Suffering and rejection are the summary expression of Jesus' cross. Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled. That it is Peter, the rock of the church, who incurs guilt here immediately after his own confession to Jesus Christ and after his appointment by Jesus, means that from its very inception the church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It neither wants such a Lord nor does it, as the Church of Christ, want its Lord to force upon it the law of suffering.
This makes it necessary for Jesus to relate clearly and unequivocally to his own disciples the "must" of suffering. Just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross...being expelled, despised, and abandoned by people in one's suffering, as we find in the unending lament of the psalmist, is an essential feature of the suffering of the cross, yet one no longer comprehensible to a form of Christian life unable to distinguish between bourgeois and Christian existence. -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
St. Teresa of Avila, the story goes, was hastily leaving a convent one night -- actually, she had been kicked out of it, after attempting to reform its complacent and unspiritual sisters -- when the wheel of her donkey cart hit a ditch along the road and sent the good saint sprawling into the mud. As she sat in the ditch, covered in muck, Teresa is said to have prayed to Christ, "Lord, if this is how you treat your followers, it's no wonder that you have so few of them."
Yet this is indeed the scenario that Christ foresaw for his followers in Matthew's Gospel. The first hearers and readers of this Gospel were members of a Jewish Christian community around 70 AD who, in the wake of Rome's defeat of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, found themselves being expelled from their synagogues, as the larger Jewish community grappled with how to live faithfully in their new religious and political reality. Some commentators suggest that Jesus' comments about rejection and persecution did not actually originate with Jesus, but were redacted into the story because of this situation. But I can't help but think that Jesus and his disciples lived every day with the realization that proclaiming the inbreaking Reign of God was countercultural enough to put them at serious odds with the powers that be; I'm sure this was grist for more than one campfire conversation.
In any event, in last Sunday's and this Sunday's lesson both, we find Jesus warning his listeners that his message of reconciliation, of inclusion, of re-imaging community according to the values of God's Reign, was dangerous stuff. He talks about being called before the political authorities. He talks about being rejected by religious authorities. And, this week, he talks about, in this most family-minded of cultures, being rejected even by one's own kin. His message: Follow me, and you will lose whatever comfort, protection and group identity afforded to you in this world by political, cultural and familial power brokers who want to tell you who you are, how you should live, what you should think and what you should believe. Follow me and you fly without a net.
I suspect that a lot of clergypeople who follow the lectionary decided to preach on the epistle lesson, from Romans, instead today -- good, stern stuff about sin that plays well to the pew, especially since that's easily transferrable to Those Other, Bad People Out There -- or offer a painless paen to dads for Father's Day.
As Bonhoeffer notes in the quote above, the Church over the past two milennia has lost its grip on the radicality of the Gospel; it's become, in many cases, just an amen choir to the agendas of government, bourgeois society and its own internal quest for temporal power. And woe to the person (as St. Teresa, Martin Luther, Oscar Romero and countless others have found out) who actually seeks to refocus the Church on its original Christ-commissioned work in the world.
So...with all that in mind...why would any sane, non-masochistic individual sign onto the Jesus program?
Because that's where Jesus is. That's where God is. And that's where God's beloved anawim, or "little people" are -- all those who have been, in various ways, marginalized, disempowered, wounded, even crushed by political, cultural and tribal forces.
"Do not worry..." "...have no fear..." "Do not fear..." "So do not be afraid..." The same Jesus who prepares his followers for what to expect from the dominant culture also assures us of God's presence and saving power as we work for God's Reign. And instead of the safety net we think we can count on from playing by the rules as dictated by the powers and principalities, Jesus offers us the vision of a fathering/mothering God whose love and care extends even to a fallen sparrow, much less to the wounded friends and followers of God's Anointed One; who knows each hair on our heads; who offers, as one of the epistles puts it, the life that is life.
Flying without a net? Living in the leap. That's Jesus' challenge to us.
Lesbia Weeping Over a Sparrow, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema