[NOTE TO READER: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is pronounced “EH-hyah ah-SHARE EH-hyah”]
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
These words from today’s reading from Matthew are Peter’s impulsive response to the devastating news that Jesus – his friend, healer and teacher, beloved and more than beloved, his divine Lord and savior – would suffer. Must suffer, be killed and be raised.
Peter, like most of us, reacts to the fact of suffering with fear and denial.
Jesus famously replies: “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter has reacted out of fear of suffering and loss in the short term, in a human reckoning of time. He has focused on the fact that Jesus must suffer and be killed. Jesus continues:
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
“It” refers to eternal life. A great and glorious future. Jesus instructs Peter to focus on divine things, the promise that his Lord will be raised and in the last day, we shall all be raised.
In fact, Peter knows this. Just prior to the conversation in today’s passage, in Matthew 16:16, in answer to the question “Who do you say that I am?” Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. Jesus has complimented him on his great faith and offered him the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Peter has just demonstrated one of the paradoxes of being a faithful and human Christian. We believe that suffering will be vanquished for all time, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
At the same time, we live in the world and are committed to alleviating suffering where and as we can. Indeed, Jesus is our model in the work of feeding the hungry, healing the sick, blessing the dying, loving God and our neighbor. It seems that we are to set our minds on both human and divine matters. Jesus is, after all, in his incarnation the point where the reality of God enters the reality of this world. Where human and divine purpose are united.
In today’s reading from Exodus we have another moment where Holy Mystery meets the reality of this world. God declares, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flocks, going about his daily business. The reality of the world, suffering and hard work, is in the forefront.
By appearing in a bush that blazes but is not consumed, God reminds Moses of the Holy Mystery of the divine. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” he commands Moses. The first response of the human to the divine encounter must be reverence. As God makes clear in this passage, reverence is to be followed by action. Moses’ given task is to go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage.
In the passage from Exodus there is a magnificent linguistic device that juxtaposes the imperative of the now, Moses’ task of leading his people away from suffering, with the great mystery of eternity. Moses asks God for a name, so that he can tell the Israelites who sent him. “I am who I am,” says God. The Hebrew Ehyeh asher Ehyeh is an impressively God-like answer, for in Hebrew grammar there is no verb tense. Rather the placement of the personal preposition indicates whether the action has concluded or not. Ehyeh asher Ehyeh can be interpreted as both “I am who I am” and “I shall be who I shall be.” God is now and God is eternal. By calling on God’s great name, we acknowledge that we live simultaneously in the moment and for all eternity.
Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. In today’s passage, Paul gives instructions to the community in Rome for living a faithful life. When Paul speaks of rejoicing in hope, he is speaking of a truly biblical hope for the awaited day when the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of God and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Be patient in suffering because on that day suffering will cease. Persevere in prayer because this is the reverent response to the divine. Prayer that leads always to action: Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Serve the Lord with vigor, ardor and zeal. Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.
And do it now. Jesus reminds us that we do not have much time.
“Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
In the early Christian communities to whom Matthew and Paul wrote, there was a strong sense that the Kingdom of God was coming soon. The familiar blessing paraphrased from the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Frédéric Amiel synthesizes Jesus’ admonition and Paul’s advice: Life is short and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel this journey with us, so be quick to love and make haste to be kind.
Jesus, in revealing that the messianic era is imminent, also explains how the disciples are to live in the intervening time: They are to live with the paradox of faith. One of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that the Messiah must suffer and die before he is raised to eternal life. This paradox makes a concrete statement of the Christological idea that Jesus is the embodiment of both the reality of the divine and the reality of this world. Jesus even issues his instructions to the disciples in the form of a paradox: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
We are to live the way of the great “I Am” and the glorious “I shall be.” We are to live a life of reverent prayer and a life of faithful action. We are to live as if we have not much time and as if we have all the time in the world.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison, as he faced suffering with great faith:
“What remains for us is only the very narrow path, sometimes barely discernible, of taking each day as if it were the last and yet living it faithfully and responsibly as if there were yet to be a great future.”
This is the divine way. It is also the human way. This is the mystery and the paradox of faith.