The Rev. Karin I. Liebster
Pastor for Faith Formation
Christ the King Lutheran Church
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In case you had not noticed, this Jesus demands a lot. The stakes are high.
Jesus tells those who want to follow him, deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me. And: If your goal is to work hard on saving your own life it will keep you busy until your days’ end without ever having found what you are looking for, and you will have lost it all. I tell you, leave this approach to life and salvation behind and follow me. Tell your hurt egos good bye, stop licking the wounds you have suffered, reacting to the insults, pouring more oil into the fire. Deny yourselves, take up your cross and you will find life. And you will be there when the Son of Man comes with the angels in the glory of God and brings his kingdom!
It reminds me of the moment when Jesus called his first disciples, Peter and Andrew, then James and John. They had not met Jesus. They had maybe heard that the cousin of John the Baptist was now also proclaiming the kingdom of God in Galilee. But when Jesus came to them and called, “follow me and I will make you fish for people,” they got up and followed Jesus. They just left and followed.
Whatever it is that made them do this, follow Jesus Christ, – their response is obedience.
Obedience is what Jesus expects when he speaks to the disciples. He knows how strongly his followers will resist his call to follow him to the cross and how hard it will be for them to trust that through the cross life is to be gained. Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s “God forbid it, Lord!” could not be stronger. Get behind me, Satan. You are tempting me. Get out of my way. I must go to Jerusalem and be killed to be raised on the third day.
Jesus is looking for obedience. He is inviting us into obedience. We know faith means obedience and obedience is the grave of our own will. I understand this. If you are faced with the living God, and God calls, there is nothing you can do but follow.
But I cringe at calls for obedience, especially calls for religious obedience.
When I grew up in Germany and Holland in the sixties and seventies, the world I lived in was soaked, drenched in horror at what had just happened, 1914 to 1918, and 1933 to 1945. Obedience to the calls to war not once but twice, and obedience to the dictator Adolf Hitler was religious duty to the Vaterland, the German nation. Millions of obedient people turned into killing machines causing unheard destruction and suffering. The psychology of religious submission was masterfully played by the Nazis. And people fell for it. They loved it. Even when they suffered.
Those who were deemed unworthy and those who refused to follow and obey and instead went into active resistance, were punished as all dictatorships and authoritarian regimes do with the breaking of their human wills and the loss of life.
And while I grew up the same repressive pattern continued in Eastern Germany, where my father’s close family was, just under a different ideology. If you were not obedient you risked your skin, your career, your family.
During my childhood and youth the numbness and repression in reaction to the horrors slowly gave way to processing what had happened. It was not an orderly process, it just sprang up everywhere, in books, at conferences, in theatre and film, in music, in the hippie and anti-war movements. All over the Western world societies experienced the young generation as rebellious and many young people began to raise their children in the anti-authoritarian way. My parents did not raise me in this way, I was born too early for that, but their intellectual and historical honesty and Christian faith gave me a deep and healthy suspicion of any claims for obedience and submission.
In our time, I cringe again when I read and hear about Jihad and the zeal of religious fanatics who ruthlessly kill and brainwash people and take hostages, all in obedience to God.
You may ask, what does the religious justification of radical Islamists have to do with Jesus’ explanation of discipleship?
You and I, dear congregation, have the responsibility to know whom we proclaim when we witness and preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we extend the invitation to others to deny themselves and follow and obey the call of Jesus Christ, promising life by going through death and the giving up of our will, we have to make sure that not a Jihadist can come along and take the script of our invitation and use it on their website inviting others to join the cause of jihad.
We have to be sharp and know what the grace and love of God actually are. What does it mean to obey Jesus? How is following Jesus not just a personal religious cause, but actually proclaims the healing and redemption by which God has already reconciled this world? Can an outside observer clearly see that a baptized Christian will apply God’s healing and redemption to this aching, groaning, suffering world out of a motivation of faithful obedience?
Because this is where we are called when we are to take up our crosses. To this aching, groaning, suffering world. Jesus’ cross points us not up to the sky and the angels, but down to where we and this world are hurting. Down below, at the cross the glory of God and the redemption of humanity meet. Here is where the Son of Man is coming with the kingdom.
To find the place where God’s glory and our redemption meet we need to leave the distractions of our egos behind. We have before us the noble example of a person who has done so, the Apostle Paul. Paul was a religious fanatic, certainly before he encountered Christ. As a baptized Christian he left violence and self righteousness behind. He experienced in unsuccessful missions the foolishness of the cross and the utter weakness of his witness. He was humbled and powerless. But he knew the humility and powerlessness of God crucified to be the true love and the only source of strength. In unrivaled mastery he articulated for all Christianity the unmerited grace and love of God through our Savior Jesus Christ.
And so he admonishes us for everyday life in this spirit: Let love be genuine. Contribute to the financial needs of the poor, extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Make every effort to live peaceably. Remember not to avenge yourselves but leave that to God. Rather feed your enemies and give them water to drink. Do not allow yourselves to be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (cp. Romans 12:9-21)
Faith in Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters, is not without consequences. The stakes are high. But whoever obediently follows the call of Jesus like Peter and Paul and the disciples eventually did, will find the cross – and life, full of healing and redemption, signs that God loves this world and has reconciled us through Jesus Christ. Amen.