“Kill ‘Em with Kindness”


love your enemies

August 28, 2011; Matthew 16: 21-28, Romans 12: 9-21

A sermon preached by Stacey Gassman, First Congregational Church of MN, UCC

Last week we heard Peter praised by Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” That was the question Jesus asked of his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter’s response? “You are the Messiah.” According to Jesus, this was made clear to Peter by God, not by flesh and blood – that is, not by the standards of this mortal world, but was a revelation from God.  In this week’s scripture, in the very next paragraph in fact, Jesus is telling him, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter the rock of the church has become a stumbling block to Jesus. Well, that didn’t last long. Easy come easy go, I guess.

So what happened? One minute Peter is getting the keys to the kingdom, and the next he is a stumbling block to Jesus himself. I think Peter’s response is pretty understandable. Jesus, their friend, their leader – the Messiah for goodness sakes – is talking about the terrible suffering and death he will soon undergo. I think I would have said, “God forbid it!” too! How taken aback Peter must have been, when Jesus turned and spoke to him so harshly. It is easy for us to hear the tone of the words and miss what Jesus is getting at. We might be tempted to see Jesus as overly harsh; or Peter as overly foolish. But let us put aside for a moment our reactions to both Jesus’ harsh words, and the disturbing prediction of his death; and look at an important part of his message.

In the first place, Peter got it right when he said Jesus was the Messiah – he got it right because he was looking to God. And Jesus rebuked him precisely because he then made a judgment according to human standards. Clearly there is some confusion happening here for Peter. I don’t know about you, but there are times when I’m pretty glad I wasn’t one of the original disciples.

I don’t know what Jesus might have been feeling when Peter objected to the knowledge of Jesus’ suffering and imminent death. Surely avoiding death on the cross was something that would have been tempting, and rather than encourage Jesus’ resolve to deny himself and take up his cross literally, Peter encourages him to take the conventional (and easier) way out. Maybe Jesus was looking for strength from his companions, in the face of what he knows is coming. It certainly seems as though he was looking for understanding. But, like a game of telephone, something was lost in the translation. Jesus is the Messiah, but Peter had a very different understanding of what being the Messiah meant. And he was not alone. Many of Peter’s contemporaries understood the Messiah to be a warrior; a king, like David, who would ride in on a horse not a donkey and lead them to glorious victory over their enemies, not suffer humiliation and death on a cross.

But Jesus was a different kind of Messiah. He would willingly go to his death on behalf of all people – disgraced on the cross amid criminals. “This is not who the Messiah is supposed to be!” we protest right alongside Peter. But having responded so passionately to Peter, Jesus slows down to talk to the disciples and tries to help them understand. I can see Jesus taking a deep breath. “Okay, let’s try this again.”

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-25)

Oh, there you go. That clears everything right up.

What does it mean to deny yourself and take up your cross?

I’ve been struggling with what that means this week. Clearly there is the literal reference to Jesus’ previous statement that he must undergo great suffering and be killed. And there is certainly an implication that those who commit to following Jesus may likewise be martyred. But what does that have to do with denying ourselves?

I’d like to go to the Romans text we heard this morning for a moment. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Live in harmony with one another. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

What do we make of this? These are pretty counter-cultural words; perhaps not what we expect. How do we read this text in light of Jesus’ injunction to “deny yourself and take up your cross?

Bless those who persecute you. Do not repay evil for evil. If your enemy is thirsty give her water. If your enemy is hungry, give him food. In a time of war, proportional response and political divisiveness, it might feel out of place to talk about blessing those who persecute you. Between spin-doctors and shock jocks, it is unfashionable to talk about giving up vengeance against those who have done us wrong, or refraining from belittling those who hold different views from our own.

What if bearing our cross means denying ourselves vengeance? Not returning evil for evil, but praying for our enemy and extending the hospitality of seeing to their needs? What would that look like for us? As David Bartlett, professor of NT at Columbia Seminary points out,

“This is a tough injunction when we are dealing with enemies close at hand—that annoying person in the neighborhood, that recalcitrant elder at church . . . [and] even harder to think about how we embody love for the enemy when our whole political system seems to depend on identifying those whom we should fear and even those whom we should hate. What on earth would it mean to feed the Taliban or give Al-Qaeda something to drink?” (David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 17.)

As we near the 10th anniversary of September 11th and prepare to move into a season of thinking about reconciliation, this feels like a very timely set of texts.

I’m always interested in the “so what?” question, when reading scripture. How does that apply to our lives? What would it look like to deny ourselves vengeance and take up our crosses?

How would it change the way we think about the person driving too slow on the freeway? The next time someone gossips about you, what will be your response? How will it color the way we will talk about politics and the war? Or how you vote?

In today’s gospel text, understandable as his reaction might be, Peter gets the wrong end of the stick. What Jesus is telling him defies conventional wisdom about how the Messiah should behave and who he is. There’s that question again, “Who do you say that I am?” The Gospel of John says this:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)

One theory of atonement says that it is we humans who are satisfying a wrathful God, with Jesus as the sacrifice. But scripture tells us that when Jesus is taken before Pontius Pilate, the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to have Jesus killed, and they shout, “let him be crucified!” Theologian James Alison has this way of talking about it, he says:

“Jesus is crucified, not to appease a wrathful God, but to appease us. Who is the wrathful divinity in the story? We are. God was entirely without vengeance . . . he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence or ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us free from ‘our sins’—‘our sins’ being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called wrath.”  (James Alison, Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-In, (New York: Continuum, 2006, 62.)

Jesus goes to the cross as the forgiving victim, so that we might “begin to live as if death were not, and therefore for us not to have to protect ourselves over and against it by making sure we tread on other people.” (Ibid, 60)

Now I understand . . . Talking about Jesus’ crucifixion and what it means that he died for us can be an uncomfortable subject for some of us. It may feel somewhat distant from your everyday life, but consider the words of, then president, George W. Bush in response to the attacks on 9/11: “Make no mistake: The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.”   (PRESIDENT BUSH SPEAKING FROM BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE IN LOUISIANA AT APPROXIMATELY 1:00 PM p135, http://libres.uncg.edu/ir/wcu/f/Wray2010.pdf 9/11/01.)

Like Peter, it is easy for us to get caught up in a worldly view of circumstances, national or personal. In the heat of the moment we might honk at that person going to slowly on the freeway. And it is natural to feel anger, outrage and grief at so great a hurt as what happened on 9/11. Grief and outrage are appropriate. But how do we learn from Peter and consider our response in light of God’s intent? Bless those who persecute you; bless them and do not curse them. Do not repay evil for evil.

We can start by praying. We can start by actually grieving our hurts and feeling our anger. And then we can choose to not repay evil with evil. This does not mean we sit passively by. So if we are to deny ourselves and take up our cross, what does that look like? For Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi it took the form of non-violent resistance. For me, it looks like not antagonizing the driver who is tailgating me; and some days are more successful than others . . .

I’ve struggled with what it means to take up our crosses, but one way to look at it is that it means to “be willing to surrender pride, ego, status, comfort, and even life for the sake of the kingdom of God.” God loves us with infinite grace and mercy.

So I guess the question is, who do we say that we are?



One Response to ““Kill ‘Em with Kindness””

  1. Cynthia Says:

    Nicely put, Stacey. We’re glad you’re with us!


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