The separation of church and state is tricky business. There are people within Christianity who will argue that the sacred is the business of the church and the secular is the business of everything else. The separation was meant to protect the freedom and diversity of religion from state persecution, but some would apply it literally to everything. There are people who argue that a Christian shouldn’t vote, because our attention should be on the sacred, not on secular processes. There are those who would read Jesus’s admonition today to Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” and see it as an endorsement of this point of view. You can, of course, quote the Bible in exceedingly small pieces.
Now, if you know me a little bit, you know I don’t believe that. If you are new to the EC, hi. I’m Sam. I don’t believe that stuff. I don’t endorse candidates or parties. I won’t tell you how to vote. That is your job. What we are about is bigger than those divisions. But—you knew a “but” was coming—I do think you should vote, and I believe that your faith informs your values and actions everywhere, just as it did for the disciples in this paragraph of Matthew’s gospel. Because, you see, faith turns your view of the world inside out.
Jesus tells the disciples that he will go to Jerusalem, be persecuted and killed, and will then rise again. This is the thing Peter wants to avoid. He does not want to see his friend and mentor executed, even if it is for the kingdom’s causes. This is the thing Jesus insists must happen. This is the thing that advances heavenly goals, while being an atrocity by earthly standards. The crucifixion was a political execution carried out because Jesus disrupted the political order, and that is the thing that Jesus insists needs to happen. Jesus needed to question the political order in order to do divine work.
When people use the “set your mind on divine things” line, or other quotes like “your treasure awaits in heaven” to try to hold back those who would speak truth to power and reveal the injustices in our world, they are operating from a place of great privilege. It is a great privilege to feel as though the world is bearable. It is a great privilege to feel that the status quo is reasonably fair. It is a great privilege to go through your day without worrying about being shot by those who are sworn to protect you. I don’t say this to shame those who feel this way. Most don’t realize they are doing it. But this is not a religion or a spirituality of the status quo.
Christianity, at its core, is a religion that speaks to the suffering of the world. Christianity speaks to the experience of the secular, of poverty, of oppression, of violence, and of insecurity. Much of its beauty, yes, is in how it teaches us to cultivate an inner peace that is not determined by the outward affairs of the world. But the inward experience of God is not an an opiate against suffering. It does not numb us. It emboldens us. The inward experience of God is our source of courage.
The very next thing Jesus said after “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” was this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And man, that line has got some teeth. It involves both our inward faith and our outward action.
“Let them deny themselves…” this is important, and a little delicate. What does it mean to deny yourself? As one who lives with depression, there is a dark edge to the term self-denial. But the self-erasure that people envision when in the depths of depression is a far cry from the affirmation of life that Jesus calls us to. The self-denial today’s passage points us toward, instead of stemming from self-loathing, draws its energy from our awareness of God’s love. The self-denial comes as we realize that we are held in relationship with the rest of the creation by God’s love, and that this is the context for our identity. We exist only in sacred community. Our attachment to our privilege can fall away once we see it as a barrier to God’s love. To plug my ears when someone calls names injustice is to try to stop God’s love. Self-denial is, in fact, less giving something up and more an embrace of what is true.
After denying themselves, these followers of Christ take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Now, you know, just by considering the idea, that people in 1st century Palestine did not carry crosses around with them. Why would they? A cross is a large and unuseful tool. You cannot build houses with it. You cannot catch fish with it. It has, really, just the one use. You get nailed to it and die a very painful, very public, very shameful death. It is perhaps an ancient analogue to being shot in the back 7 times in front of your children.
So then this passage is uncomfortable. To pretend it isn’t would be to to deceive ourselves. I don’t love to preach this kind of sermon, especially right at the start of the school year. This isn’t “welcome to college” material!
But I don’t think I can not preach it. Following Jesus means reckoning with death. When Peter’s mind was set on human things, it was working from a fear of death and loss. That is the logic of crucifixion. It scares us. The crucifixion was very, very human. Jesus’ ministry, carried out in the knowledge that crucifixion would be the consequence, was divine. That is, Jesus defined life by divine standards, and the logic of crucifixion no longer won out. To set your mind on divine things is to redefine what it means to live. Peter is afraid of loss and afraid of death. I know exactly how he feels. And Jesus shows that being aware of the divine means that loss and death should no longer govern us.
As Jesus says, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” The “don’t make any waves” approach to Christianity simply will not do.
This week, Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was shot, in the back, 7 times. His children witnessed it. This is a grievous sin. He did not die, somehow, but his name joins our shameful litany of black lives treated as disposable in our society. My society. Your society.
My preaching will not fix it, and I am not sure what will.
But it is time to set our mind on divine things.
Jacob Blake is entirely beloved of God, exactly as human and sacred as anyone else. And that is divine, for Genesis tells us that all people are created in God’s image. You know this, but we can apparently forget.
Not killing is divine. It is—and this is another thing we can apparently forget—a commandment. “You shall not kill.” Carve it in stone.
Civil disobedience is divine, for Jesus said, in the greatest sermon ever preached, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
In the end, then, this passage does not ask us to distinguish our life with God from our life in the world. It presents us with a chance to let the former transform the latter. When we find God in our life, we see the world differently, and the world holds less authority over us. I urge you—I actually beg you— to let your spiritual experiences and values shape your life. As you find your way through the world, know that your value is spoken for and assured, and that the rules of the world do not delineate a life well-lived. Come here for comfort, for solace, for community, and to be challenged. That inward grounding in God’s love equips you to be the people our very human world desperately needs.