The Anglican world is well into its second (or is it third?) week of controversy over the question of sexuality. Under discussion yet again are the boundaries of sexual behavior for the Christian, how to think and talk sin, concupiscence and orientation, and the “real meaning” of the 39 Articles. This latest flap, however, has a new layer—well, perhaps not new, but at least more on display than at other times. It is the question of obedience.
I thought it was interesting, just to leap straight in, that the person who wrote the Dear Gay Anglican letter, when asked to take it down, did so in such a way that he reiterated the substance of the letter in the announcement of his obedience. He professed to be doing what he was told in the act of not doing what he was told. It was like unto those many occasions when I tell my children not to do something, and they say, “ok I’ll stop doing it” but they keep doing it even as they say they are not doing it.
I try never to put myself into the place of Jesus when I’m reading the Bible, but sometimes I feel that I do know what it must have been like for him to be always speaking plainly, except when he was teaching in parables so that they wouldn’t understand, and yet have everyone either not comprehend what he was saying, or, when they did, explain to him that he was wrong. It happens yet again in this morning’s gospel:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
Because, don’t you know, death is bad, and Jesus is young and at the height of his popularity. He is not going to die, he is going to become an important political personage, or at least an influencer whose voice is needed at this crucial time. The last thing he’s going to do is die. Peter will ‘splain him—forcefully—saying it over and over again as if Jesus has just said something so unacceptable that he will lose all of his audience and all of his brand.
In response to Peter’s correction, Jesus tells Satan to get behind him. Peter falls back in a sulk (I imagine) because he is not trying to be #literallySatan but, out of love, to point out to Jesus that he, Jesus, is #literallyruiningeverything. Imagine it as a set of tweets, with all the crowds looking on, and you can feel how tense and unpleasant the whole exchange is.
But then Jesus turns to the disciples and doubles down. Not only is Jesus himself going to die—in shameful and brutal humiliation—the invitation to die is for everyone who is Jesus Curious. He calls “the crowd to him with his disciples,” so that not just the inner circle will hear this, but everyone, which ultimately includes me and you. This isn’t just for the elite and especially holy churchgoer. For the religious fanatic who will do anything to please his God. For the dumb-brick conspiracy theory aficionado who thinks that everyone is out to get him. The thing that Jesus says here is for everyone who will believe.
And the problem with it is that it is so simple—and yet so impossible. There is nothing within the realm of the Christian life that falls outside of the stark choice he sets down. In a time where binary choices are so problematical, where you are forced to choose between two things that might very easily go together—like everything having, for example, to do with the coronavirus—Jesus apparently doesn’t fear the possibilities of human ruin on the shoals of dichotomous thinking. Is he insane? Does he not know that we already have the inclination to think in too tribally exclusive ways? Doesn’t he want us to stop catastrophizing about everything? On the surface, it sure doesn’t look like it:
He said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s like save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
In illustration of this severe choice, the scriptures offer up the Near Sacrifice of Isaac. The two texts will be read together in many churches across America this morning. You know the one, where Abraham and Isaac go up the mountain together, and it slowly begins to dawn on Isaac that there is no lamb, nor ram, for the burnt offering, and that he himself is carrying the wood. He asks, “where is a lamb for the burnt offering?” and Abraham utters those curious words that only make sense when you finally see Jesus staggering under the cross beam, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering my son.”
It is a ruinous binary choice that God puts before us. Either you hang onto yourself, or you hang onto Jesus. Either you choose yourself, or you choose Jesus. Either you pick yourself, or you pick Jesus.
And when you pick Jesus, you can expect to be like Isaac, all the way to death, dying over and over again, the knife raised over you, thinking that the end has come, only to look up and see not the ram caught in the thicket, but Jesus dying in place of you on Golgotha. Each time you come up to the brink of yourself and find that he takes every last thing you ever wanted and needed away from you—and if this hasn’t happened, don’t worry, it will, at least at the hour of your own death—and in its place put himself. Over and over again are you invited to have this be your “lived experience.” Dying, you live. Living, you are always facing the death of your expectations, hopes, and finally your actual death.
Obedience, in this case, might feel not only insane, but impossible. I mean, consider Abraham with his only son, whom he loved. The writer takes pains to note that it is his “only son” because he has just had to send Ishmael away, even though he didn’t really want to. In his weakness, Abraham just wanted everyone to get along. He wanted there to be no consequences for his sin with Hagar. But he still has Isaac. And he is so so old. Isaac could certainly run away, or refuse. And he is his “only son” “whom he loves.” And yet he goes and does the most impossible thing because—and no one in the world looking on will ever understand this—his faith in God is a matter of the heart. It goes so deep that he has no other choice. The hope that is set before him is God himself. And he will have God more than he will even have his own son whom he loves. He makes his choice, he raises the knife, and, mercifully, the son is given back to him.
But only because God will deliver up his own son and not spare him. The only way you can give up any of the paltry, foolish, useless portions of yourself is because God delivered up his only son whom he loved and did not spare him.
It is awful. It is painful. It is death. But it is, in the moment that you make the choice and give up what God is taking from you, not the binary choice you think it is. The thing is flipped around, because of the cross. You think it is you really dying. But it is you really living. You can’t know that, though, until you do it, until you really do die “to yourself,” as Jesus commands you to do.
Having to give up the one thing—whatever it is—that you think you most need in order to be ok, that is the call of Christ to everyone who “comes after him.” No one is spared. You have to give up yourself—body and soul—in obedience to his will. Only then can you live.
Meanwhile, Satan and the world look on and are unimpressed. They think you are narrow-minded, foolish, out of step with the zeitgeist, and, increasingly, actually insane. You don’t care about “human flourishing,” that malleable and subjective standard by which we try to join our own happiness and plans to God’s will. You are less and less in step with the compassionate, though increasingly binary, choices that human nature sets before you. And here, finally, we see that ultimately the choice will come to you, one way or another. If you pick yourself and the world now, you will lose everything in the long run. You may think you can have it both ways for a while, but in the end, there is only one way and if you didn’t take it, it will be too late. Obedience, you will discover on the last day, would have been life-giving sanity.
It feels awful, of course, but that’s why it’s likened to death.