Matthew 16: 21-28
3 September 2017
Take my lips, Oh Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them. Tale our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I wonder, how many of you tried the exercise I suggested last week? Remember? That spiritual exercise of coming up with 1000 names for Jesus? Hard as it is too think of 1000 names for me it’s even harder to hear those names applied to myself. After all, Jesus is Jesus, I call him savior and Lord. How is it for you? There are at least two things at work here I think. On one hand, it’s hard to believe our selves worthy of such high regard from God. Then again, and maybe this is the bigger concern, what would it mean for us if we did really believe that we are chosen by God, beloved of God, and possess some, particular, gift that God needs to fulfill the plan for God’s creation? It’s all well and good to hear Peter identify Jesus as God’s chosen, and to hear that wonderful story last week when Jesus went on to affirm Peter as the rock on which Jesus would build the church. But what about us? That story is a wonderful one for us too. When we hear it we can also feel affirmed. After all, we are, each and every one of us, part of the church that exists now as the body of Christ. Unfortunately, that was last week and this is this week. Today’s gospel is not nearly so much fun to listen to. Jesus’ words are hard ones as he tells Peter and the others about exactly how he will carry out God’s plan for all humankind. Jesus said: “You are right in saying I am the Messiah, but since I am, I must go up to Jerusalem where I will suffer much and be rejected by the religious leaders. There I will be killed, and after three days rise again.” Now, as usual, Peter jumped right in with both feet. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” I’m sure that Peter could never imagine that, if Jesus was the promised Messiah, his fate would be so devastatingly disastrous. After all, this crazy idea that the Messiah would experience rejection, pain, and death just didn’t fit with what anyone believed about God’s messiah.
Poor old Peter, much as he got it just right in last week’s reading he got it entirely wrong in this weeks. Jesus became so frustrated, so angry, with Peter that he really dressed him down. “Get behind me Satan!” And we can understand where Jesus was coming from too. He was counting on Peter to provide leadership. He needed Peter to understand. And Peter just didn’t. Perhaps Peter, like us, couldn’t quite believe that God had chosen him to be part of God’s plan. And perhaps Peter, again like us, was saying, “Oh no God, not me.” I’m with Peter here, I really don’t want to suffer unpleasantness or rejection, let alone real pain, suffering and death. I don’t imagine any of you do either. It’s so much easier to forget the details of what Jesus went through, to focus on Christmas and Easter, while turning away from Good Friday. It is, when you come right down to it, simply human to focus on those wonderful shining moments of joy, of triumph. It’s just that God’s ways are not our ways. Retired Priest Ken Kesselus, who inspired this sermon, has this to say. “With God…it has to be [another] way. For through his life, death on the cross, and resurrection, Jesus saves us by showing us the way to a life of God’s forgiveness, love, and grace – given with no conditions, no strings attached. God provides for us the chance to live a life with a full range of the possibilities potentially present in everyone.” The thing is to say that Jesus saves us by his death is to say that he, once and for all, overcame the power of sin. It’s to say that God has already forgiven us, that God will always forgive us. One thing that Jesus, the Christ, tells us through his life and through his death and resurrection is that God regards us as worth dying for. And God counts on us too. Certainly, our lives are made up of a mix, sometimes wonderful, sometimes bland, and sometimes difficult, even sometimes just plain tragic. That’s just the nature of creation. Still, Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the hope and the purpose to go on in the face of whatever happens to us. We do well, to ask “what next, with God’s help.” I know you have all heard what happened next in the Gospel. Jesus called his followers together. He told them, in the clearest of terms, what was at stake for God’s creation and what they were called to do. In order to follow Jesus they, and we, have to deny ourselves, take up our own crosses, and follow him all the way to Jerusalem. What does that really mean though? After all that phrase, “take up your cross” is applied to all kinds of situations, some fairly nonsensical. The thing is: Christ calls us to forget ourselves, and our own needs, in order to remember others and care for them as Jesus did. Christ calls us to be ready to endure what might happen to us when we live true to God and God’s values. No, being a Christian is not always easy just as life is not always easy. At the same time though, being a Christian is always meaningful, always life affirming, always life giving. But there is even more good news in today’s gospel.
Scripture tells us that we really do have the resources to take on or give up whatever we need to for God’s sake. God will always provide what we need in order to give of ourselves so that God’s will and God’s work may be done. God will give us just what we need to take up those crosses. We don’t have to horde our resources whatever they may be. We can give ourselves away because we know, deep inside, that God gave us life not to hold onto it but to spend it for the sake of God and all God’s creation. Taking up our own crosses is really nothing more than remembering with gratitude what God has already given us and then acting as good stewards of all those gifts of time, and treasure, and talent so that God can use them. And there is still more good news here this morning. Jesus also tells us about the result of our self-giving. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” There is no profit at all in trying to hang onto worldly riches, whether time, talents or treasure when hanging onto those things leads to losing our spiritual lives. Jesus tells us quite clearly, quite plainly, that we may, and sometimes do, find ourselves compromising honesty or honor for self or imagined safety. We may let go of Christian values or principles for popularity or to cling to a sense of our own rightness. But what does any of that gain for us in ultimate terms? Jesus points out that all we gain in the end is a kind of self-imposed exile from our greatest possible treasure: God’s self and God’s Kingdom. It doesn’t have to be of course, God has already given us all we need, exactly what we need, and always will, when we seek to be one with Christ, picking up our crosses and following Jesus as faithful members of his body in today’s world, living the Good News we have received so that others can hear and share it too. What will you choose?