Message for 25 February 2018 (2nd Sunday of Lent)–“Spiritual Accounting”

Despite being the closest of friends, Jesus and Peter didn’t always get along. One day there was a disagreement between the two that resulted in a public rebuking of Peter. The situation started when Peter responded to Jesus’ talk about suffering and death. Peter rejected Jesus’ stark topic and pulled him aside to tell him so. Jesus would have none of this and responded with a surprising name-calling of “Satan” against Peter (Mark 8:33). Jesus escalated the situation by calling the crowd and declaring to them that anyone who wanted to follow him must deny self.  Peter must have been grimacing on the sidelines as he felt Jesus’ words striking like stones.

It’s interesting how the guardians of scripture didn’t censure the troubles Jesus encountered with his small cadre of followers. It’s eye-opening that even between Jesus and his friends, disagreements threatened to tear apart Jesus’ effort to reform Judaism. This makes all the centuries of conflict and controversies between subsequent generations of Christians less surprising. The slippery nature of spirituality precludes enduring agreement about the many unseen forces and realities underlying peoples’ beliefs. As always, the subjective and speculative nature of religious topics generates countless perspectives. This situation isn’t all bad because conflicting opinions can generate productive debate that holds people accountable and potentially generates new insights.

The powerful theme of sacrificing for the sake of spiritual health underscores Jesus’ message. Jesus emphasized how true discipleship isn’t cheap. Throughout the centuries, many pious souls claim to hear a call to give up everything for God’s sake. Today’s story of the rebuking of Peter is no exception. Jesus called for radical commitment, especially among his closest followers. Jesus’ argument seems to be directed against reluctant disciples (including Peter) who were not willing to sacrifice everything. At the critical point of starting something like a new religion, internal weakness and lack of commitment can destroy the cause before it takes root. This may account for why Jesus demanded absolute devotion even if it meant sacrificing his followers’ lives. Today, we’re likely to label anyone making such demands as a cult leader. No doubt that some of Jesus’ critics did the same (and still do!).

The call for dedicated discipleship continues as a salient reminder of how religion can demand radical obedience. The nature of religion is such that it can twist and invert life’s ordinary expectations. This also partially accounts for why scripture portrays Jesus as hostile toward half-hearted followers. This legacy emerges throughout Christianity as a controversy about how much of a true believer a person must become such that they will be accepted by God and earn their ticket to heaven. Over the centuries, there has been a recurrent pressure to distort a person’s allegiance from God to the church, such that a follower of God is cajoled to serve an institution either in place of God or as a substitution for their more direct connection to the Almighty.

Regarding extremes, should you or anyone else be willing to kill if your theology so instructs you? We’ve seen how religious-inspired terrorists conduct mass-murder by flying airplanes into buildings, beheading captives, raping & butchering women & children and so on. Sane people reject such ideology hidden under religious language and condemn the resulting atrocities. The conviction with which terrorists commit their horrors emphasizes the power of self-deception and toxic faith. No wonder then that one person’s religious rights can decay into another person’s demented thinking. Let’s choose love so that both the reputation of our religion and the state of our souls is as healthy as possible. We can’t control other peoples’ choices but we can and must better manage our own.

It is not an overstatement to assert that God, as the power and essence of love, must never be construed as the source of diminishing or destroying life. Murderers try to justify crimes against humanity because they think God wants them to. Such self-deception is absolute nonsense because a loving God doesn’t condone ethnic cleansing or genocide. Heeding Jesus’ call to transcend fear, ignorance and anger can help prevent horrendous crimes committed by fake religion which ultimately undermine humanity’s spiritual DNA. Authorities and any of their life-sucking attitudes and actions must be rejected and overturned. It is love-empowered life that must reign supreme, and anyone or anything which destroys life should not be blamed on or justified by a loving God.

We conclude where we began, which is at the place of living with proper priorities as God’s disciples. Physical life is so brief and limited. Everyone eventually loses connection with all the possessions they’ve gathered. So the critical question remains: how much are you willing to sacrifice for your embrace of the God of love? It’s good to be reminded of the permanency of spiritual realities rather than life’s many distracting idols. Yes, it is good to loosen our grip on what is impermanent (e.g., physical things) and instead grasp what is permanent (the life of the spirit). How you choose to do this will reflect the uniqueness of your life and the glorious radiance of your dedication to God and discipleship with Jesus.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey