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Friday, September 2, 2011

Picturing Christ

Pr. 17, Yr A; 8/28/11

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

We're on the cusp of an annual ritual, one repeated in hundreds of thousands of households as students return to school. The content may vary with the grade of the child, but the basic tenor is the same. As the child heads out the door, or in the car on the drive to school, or at the threshold of the classroom, parents begin a litany: "Do you have your lunch? Don't forget your jacket. Remember to wait your turn. Say please and thank you. Raise your hand and wait to be called on. Your snack money is in the outside pocket of your backpack. Don't wait too long to ask to go to the bathroom. Tell an adult if someone bullies you. Don't pass notes or text during class. Call me when you get home. Make sure you cover your mouth with your elbow if you sneeze. Did you wear clean underwear? I love you!" It's a last, frantic shot at making sure our kids know what it means to be a good citizen at school…and even as the words tumble out of the mouths of parents, we know it's too much, too fast, a flood of instructions dumped over minds already filled with wonders and worries about the new year's adventures.

It looks to me like Paul is doing much the same in the selection we read today from his letter to the believers in Rome. His laundry list of practical advice for living as a Christian is more than a little overwhelming; even though every individual instruction is useful, half way through the passage I can't even remember what was at the start, and I'm tempted to tune it all out. Maybe it would work better if we parceled them out one or two sentences at a time throughout the year!

But we don't, and there it is…and it's not the only part of the Bible like this. In fact, the Bible as a whole can have this same effect. How can I possibly live faithfully with so much to remember? If I fall short—and I know I'm going to—should I just throw in the towel before even beginning?

Obviously, the answer is no! I'd like to think that Paul, like our parents, was using small strokes to paint a big picture, one that's instructive up close but gains its fullest impact when taken as a whole. Up close: 26 commands in 13 verses. Take one step back, and he's talking about being a person of principle, persistence, and compassion…well, except for the little twist at the end where he points out you can kill a person with kindness! A few more paces back, and we step right into the gospel: in losing your life—all those human bits that want revenge on those who hurt us, to distrust strangers and look out for #1, to be in control and get what we want right this minute—in allowing all that to die, we gain a new life as followers of Christ Jesus and the way of his cross and resurrection. And then, with that bigger aim in mind, we continue in a circle, moving in to see once again what the specifics of that kind of life look like.

It's a cycle, and I really think that's what it's intended to be; I don't believe there's anything wrong or inadequate about our faith when we establish this back and forth rhythm. The problem comes if we get stuck in one spot or the other. Focus solely on the details and we turn into the worst kind of fundamentalists, people without vision who can only take a rule and apply it, then take another rule and apply it, then take yet another rule and apply it, with little sense of why we're doing what we're doing. But go the other way—stay back so far that we lose sight of the particulars of our faith—and we become clanging cymbals, proclaiming God's love and justice without taking tangible action to make it real.

Just as parents understand that kids aren't actually going to remember every detail of the last-minute reminders, Paul couldn't have imagined we would either. But his words draw a picture for us, one that can be revisited and reviewed, holding out the possibility that a little more will sink in every time and that in due course we'll reflect more and more of those values and behaviors of faith. Then we ourselves, in imitation of Jesus, will be the picture; people who watch us will begin to see, whether they know it or not, what it looks like to be his follower.

That's a pretty tall order, though, so here's the best news: God will do fine even when we're struggling. Jesus has already done the losing his life in order to save it part, more perfectly than any of us can, and for all of us, so we're going to be okay too. When Jesus rebuked Peter, he was reminding Peter that this was God's work, not a human endeavor. We do our best and sometimes we get it right, being patient and peaceable and welcoming and conciliatory. Or we do our best and sometimes we get it wrong, acting vengeful and proud and lazy and resentful. And then we get another chance, another reminder, another opportunity to step aside from the grip of this world's priorities and onto holy ground, from losing our life to finding it.

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