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Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Matthew, chapter 16. I’m very grateful to Meg for preaching last week, about what defiles a person, and about the Phantom Menace, and about the heart of God for the whole world, not just his own people. His body, like the bread, he breaks and multiplies for the nourishment of all peoples. What a beautiful act! The disciples passing out this meal to the nations, a kind of first communion which we act out still to this day, the feast table laid on Zion of well-aged wine and meat, full of marrow.
Today we’re going to read what is probably the most debated passage in the history of the church, with about as many interpretations as there are centuries between now and the time Jesus first said the words. We’re going to have to abide a little mystery, here, a little disagreement perhaps. Let’s choose humility and forgiveness over like-mindedness. If you’re confused, as we read, you’re not alone. I want us to see the chapter as a whole. As a whole, this is Jesus returning to a topic he’s already hit on several times, but it’s one that bears repeating: the cost of discipleship, and the reason to follow.
We are constantly bringing our expectations to Christ, of what we want him to say, what we want him to do for us—but we don’t always know what we need, and rarely do we see the true worth of what God alone is able to give. In the passage, the pharisees and sadducees want a sign, the disciples want bread, and Peter doesn’t want his friend to die. We, you and I, usually want the same things: to make ends meet, healing, to know we’re not alone. Those are good things, and God desires to give good gifts to his children. His desire is to give us more than what we ask for, though, not less. His desire is to give us life, itself; his life.
But before we can receive what Christ wants to give, we have to let go of what we’re holding. In the end, we have to let go of the life we’ve built for ourselves to take hold of his life. That kind of self-denial is always a struggle, and so we wrestle with God—but in this wrestling, we prevail. Please stand if you will and if you’re able as we read it together. [Matthew 16]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
This bears repeating: the call to discipleship comes to each and every Christian, so the cost of discipleship is one each of us must pay, not just pastors. The call to discipleship is a choice, as Bonhoeffer points out, between cheap and costly grace. Cheap grace can be got for almost nothing, and so it is worth almost nothing. “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace,” he writes. A call to costly grace is a call to discipleship, meaning a call to follow after Christ on his way to the cross. Like I said, this is a call that comes to each and every one of us who is in Christ.
It may sound odd talking about grace bearing a cost, because the grace of God, like the wisdom of God, is given freely and generously to all who would come. Almost everything in life worth experiencing is both free and incredibly costly. Love is this way, and friendship. Think of the time, the vulnerability involved in a true friendship, or in a marriage. Or think of the cost of mastering an instrument, learning to paint. Knowledge, history, and poetry sit on shelves in libraries for the taking, but it will cost you an afternoon.
So grace is freely given and yet incredibly costly, with a worth far exceeding the cost. Often, though, we choose the cheap, mass-produced alternatives to these things, because they’re more convenient: acceptance instead of love, agreement instead of friendship, trivia instead of knowledge, cheap grace instead of costly grace. Even if we ask God for the cheap version, though, all he ever gives is the real thing we really need.
Cheap grace makes you look good. Costly grace comes with confession, but through confession community; we have to admit that we are the real sinners in the room, prodigals who don’t even deserve to be servants in the household of God, yet we are welcomed as children. Cheap grace fits very nicely into the life you’ve already built. Costly grace asks you to change.
The pharisees and sadducees in our passage want cheap grace. They ask for it, but Jesus, as always, gives them exactly what they need to live abundantly in the kingdom of God instead. The two groups, two parties of politically-aligned pastors, they’re so focused on what they think they know about truth that they don’t recognize truth, himself, when he arrives. Notice, these two groups, the pharisees and the sadducees, are typically enemies, always arguing back and forth instead of doing something which might benefit the people they rule. I know this kind of partisan bickering is hard to imagine in our day, but it’s true of Jesus’ time. The two groups have come together in our passage, though, because Jesus doesn’t support either party, and in their minds, that makes him dangerous.
