31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Turning the World Upside Down
Once in each generation the artifices by which we measure our lives are exposed as fiction. We have arrived at that moment for our time.
The splendid institutions, just yesterday dispensing their largesse to executives and stockholders, have crumbled. Acronyms we previously deemed badges of honor have become household epithets: AIG, HSBC, UBS, Freddie Mac, SEC, and on and on with several proper nouns (and a few choice, unrepeatable adjectives) thrown in. McMansions sell for millions less than they were worth six months ago. Each edition of the newspaper headlines a new Ponzi scheme. Wall Street, no longer the gold standard for investors, pleads for mercy (and billions) in the halls of Congress. The bumper sticker - She Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins - on the young woman's Corolla no longer sounds saucy, just stupid.
We now see more clearly that measuring worth according to the size of a bank balance is shallow, very, very shallow.
Of course, we, people of the Book and friends of Jesus, should have known... and never forgotten... that finally and forever what matters are heavenly treasures not 401K's. We've heard it and read it often enough over the years, on Sundays especially. Most of us can repeat the comeuppance to the greedy agri-capitalist with lots of barns and a surplus of grain, the fellow who on the night of his best harvest drops dead, the soul who reaps heaven's scorn and is named Fool. Yet we continue to measure the success of our churches by the number of new buildings lately added to the "campus," or the ever-burgeoning size of the ecclesiastical endowment. The model for the church of tomorrow commended by denominational magazines is the mega-church, basking in numerical prosperity, praise songs, and Powerpoint sermons. What on earth would a pastor in the arms of such prosperity do should an itinerant preacher appear one Sunday morning and challenge the congregation "to go and give all you have to the poor"?
Time to read again red letter words about the true measure of our worth.
Consider a few of those who brought a smile to Jesus' face and a warmth to Jesus' heart, those who were not seduced by the artifices by which the world measures worth.
1. For her generosity: the poor widow whose two pennies are all she has between her and going hungry and she puts the coins in the offering plate anyway. Of all the measures of the soul this one, generosity, is right up there at the top of the list for blessedness. Money, sure, but more from whence that money flows, a generous spirit. That opens the closed circle to include someone else. That suffers fools, if not gladly, then as patiently as impatience can manage. That lowers the raised fist and listens. That feeds the hungry instead of blaming them for their poverty.
2. For their readiness to follow where the spirit leads: the little children who flock to the peripatetic rabbi, the wee ones the disciples try to shoo away, kids full of curiosity and wonder, winning from Jesus the accolade as pioneers in the kingdom of God. At the beginning of our lives (and sometimes at the end of them) we are freed from the fetters of worldly expectation and can perceive, for instance, that the emperor's new clothes are not clothes at all. In our majority we must (or think we must) abide by the rules of worldly commerce. We ooh and aah over the stars of our universe, Gates, Rodriquez, Buffett, Obama, the important people, investing them with powers beyond our reach, when, as my football coach insisted before a game in which we were going to be crushed by the opposition, "they get in their pants one leg at a time just like everyone else." But children, like that Junior High in my group on a trip to NYC, hearing me identify the pedestrian in the trench coat as Walter Cronkite, rushed over to him and said "Hello! Walter," even though he hadn't the foggiest notion of Walter's fame: children are unfazed. Children... without pretense... unimpressed by fame and fortune... elicit smiles from Jesus and a welcome into the kingdom.
3. For his willingness to turn his life around, make up for his cheating, and doing it quickly and overwhelmingly: that vertically-challenged tax-collector Zacchaeus up in a sycamore tree, the object of everyone's disfavor, except the rabbi from Galilee, who invites himself to Zacchaeus' house and table, and stays long enough to hear his plans for repaying double anyone whom he has cheated. That kind of regret and resolve make Jesus smile.
4. For his genuine humility, the publican praying in the Temple, "Have mercy on me, O God; I am a sinner." He warms Jesus' heart. Jesus, you should remember, is the preacher who famously responded to the casual greeting, "Good Master," with "Good? Why do you call me good? There is none good, save God alone," appreciates the soul who does not think highly of himself. Dignity, yes, but self-importance, no. Respecter of all persons, but not a toady to the rich and famous or the high and the mighty.
Early on, the followers of Jesus earned the reputation as those who would "turn the world upside down." By the breadth and depth of their generosity. By their wonder and trust. By their determination to right wrongs, especially their own. By their genuine humility. These virtues are calculated to confound those whose chief aim in life is to get along, get ahead, and get rich.
Of course, of course, what following the routes marked by Lordly smiles gets you is what it gets him, a cross. And that, the cross, by the world's reckoning is utter foolishness. Caesar must have laughed loud and long when Jesus' beatitude was quoted to him, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." But Caesar's remnants two thousand years later are a salad and a dead language. While across the face of the earth, from hamlet to megalopolis strange buildings rise. They house no one. They sell nothing. Yet people, including the poor of all the earth, flock to them. Churches... with crosses on them, in them, and over them, buildings dedicated to the proposition that what transpired in one solitary life in a remote corner of the earth millennia ago did indeed turn the world upside down.
Even though we're still trying to duplicate how and understand why.
In this moment when the artifices we live by crumble before our eyes, the cross rises... as if we had never seen it before.