Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
September 4, 2022
By: Pr. Amandus Derr
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Saint Luke 14:24-33
The loudest, most attention-getting strain of American Christianity today — the kind of “Christianity” that most of our children and grandchildren and their peers want nothing to do with, is triumphalist, defined as “a theology where a church tradition, religious group, or denomination perceive themselves as the ‘victorious’ and superior religion and expression of faith.” Christian triumphalism is nothing new; it has plagued Christ’s Church and its practitioners have plagued God’s world since Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Ever since then, Christian triumphalists have taught that they should be in charge of everything; that their interpretation of Scripture and God’s laws must apply to everyone (although they have often exempted themselves); and they are and always have been unabashedly political. They view Jesus, chiefly through the prism of their interpretation of the Book of Revelation, as primarily a warrior; they view the cross – the empty cross – as a military ensign or banner. We hear from them a lot these days, but before we get too caught up in “us” versus “them,” thinking, please take a moment to remember how you once felt – as I once felt – when you sang Arthur Sullivan’s great 19th Century hymn (banned from most hymn books in the mid-1970’s) and lustily belted out:
“Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the Cross of Jesus, going on before.”
Christian triumphalism lies close to the surface of every western Christian tradition. Some of us worry all the time about it showing up among us. Today, most of us know where we can hear it, who is expressing it, and how dangerous to others it is.
I’m saying all of this for three interlocking reasons:
First, because Christian triumphalism is dangerously rampant in our country today; second, because when one dominating branch of Christianity becomes triumphantly political, the rest of us have no choice but to name it and call it out; because silence is assent; and third and most important, in today’s Gospel, Jesus invites us to live the exact opposite kind of life and proclaim the exact opposite kind of position for ourselves as Christians in the world.
Most Christian triumphalists will not hear this Gospel today, or any day for that matter, and if they do, they will weaponize it, claiming unjust victimhood; “victim” a word Jesus never uses to describe himself or any of us who follow him.
So what is Jesus proclaiming to us about discipleship, about “carrying the cross,” today?
In Luke’s Gospel, “the cross” is not simply the pains, troubles, and burdens that humans normally must bear. Jesus’ list of “hate-ables” — “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself” with all its aches, pains, and problems — are contrasted, not equated, with “the cross” he bids us carry. It’s not that they aren’t important. It’s not that they’re not real! And it’s not that Jesus calls all these people bad or evil; he is not inviting us to break the fourth commandment here! Jesus simply asks us not to make them determinative of our life’s focus, impetus, or direction! “The cross” is his cross on which he paid the cost for our living by dying our death. To “carry the cross” is to live as if everything and everyone has been dealt with justly through Jesus’ dying and rising. To “carry the cross” is to see death and dying and all of death’s magnetic power to draw us away from hope, joy, and peace as behind us, not before us, and to communicate that resurrection reality to all those whose lives we touch. To “carry the cross” is to remember daily that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ at our baptism. To “carry the cross” is to face every minute of every day with hopeful expectation, not fear and dread. To “carry the cross” is to “start over” and rise anew with Christ each and every day. It is to live life with directed purpose, and not as “a deathward drift.” To “carry the cross” is to live and treat one another and all of God’s children (that is everyone) as free, each possessing God-given dignity. That is the thrust of Paul’s advice to Philemon concerning his slave, Onesimus; namely that Christ’s cross erases all barrier-creating differences. To “carry the cross” is to live as if resurrection has already happened because, in Jesus Christ, God for us, it already has.
This is precisely what we do in every Eucharist. We “proclaim the mystery of faith,” and through Christ’s sacramental presence, we step through the threshold that separates earth from heaven, and “with all the choirs of angels and with the faithful of every time and every place” we step joyfully into the welcoming presence of God. Of course, this is only a “foretaste” of that heavenly feast, but it does give us direction and destination. It does create in us new hearts, new energy, and new hope. And as far as our daily life of discipleship is concerned, it invites us, as we heard last week, to take the lowest seat, where Christ is; and serve, not even thinking about dominating over others.
All of us these days are worried about a dying church; and all of us are tempted to adopt the easily understood, wildly popular ways of triumphant Christianity, which appears to work but whose only “good news” is “we’re better than, and ought to dominate all others.”