They ask him for “a sign from heaven,” and Jesus picks up their word and starts playing with it. The word heaven is the same word for sky. He says God gives you signs in the heavens all the time, but all you seem to be able to discern from them is the weather. You’re blind to the deeper reality to which all of time and the heavens themselves point. You can see everything about the heavens except the whole reason the heavens are there. He tells them the sign they will receive is the sign of Jonah, which is something he’s told them before, back in chapter 8.
The sign of Jonah is a sign of repentance, telling them you’ve gone the wrong way. If you know Jonah’s story, you know Jonah was asked to preach repentance, to bring the steadfast love of the Lord to a people Jonah hated. And instead of doing that, Jonah boards a ship going in the opposite direction. God miraculously orchestrates a kind of death and resurrection for him. Jonah spends three days in complete dark, in the abyss, like someone dead; but he repents and finds new life, and through Jonah’s repentance and new life God brings repentance and new life to a whole people.
The sign of Jonah means God has already told you what you needed to hear; it’s just not what you wanted or expected. The pastors, religious rulers of the day, they are always asking about who’s right and who’s wrong, asking which party God supports, asking why Jesus’ disciples don’t follow all of the same rules they do. And Jesus is always telling them the only thing he can tell them, because it’s the only thing that’s real, the only thing they really need. Jesus foretells his own death and resurrection, the new and better Jonah, to save a people who make themselves his enemy. He tells them, don’t go this way of self-righteous pandering, turn around, choose humility, choose mercy instead of control.
You see, the politically aligned pastors of Jesus’ day wanted signs without repentance, but God doesn’t give that, not to anyone. They wanted God to show up, but only because they thought if God shows up, he’ll be on my side. God will help me prove that I was right all along. He’ll help me win the arguments, win influence and authority over my enemies. I see a lot of people and pastors doing this these days.
We want signs. We want Jesus to take a side, specifically our side. We want the ability to know who is right and who is wrong, and to win the argument. We want to be on the right side of history and claim the moral high ground, as if we know the future and which way history will go. We want signs obvious enough to end the debate and finally change the culture, change the world.
But Christ, blessedly, won’t give us what we want today, any more than he gave the pharisees a sign that day. He’ll give us the sign of Jonah today, though. He’ll tell us of the life that possible through his own death and resurrection. With all the reform, all the change, we want to see in the world, let’s remember Christ asks us to reform ourselves, ever and always. Those of us who are in Christ are, like Jonah, often reluctant prophets called to share the truth and love of God even with our enemies, but before we can teach others repentance we have to learn, ourselves, to move in a different direction, to live under a different rule. Christ spent three days in the abyss, not to win an argument, but to win a people back to himself, to reconcile us to him. We’re going to have to die a similar kind of death to ourselves and our own ideologies, subcultures, and identities if we will live to Christ in the current day. There is a real battle on, but our real enemies are not flesh and blood; Christ calls us to love and serve our human enemies, just as he did Jonah. Christianity isn’t so much about standing for truth against the world as it is about choosing truth instead of the world, for the sake of the world, day by day.
Instead of the costly grace of dying to ourselves, though, instead of becoming all things to all people, we too often want the cheap grace of a sign without repentance. I hope that we as Christians will learn to trade our bumper stickers and yard signs for dinner table conversations and impassioned debates afterward. (I love those nights. May God give us many more of them.) I hope we’ll trade the online back and forth of pointed posts and comments for intergenerational prayer and discipleship together, learning from one another and urging each other toward Christ. Both activities take about the same amount of time and emotional effort, it’s just how you use it. I hope we will begin to treat the world, too, not as an enemy but as we would treat a child or close friend lost to some grief or other; that we would be present and really listen, and seek in any way we can to offer the wisdom, hope, and abundant life in Christ.
