naturally want to be a part of a church.
The Church’s goal became enmeshed with the goals of any institution: to grow, survive, and be successful in the eyes of the world. So, with that goal to be achieved, the work of the church morphed in some kind of group-think creative spelling towards forming good citizens, entertaining people for an hour- or shorter- on Sundays, and providing space for rituals at birth, marriage, and death. The end of the week test by which success has been measured has included membership trends (people in the pews), giving (money in the plate), and the church buildings (from cathedrals to campuses).
When those measures don’t lead to a good grade, congregations scramble to try to find a reason why. They feel like they’re failing, or maybe like God has failed them. They offer new programs, look for more exciting worship, and make sure everyone in the area knows when and where to be involved. Sometimes these actions make a difference – and sometimes they don’t.
The problem is that this goal and these measures of success, and the dependent “doing what works” doesn’t match Jesus’ plan. Certainly our church knows what it is to be hung up on getting each word spelled correctly and missing the larger story. We’ve been able to carry over the last week’s lesson, we confess with Peter that Jesus is the messiah, but we don’t follow Jesus in his further teaching on what that looks like.
The goal of the Church is to follow Jesus. Congregations should be places where we are each made more ready to pick up our cross and follow Jesus in our daily lives. As a community of faith, our doing and working should be shaped by Jesus. Our final test would be measured by service, hospitality to strangers, love shown to enemies, and the complete giving away of our control, our time and assets.
Our ability to continue what’s always been before, to maintain a building, and fill a worship space isn’t as important as our continual formation into people whose actions match Jesus’. The truth is, we don’t need many of the things our typical measures of success would lead us to believe we need. Even with as few as five people gathered together, we can still share God’s love with each other and work together to feed the hungry, welcome the foreigner, and turn away from self-centered living. We don’t even need a building in which to gather!
The disciples had the opportunity to learn and know what it means to follow Jesus because they really physically got to follow Jesus. If they forgot those lessons, there was always the next day to relearn directly from the teacher. When Jesus ascended, the church was formed. From then until now, it is the place and the people from whom we learn and know how to follow Jesus. When we forget, it’s where we struggle together to rediscover that truth.
Hearing all that the church should be, and still clinging to our old measures of success, might fill us with Monday as well as Friday morning dread. We might be failing that final test, no matter what standards we’re asked to uphold.
Jesus has one more surprising lesson for Peter, and for us. The final test, the one that matters to God, has already been taken and graded. Jesus took that test for us. Jesus was faithful to his path as the messiah. Jesus took up his cross, and lost his life. In losing his life, he found his, and ours. God chose to take Jesus’ perfect score and apply it to our grades.
Knowing that Jesus’ faithfulness is really what counts in my relationship with God gives me such relief. It’s not only Mondays and Fridays when I feel tested by the world, sometimes it can feel like every day offers multiple tests and opportunities for failure. To know that I’m seen as a success before God because Jesus chooses to share his victory with me is amazing.
Most teachers would never give out such a freebie. It happened to me once, in my 21 years of school. My classmates and I studied hard for our final biology test before Christmas break. When we came to class, and received our tests, all it asked for was our name, and below that line, said, “happy holidays, enjoy your break.” Pretty awesome. But the difference between that and Jesus’ work for us is that we already know that Jesus has won our salvation for us. Us biology students didn’t know we wouldn’t be tested, our teacher wanted us to study and work hard. She thought we wouldn’t study if we knew there wouldn’t be a test. Which is probably true. But God wants us to know that Jesus has already aced the test for us. That makes me want to follow Jesus all the more. That’s why this past ELCA Churchwide Assembly and some of our study documents declare “Freed to Serve” as a central theme in our Lutheran theology, life, and work.
We don’t have to work to be freed from sin and death, Jesus has already freed us. We don’t have to be tested again, Jesus has proved mastery in love and faithfulness. But somehow, that doesn’t make me want to lounge around in my pjs. I find that Jesus’ action for me inspires and excites me. I want to respond out of my love for Jesus. I hope that you might also have that same joyful passion. Jesus welcomes all who wish to follow him, calling us to take up our cross, and join in his way.
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