By John Mason Lock
I have a challenging message to deliver this morning, but the words from the Bible speak for themselves. The prophets heard things to hear and receive. In fact, Jesus and Jeremiah could have written a book: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. This morning, I could evade the Gospel reading and its complement, the reading from Jeremiah, but I would be unfaithful to the Word. The hard truth is that there is a way of the world, a way of fallen man that is out of step and in fact rejects the ways of the Lord. There is a logic of this world that does not match the logic of the Word of the Lord.
It is interesting how this works in our private lives. People always think they are right, even when deep down they know they are doing wrong. We can devise ways to justify our actions, and the world is sometimes our friend in helping devise these justifications. We say to ourselves, well, I know it’s not right, but everyone does it or I know so-and-so did it. This is how people get involved in white-collar crime. It’s how we’ve come to accept a live-and-let-live sexual ethic that cheapens the gift of intimacy that is designed to be shared by those who have pledged their lives and fortunes to one another. It is, further, how we become enthralled to the vain pursuit of wealth or status. Even people of faith can caught up in the deceitfulness of riches and the cares of this world.
In the Gospel reading this morning, the text follows just after Peter’s great confession: thou art the Christ, the son of the living God. Now Jesus announces his true mission. It is not a mission of glory, but one of shame and suffering. Peter will have none of it. He says to the Lord, far be it from thee, Lord, this shall not be. And Christ rebukes him, the very one who is said to be the rock on which he will build his Church. He says, Get behind me, Satan, for thou savorest not the things that be of God but those that be of men. And then Jesus tells them that if they will be his disciples, they too will have to walk the path of shame and suffering — take up your cross and follow me. If you’re not unsettled by these words, you’re probably not hearing them. God says an unequivocal no to our devices and plans, our sins both large and small. To take up the cross and follow him means to surrender our purposes and designs, to let go of the ways of the world, to savor the things of God rather the things of men.
The world with its values and priorities does not match the values and priorities of the Lord. We see this today when religious people conflate a worldly movement with the kingdom of God. God is neither a Republican nor Democrat; he is not the property of this movement or that faction, and yet we tend to assume that God is on our side. We should be uncomfortable with any person or movement that would demand our total loyalty, because our first and final loyalty is to the Lord. Sometimes we see religious leaders who get mired in the ways of the world, but then this proves once again the scriptural adage that friendship with the world is enmity with God.
Lincoln powerfully saw this. Though not a particularly religious person, at least outwardly, he possessed a theological vision that was profound and still rings true today. In his Second Inaugural Address shortly before the end of the war and about a month before his death, he talked about how both sides believed that God was on their side. He said, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.”
But then Lincoln suggests that God might transcend particular parties and factions: “The Almighty has His own purposes … [perhaps] God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”
Lincoln didn’t speak as a prophet. Rather, he knew that the Lord transcends our factions and parties, our malice and divisions. Maybe, just maybe, this horrible Civil War was a punishment for the insidious practice of chattel slavery. It was a punishment not only for the slaveholders in the South who whipped the lash and bound the manacles, but also for those in business and industry in the North who benefited indirectly from the free labor and cheap commodities resulting from institutional slavery.
Lincoln famously concluded his Second Inaugural Address with these words. What is so interesting about them is that he is not setting up a scheme in which there are winners and losers. He had the union in view and the greater purposes of God:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
To be a person willing to follow the Lord and against the world’s priorities and values means to pray as the prophet Jeremiah. I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone. Sometimes doing the right thing means going it alone, not moving with the herd or the mind of the crowd, but receiving the Word of the Lord and following it, discerning the wisdom of the Lord and living by it. Thy words were found, and I ate them, and thy words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by thy name, O Lord.
Do you want to walk in step with the world, or do you want to walk with the Lord who calls you by name and promises you life and life abundantly? Whoever will lose his life for my sake shall gain it. This is not a happy message to deliver, but what else can be divined from the Scriptures? We try to come up with a settled compromise between the world and our faith, but no such compromise is possible. God is a jealous God. It means he wants all of you, not part. Jesus knew he would be betrayed into the hands of sinful men. The Lord told Jeremiah that the people would fight against him, and in fact they put him in an underground cistern as a makeshift prison while the Babylonians besieged the city of Jerusalem. “They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you.”
In the ancient Church you had martyrs and you had confessors. The Church celebrated the lives of those who died in Roman persecutions by witnessing to the faith. This is actually what martyr means — it comes from a Greek word that means to witness or confess. Confessors were those who were threatened with death and still bore faithful witness to Christ and the Gospel but were not killed. Both martyrs and confessors evinced a willingness to die for the truth of God to take the cross and follow after the Lord. There was no easy trap door or comprise with the world. We should be wary of identifying ourselves too closely with priorities and agendas of our age. In this fractured time, we need the truth of God, not another social program or political messiah. Let’s pray for ourselves, our nation, and our Church, that God would renew and give us courage to follow after the Lord Jesus.
The Rev. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Red Bank, New Jersey.