In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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Any fans of The Princess Bride in the house today? If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Whenever Vizzini, one of the bad guys, finds something hard to believe, and even when it’s not so hard to believe, he always exclaims with his lisp, “Inconthievable!” So at one point Inigo Montoya, one of the good guys, says to him, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” Well, there are two things in today’s gospel that make us wonder whether Jesus means what we think he means.
The first one is when he says, “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he can’t be my disciple.” When he says hate, does he really mean what it sounds like to us, as in loathe, abhor, detest? What he’s doing there is using hyperbole, using a word in an exaggerated sense, in order to jolt people into thinking seriously about what he’s saying. Another well-known example of hyperbole in the gospels is at the time of Jesus’ birth, when the Wise Men came to King Herod, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When Herod heard this, Matthew says, “he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mt 2:1-3). Was the whole population of Jerusalem frightened? Of course not. Most of them at the time had no idea what was going on. Herod was certainly frightened, because he fancied himself the king of the Jews, and so, no doubt, were all his loyal followers.
You can’t be a disciple of Jesus if you don’t hate everybody closest to you. Really? Well, not literally. What Jesus means is that we’ve got to be willing to devote ourselves to him ahead of absolutely everybody and everything else, to put him at the top of the list, no matter what. Choosing to follow Jesus in those days often resulted in being alienated from family and friends, if they refused to recognize that Jesus really is God’s Anointed One. And it can result in alienation from family and friends today, and even discrimination and persecution in some parts of the world.
Where a lot of people get really hung up on this is when they assume that Jesus’ demand that we love him more means we have to love everybody else less. But that would be the case only if each of us was given a limited lifetime supply of love to start with. It’s actually the opposite. The more we love, the more love we have to share. And in the case of loving God above all, and our neighbors as ourselves, the love with which God loves is the greatest kind of love. It’s the unconditional, self-sacrificing love that took him to the cross for every person he ever created. And one of the most important things we learn as his disciples is to love the way he loves, with his kind of love. So when we put God first in our lives, when we love him more than anything or anyone else, we actually learn how to love others more and better than we could without him. Loving God most of all will result in loving everybody else the way we ought to love them, the way God loves them–unconditionally.
The other fuzzy thing in today’s gospel is in the very next verse: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The popular expression and the way we use it actually obscures what Jesus really meant. “We all have our crosses to bear,” is what we say. And what we usually mean by that is that each of us has a particular burden in our lives, something we have to put up with that nobody else does—a debilitating condition, a difficult relative or coworker. Parishioners are sometimes afflicted with boring preachers. Clergy deal with troublesome parishioners. “We all have our crosses to bear” is somehow supposed to inspire us to struggle on through our difficult lives. Because if we can do it, if we can hang in there and get through this life with our faith intact, in spite of the burdens we’re forced to bear, then there is a glorious eternity awaiting us, “where sorrow and pain are no more” (BCP 482, 499).
St Paul had some kind of serious problem that he would never identify. He called it a thorn in his flesh. He prayed that God would relieve him of it; but God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So from then on he refused to use it as a crutch or an excuse. Instead he recognized it as a reminder that God uses what the world sees as weak and insignificant to do great things for his kingdom. “Therefore,” Paul said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12.7-9). That’s how we should really view our burdens, whatever they are, as thorns in the flesh, not as crosses to bear, and allow God’s power to shine through our weakness.
Everybody’s got a cross to bear, true enough. But when Jesus said, “Take up your cross,” he didn’t mean what a lot of us think it means. He’s not encouraging us to hang in there, to put up with the difficulties of life. He’s telling us that if we’re going to follow him, we’ve got to follow him into the grave and out the other side. When he first said that, his original audience had a pretty clear picture of what he meant. Carrying your own cross wasn’t something anybody back then really wanted to think about. Death by crucifixion was reserved for the most despicable criminals, and being nailed to a cross was a dehumanizing and a horribly agonizing way to die. And to make it worse, the condemned man was forced to carry his own cross from the place of condemnation to the place of execution. A man in that situation probably wasn’t thinking too much about how heavy or how hard it was to carry. The thing that weighed heavy on his mind was where he was going and what would happen when he got there. One writer said, “Any minute the positions will be reversed and the cross on the man will become the man on the cross” (Glen Scrivener+, kingsenglish.info). Anyone who happened to see a man carrying a cross knew he was on his way to his death. It was a done deal. He was a “dead man walking.”
So when Jesus says we’ve got to take up our cross and follow after him, he’s definitely not talking about the discomforts and the irritating burdens of life. He’s talking about actually dying to this life, about going down into the waters of baptism where he joins us to himself in his death, and then raises us up to live his life, to be dead to the world but alive to God. Dietrich Bohhoeffer famously said,
Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ bids a man to follow him, he bids him come and die. (The Cost of Discipleship)
Then having been raised with Christ to live the new life in Christ, we begin to learn how to love the way he loves. And that includes loving “father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters” more and better than we could love them apart from Christ. So Jesus’ injunction to hate all those people isn’t really about hating them at all, but about loving God above all so that we’ll be able to love others the way he loves them. In a sense it’s about perfecting those relationships by filling them with the perfect love of God.
That’s what Paul is trying to get his friend Philemon to see with regard to his runaway slave Onesimus. He doesn’t demand that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom immediately, although he’d have been perfectly justified in doing so, and he says as much: “though I am bold enough to command you to do your duty,” he says, “yet I’d rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” Then he gives Philemon a pep talk on loving others the way God loves them, in the hope that Philemon will free Onesimus voluntarily and not under compulsion, so that he “might have him back forever, no longer as a slave [but as] a beloved brother.”
So the readings today, in large part, are about human relationships, and about how they’re ordered and sanctified when the love that binds them is the same love by which God binds us all to himself, the love that puts God above all things and that empowers us to love everyone we love better. In this is love,” St John says, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1Jn 4:10-11). In the Name of…