Today in the Spirit: Proper 17A

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We come now in Proper 17A to Jesus’ first prediction of his crucifixion and resurrection, followed by that heart-stopping teaching, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels) there are as many as three such predictions in each book. It is worth noting that In the whole Sunday lectionary we only ever hear the variations on the first one, Mark’s version in Lent 2B and Luke’s in Pentecost, Proper 7C. The assigned Gospel Matthew 16:21-27 is similar to Mark’s with the exception that we overhear the exact words of Peter’s objection to Jesus’ plans to go to Jerusalem: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (22).

We might hear the pleading of the prophet in the assigned OT reading Jeremiah 15:15-21 as like Jesus’ own feelings as he contemplates going to his death. The depth of emotion serves to remind us God’s servants in Scripture, even Jesus, are never without anguish as they go forward in hard service. The appointed Psalm 26 likewise comes across like Jesus’ own sentiments. Who else could ever rightly pray: Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering (1)? Continuing with our NT readings out of Paul in Romans in Year A, we come to yet another exhortation out of Romans 12:1-8 which many have committed to memory: I appeal to you therefore, brothers by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (1). The assigned Collect, very much in keeping with the theme of sacrificial living in the readings, will call upon the whole church to plead for grace to “precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works.”

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The Collect

O Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow after us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

If You Return I Will Restore You (Jeremiah 15:15-21)

[Jeremiah]:
“Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Will you be to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail?
Therefore thus says the Lord:
“If you return, I will restore you,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall be as my mouth.
They shall turn to you,
but you shall not turn to them.
And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
declares the Lord.
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.” (18-21)

Some of the harshest words YHWH has for the people of Judah before their defeat at the hands of the Babylonians appear in this section of the Book of Jeremiah (14:1-16:21). Our reading this Sunday presents one of a few personal interchanges in this section between God and his prophet in which Jeremiah expresses fear for his personal safety as he delivers the words of God. The fear in Jeremiah is compounding, building up after months and years of holding forth as a fortified wall of bronze. As a young man he was called to do this work (see 1:17ff), but the actual experience of it has proven to be terrifying. As Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and confides with his disciples that he must die, we can (and should) imagine similar feelings rising up in him.

In our lives as Christians there are periods of intense suffering that seem at first pointless, but with time we begin to recognize in them a recurring pattern–a heaviness without shape that eventually takes on the form of a cross. While some of this pattern of difficulty might have something to do with our own personality or inclination to find trouble in one way or another, we must see God behind it. The familiar traps we find ourselves in can be part of our calling as servants of God. We are meant to fall in them, like no one else will, because God has work to accomplish there in that space–sanctifying work in us, and saving work in the world around us. Devotionally, it is critical that we hear the counsel of God to Jeremiah upon hearing his complaint: If you return (repent NIV), I will restore you (internal transformation) and, also, I am with you    to save you and deliver you (in the external mission).

Today, in the Spirit, go ahead and make your complaints like the prophet does, then hear the word of the Lord to encourage you to take another step forward, even a little further into difficulty.

Prove Me, O LORD, and Try Me (Psalm 26)

Vindicate me, O Lord,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
test my heart and my mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in your faithfulness.
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence
and go around your altar, O Lord,
proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
O Lord, I love the habitation of your house
and the place where your glory dwells.
Do not sweep my soul away with sinners,
nor my life with bloodthirsty men,
in whose hands are evil devices,
and whose right hands are full of bribes.
But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity;
redeem me, and be gracious to me.
My foot stands on level ground;
in the great assembly I will bless the LORD.

“David,” full of the Holy Spirit, will challenge the LORD: Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind. Though this petition comes across more as directed to the internal life (the Hebrew is literally test my kidneys and my heart), we might hear an echo here of Peter in Gospel reading three weeks ago challenging Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28). In both instances we observe that same venturing spirit in the the saint coming up as prayer to God for personal participation. Using sporting language, the sentiment might be summed up as “Get me in the game, Lord.”

How is your growing devotion to Jesus Christ coming out of you in prayer? Is there in you any of this eagerness to be tried and used? Yes, we always need to be patient, waiting on Jesus to lead us forward and going only where we discern he has gone first, but there is nothing wrong spiritually (continuing the sports analogy) with keeping a careful eye on the coach for that nod to get up and get moving. It is too easy to fall into a form of spirituality contented with one’s own self-defined and limited program of “obedience”–going to church, paying tithes, and being always nice to others. Hear the venturing spirit with God on display in this well-known text of John Wesley’s 1780 Covenant Service: “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Today, in the Spirit, ask Jesus for the courage of this psalmist; and of Peter who writes after many years of stepping out in faith, Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:13).

Present Your Bodies (Romans 12:1-8)

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (1-2).

Or, Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God (GNT). This more dynamic translation of the Greek word somata (literally bodies) as yourselves gets, I believe, at the larger idea Paul is seeking to make in the passage. The apostle does not intend that the church collectively offer physical bodies only and not their minds and wills also as a sacrifice to God. His urging is that we offer the whole of ourselves (again collectively) to the Lord. 

I wonder, devotionally, if this observation does not shed some light on what might be considered a reverse gnosticism going on in the modern church. In general terms, the gnosticism of Paul’s day would have said put all your emphasis on the mind and spirit and don’t worry so much about the body, which is inherently unspiritual. On the contrary, we may fall into the trap of making sure our bodies are in good order (especially sexually) and pay less attention to the mind and the heart. So, we reason under this heresy, it doesn’t matter what I read or Google or view on television as long as my body remains pure, never mind what’s happening to me internally. Jesus’ teaching on the whole body comes to mind here: The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness (Matthew 6:22-23). Clearly here too, as with Paul, body and mind are connected.

Not tomorrow but today, Holy Spirit, speak to me about any tendencies I might have to reverse gnosticism, caring only for the body–the appearance of things–and not the inner mind and heart; and lead me, together with the whole church, as Paul desires, to repentance and wholeness of devotion to you.

Let Him (Matthew 16:21-27)

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life[c] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (22-25).

Our Gospel passage this week divides most naturally into an explanation and exhortation from Jesus concerning his own activities (21-23), followed by an exhortation concerning the attitudes and activities of his followers (24-27). We read if anyone would come after me and think rightly, “He is talking about me.” But consider this: that anyone could also be another Christian seeking to follow Jesus in his or her own life. How about if your son or daughter or good friend informs you that they want to give up everything to become a missionary at home or abroad? Will you be like Peter ready with the rebuke, “Mercy, no” (the literal translation of the Greek), or, worse, “Over my dead body.” In our devotional life, we must learn not only to take up our own cross and follow the Lord but also to give liberty to those who want to do the same themselves. Especially in the case of those you love and care about most, you may hear their plans and pray and maybe ask some questions they have not considered, but after that you must leave them to follow their road to Jerusalem, trusting in Jesus for them as you would for yourself. Who is the Cristian in your life right now confiding in you their desire to do something difficult for Jesus?

Today, in the Spirit, learn from Jesus’ teaching and his sharp dialogue with Peter. Do not be a hindrance, applying only the wisdom of the world in your response to another’s perceived calling. If anyone would come after me, let him

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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