Far too often we want signs without repentance. We want signs without repentance and we want grace without discipleship. I love that the one passage of the disciples generally, but Peter especially, seeming like they really understand who God is and what he’s doing in the world, that one passage is sandwiched by two other passages which make the disciples generally, but Peter especially, look incredibly foolish and like they have no idea who God is and what he’s doing in the world.
The passage about the bread is funny to me. The disciples make a mistake, and it’s a pretty dumb mistake. After Jesus miraculously feeds four thousand people, and the disciples take up seven baskets full of leftovers, they leave the gentile region to go back to Judea, and do they take a single basket with them? Do they take even a single loaf with them to eat on the journey? No. They brought nothing. They had so much food, and then forgot it all on the other side of the lake.
They’re so preoccupied by this mistake, whispering about it, shifting blame, they miss something Jesus is trying to tell them. He’s trying to tell them not to allow the pharisees and sadducees to influence them, and he uses an analogy he’s used recently, two chapters ago, to picture influence: leaven in flour. He said the mistakes of the pharisees and sadducees may be small, subtle but if you listen to them, soon your whole life will be infused with them. Discipleship in this instance looks like taking every though captive and avoiding worthless debate. The disciples miss it entirely; they think he’s mad about the bread.
They’re concerned, in other words, with their physical needs being met, while Jesus is trying to teach them spiritual things. Not that physical things are unspiritual, but focusing on daily bread to the extent that you’re ignoring our father and the hallowing of his name is a sin of focus, a sin of influence, which again, ironically, is exactly what Jesus is warning them against. C.S. Lewis, speaking of influences, believed that much of morality and discipleship came down to influence: who or what you allow to sway you. This takes wisdom.
If you let your appetites, of various sorts, influence your life to an inappropriate degree, you’re going to land in some unfortunate places. We have many appetites as creatures: for food, yes, but also for comfort, sex, belonging, excitement. If you allow basically any appetite to rule you, it creates a spiritual problem, a problem of focus. Your focus begins to shift on how to get your next fix of whatever it is, until all of the things of life and God grow small in comparison.
I love Jesus’ comment to them, about having just miraculously fed thousands of people. Basically his response is, after watching me feed thousands, you’re still worried about bread? You can laugh at the disciples, and we probably should, but then we have to laugh at ourselves, too. We are, you and I, you have to admit, often worried about bread. Even if you’ve been living as a Christian for decades, still sometimes we slip into worry over bread. We make it through our days without ever stopping to pray or be silent because we were working. And sometimes we don’t seem to have enough bread, but bread isn’t the cost of discipleship.
Bread’s a good thing to ask our father for. Daily bread is in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. The lesson here is not to deny yourself basic necessities, the lesson is not to let pursuit of the bodily distract you from the things that actually feed and nourish your soul. Don’t watch the sunrise and the sunset and think only of the weather. Don’t miss the sermon because you’re thinking about lunch—ah, see, now it’s getting real for some folks. Recapture, in yourself, a capacity for wonder at the wisdom and beauty of God. “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul?” I know a whole host of people who eat well every day and yet their souls are starving, and if you talk to them of true satisfaction in Christ, they don’t understand you, because they haven’t been satisfied for years.
The reason Jesus gets snippy with the disciples isn’t because they left all the bread in Sidon, nor because they are concerned about what they will eat, but because, as he says to Peter in the passage, they had set their mind on the things of man rather than on the things of God. And then we come to the part of the passage which sparks all the debate. But if we can look at this passage and see more than debate, see more than weather, in it we find many beautiful reasons why the cost of discipleship is worth whatever else we might hold onto.
Usually I have a sense, going into preaching a passage, what people have been taught already about it, or what people might take from a cold reading. Not Louis, I never know what he is thinking, but the rest of you. This passage, though, has interpretations all over the map. I have no idea what any of you are thinking right now. You’re all Louis to me this morning; which is terrifying.
That said, we’re going to have to start with some interpreting here. If you grew up Catholic, you’ve probably heard this passage talked about in terms of divine succession, meaning Jesus gives authority to Peter, and the authority of the church is derived in a direct line from him. Many protestant groups have claimed something similar, just with a different line of succession. That’s not what I believe this passage is saying.
I do believe Peter’s confession here, that Jesus is the anointed one of God to bring peace and life to the world. I believe this truth has been passed through every generation since him by faithful believers who did their best with the tools and time they had to pass on this rich spiritual inheritance, so our faith comes to us through the faithfulness of countless generations of brothers and sisters in Christ. And I believe mysteriously, really, in spite of the way it seems, throughout time and in every place, we are one Church, a single people, and we are bound to each other, if we can bear to forgive one another.
The songs we sing, the scriptures we read, the prayers we pray each week, we haven’t discovered these things like discovering oil on land we own to fuel the machines we will buy and build. We’ve been handed these things like family heirlooms by our spiritual fathers and mothers, valuable not because we can sell them but because through them we are connected to everyone who came before us.
And for that inheritance, I am deeply grateful. I’m grateful for the great tradition of the church in every time and place God has moved and worked. I look forward to one day knowing the whole history of God’s redemption of humanity and creation, not the way I know facts from a book, but in the way I know the people who are closest to me. As much as distance separates us from people we love, how much more so does time? May eternity come close, and may it be soon.
I also believe that through the atoning work of Christ in the world, the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven have been opened, and we have been invited into the kingdom, even if the kingdom and road into it, is not what we expect. As Jesus explains, this road is going to be costly. It will cost him his life, and it will cost us ours. There are several things in the world worth us dying for them—to save my son from drowning, for instance, I would die. There is only one thing, one person, worthy of living your entire life for him.
Peter is understandably upset by the thought of his friend dying. He tells Jesus that he wants to avoid all of it, and Jesus responds pretty harshly to him, the same man he just declared to be foundational to the everlasting Church universal, Jesus calls by the name of the enemy. Talk about a fall from grace!
Peter makes the same mistake the pharisees and sadducees do, the same mistake we often make. It all goes back to this: we want grace without discipleship, but in the end we’re not able to take the life Jesus is offering us without letting go of the life we’ve built for ourselves. Again, he’s not offering us less that what we desire, but more than we’ve ever even really considered. All the time I talk to people who desire what I’ll call a shorter way, Christian and non-Christian alike. We’ve convinced ourselves there is a shorter way to reconcile with God than through lifelong discipleship. We want to hear from God without doing work to understand the scriptures, so we turn to mystical signs and trying to discern the will of the universe. We want community without confessing our sins and bearing each others’ burden, so we put on masks of positivity.
We want wisdom and knowledge without having to consider ideas which challenge our faith, so we reduce our theologies into bumper stickers. We want to work for justice without experiencing injustice ourselves, so we talk about justice a lot. We want God’s help when things go wrong—with our addictions, with our relationships, with our careers—without wanting to do the work to spiritually form ourselves as Christ-followers. These are all shorter ways.
We want to dispense with the struggle, with the difficulty of our faith, not realizing that the struggle is the faith. Take Peter’s desire, for example. He wants Christ, but without the cross. What is Christianity without the cross, though? Christianity without the cross is judgement without redemption; it’s law without grace. Without the cross, our sins fall on us, and we are crushed by them.
Or take the Pharisees, for instance, asking for miracles without repentance. Miracles without repentance would be a spectacle. Empty wonder, televangelism, which is everything that I can’t stand about our religion. We want the shorter way only because we don’t realize what Christ is offering in the long, hard road of discipleship. Yes, you have to deny yourself, but in that self-denial you gain your soul. You have to lose your life, and in losing it, you find his.
As Lewis famously writes, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” My invitation for today is to call to discipleship; which is a call to the longer way of working out your salvation with fear and trembling. Stop focusing on things which don’t matter, and stop waiting for signs; you’ve already been given more than enough to warrant repentance. And begin to follow Jesus on his road.