Pentecost 13 A: Can You Imagine?

Matthew 16:21-28

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Can you imagine? One moment, Jesus is saying you’re “the rock on which I will build my church” and the next he’s calling you “a stumbling block.” That’s not just great word play – from cornerstone to stumbling block – but such a reversal of relational fortune that it had to be incredibly painful. Can you imagine?

And perhaps that’s the difficulty. Peter couldn’t imagine. He couldn’t imagine that Jesus had come not just to comfort people but to free them. Comforting isn’t that hard – just give them a little more of what they already had and tell them it will be alright. But freedom is different. Freedom requires that they see that what they have isn’t life-giving in the first place.

The common assumption is that when Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he had in mind a warrior-king like David, one who would drive out the Romans and liberate the Israelites. When you stop to think about it, that’s a pretty understandable, even reasonable hope. The Romans were foreign occupiers, not only imposing Roman law but taxing the people to support their occupation and backing up their occupation, order, and taxation by violence. The problem with Peter’s expectation is that not that it’s unreasonable, but that it doesn’t change anything. Rome is there in force and by violence. Jesus the warrior-king uses greater force and violence to drive them out. Eventually, someone with even more force or willing to do greater violence takes over yet again. Who’s in charge may change, but wheel of force and violence keeps revolving.

Jesus knows this. He knows that by introducing a different logic – one that runs by forgiveness, mercy, and love rather than retribution, violence, and hate – he is challenging the powers that be. Moreover, he knows that the wheel of force and violence will not tolerate his obstruction but run him over. And this Peter just couldn’t imagine.

It isn’t surprising, when you stop to think about it, that Jesus was killed. From the moment of his birth, he is such a threat to the rule of force and violence that Herod is willing to slaughter all children under the age of two in the hope of destroying him.

No, it’s no surprise that Jesus was killed. What’s surprising is that God raised Jesus from the dead. Resurrection reinforces – indeed, establishes – that Jesus’ life, love, and sacrifice are ultimately what will prevail. It’s hard to imagine, I know, in light of the how prevalent force and violence seem in the world. But it is just what Jesus invites us to: lives shaped by love and forgiveness and actions shaped by compassion and hope.

It’s all so very hard to imagine. Like Peter, what we most often want is a little more of what the world already offers – be it force or security or wealth or status or popularity or whatever. But Jesus didn’t come to comfort us with a little more, but instead to free us. And freedom first means realizing that we’ve settled for something that isn’t life giving, so that we can hear God’s promise of not just more of the same but something different. So that we can hear God’s promise of life, a promise that means something only after what we’d previously accepted as life dies.

And here’s the thing, Dear Partner: we don’t need to tell our people that they are dying or that the world has disappointed them or that they’ve settled for less than God hopes. The evidence is all around. The disappointing relationship, the illness that returned, the career that ended, the untimely death mourned, the disappointment looming. Our job isn’t to tell people what’s wrong, but simply to ask, to whisper even, the question of whether they are ready for something different, for something more. And them to help them imagine the life Jesus promises.

And that’s the hard part. Because giving someone another chance instead of writing them off, forgiving someone who has wronged us instead of seeking retribution, being open-handed and generous with the resources we’ve been blessed with instead of holding onto whatever we can, offering our future to God rather than planning each step, seeking joy in service rather than acquisition – because we’ve accepted that what the world has offered is all there is, these different things often feel at first like death, even like dying on the cross, before God uses them to raise us to new life.

It’s an act of imagination. But as we take even these small steps forward, God is at work, giving us a taste of life we’d never thought possible and multiplying the impact of our actions far beyond what we’d dreamed. Until suddenly, just as it felt like we’d lost our lives, we find them.

“Can you imagine?” Maybe that’s the question to ask our people this week, Dear Partner. Can you imagine that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine that this congregation has something of value to offer its community? Can you imagine that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate God is with you? Can you imagine that even small acts of love and generosity challenge the world order introduce a different reality? Can you imagine that God wants for us not just comfort but freedom? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead?

Sanctify our imaginations this week, Dear Partner, and help us to see, taste, and believe the life-giving promises of the Messiah who came not to give us what we want but what we need. Thank you for your proclamation. It matters more than you may imagine.

Yours in Christ,