Preached at St. Paul, Old Saybrook, CT, August 31, 2014.
A reading from Matthew:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “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. 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.”
There is a lot going on in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel: a rebuke, an invitation, and a grounding in future hope – all of it centered on the cross.
The first part of this passage is an allusion to last week;
Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was. Peter answered “you are the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah.” Jesus responded, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” Today we see the other side of it. Jesus tells everyone what his mission is: to suffer, die and be raised, and Peter wants nothing to do with it.
Jesus says, “Peter…Rock…Stop being such a blockhead!”
I find great hope in this. If Peter, the lead disciple who preached on Pentecost, calling thousands to faith in a single day didn’t get it, maybe there is hope for all of us!
The one who is called rock-solid is nothing but a blockhead.
We all show occasional glimpses of “getting it” – at the same time remaining blockheads.
After that rebuke comes an invitation, “If any want to become my followers they must deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me.” Is this good news? Certainly it doesn’t sound like it. Who wants to deny themselves? Don’t we all want comfort and security? Who wants to pick up a cross? Besides being an implement of occupational terrorism, torture and death, they’re also pretty heavy – Who would want to carry that?
Besides that, Jesus invites us to give up our very lives. Sacrifice everything. Leave it behind. Can any of us, truly, do that? Would we even want to?
Comfort and security. That’s really what we want. To live in a beautiful community like this. Perhaps to raise a family. Perhaps to make a living. Perhaps to retire here. Perhaps to enjoy the beauty here with nice church just up the road from the beach. Perhaps a new young pastor with a family of his own with both vibrancy and experience to keep things going & keep things secure. Perhaps for my kids a place to make new friends as well as great memories for our family. Perhaps for me a new endeavor – a nice church down by the Sound filled with people eager to serve and support the work I’m doing.
But is that what Jesus asks of us? To be safe? To be comfortable? To live a good life?
Before you answer those questions for yourself, look to Peter.
He wanted a Messiah.
Not the Messiah they got. Not the Messiah Jesus is.
But the Messiah they were always told would come.
Someone to take care of them.
Someone to make the bad things go away.
Someone to bring them security, peace and easy living.
Peter & the disciples are not that different than us:
Good people who believe Jesus is Lord.
Good people want a good church to go to each week. Good people who want to live a good life.
Unlike them, we have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. Because the end of the story – is really its beginning… We know Jesus will suffer and die. We know Jesus will be raised from the dead. We know his life, suffering, death, resurrection & the community built on the promise of the cross of Jesus Christ – changes everything.
It changed those 1st disciples, & changes us too.
We have a saying that things are “our cross to bear.” We think of it as responsibility:
It’s my loved one to care for.
It’s my disease to fight.
It’s my misfortune to overcome.
Here’s the deal…
I don’t believe Jesus is calling us to either a pain-free life or to bear the whole weight of the world on our shoulders. In the first case we know experientially it just isn’t true – you can’t escape the realities and hardships of life & anybody whose selling that version of the gospel hasn’t really read any of them.
But the second case is equally important. We are not called to save the world by ourselves. Anybody that tries that is going to get crushed by the world. Even Jesus – whose mercy mission of love forgiveness & restoration was crushed by the weight of the world as he died for the world. His resurrection broke all the rules we know about life and death and the new life we are called to take part in – but the key is – we do so together.
Two winters ago I was the chaplain at Calumet for February break. Going down toboggan run I went off course and hit a tree. Headfirst…Blockhead. But what happened afterwards was exceptional. The staff was on top of it. The ambulance came; put on the backboard & taken to Mass General Hospital in Boston. The next 7 weeks I wore a neck brace – I broke my head…Blockhead. St. Michael’s cared for me. People form former churches sent cards. Other churches in town sent meals. The bishop and staff called.
But the quintessential church moment for me came when I was still lying there at Mass General. The tests that would later declare I’d be OK, weren’t back yet. The pain medication hadn’t really kicked in. I was scared. The nurse was there. Tammie was there. My cousin and her husband who live near Boston were there. The hospital chaplain (a Presbyterian) came in. “Hi. Geoff” she said, and then her facial expression changed… “You must be the one all the Lutherans are calling about!”
Both Tammie and the Camp Calumet staff called the synod office and posted on Facebook-and evidently, news traveled fast. When the world crushes you & others hold you up, that’s the church bearing the cross. Now imagine what could happen if the people in our lives – at work, school, that neighbor that drives you crazy, that family member, the friend who said they’d never go in a church again, knew that they were the ones the Lutherans kept calling about? The one that the people of St. Paul kept calling about? The one Jesus keeps calling about?
This last part of this passage is about payment & reward should be understood in the context of our life together. As individuals it’s pretty difficult for any of us to claim we can stand on our own two feet before God in judgment – we solely rely on the mercy of God in Jesus for that, but I think we instinctively get that communities of faith are judged (by others) by how effective we are. If we rest on our laurels, or cling to the past, or lock-up the doors to hide safely inside the reality is we won’t be around too long. But if we can be out in the community. If we can be agents of mercy, if we can be practitioners of hospitality, if we can be the ones that reach out to others because they are the ones that Jesus is calling about, then we – as bearers of the cross…have a good chance.
Jesus grabs hold of our whole lives through the cross – but he asks nothing less than our whole lives in return. To bear the cross – to bear his cross is nothing less than to hold on to the promise & join in him in looking for the ones Jesus keeps calling about.
Remember Peter’s response? “You are the Messiah.”
What does the Messiah do? – he rescues his people not so we can live an easy life or take the whole world upon ourselves. He rescues us from sin and rather and evil so that we bear that cross in the world. Together. “I will build my church upon you” Jesus promises. Not just Peter but all of us. What is the body of Christ? You and me. We bear the cross of Jesus together. The cross that kills and buries us and the promise of life that raises us each day from the dead – in life and love and freedom as the hope of the kingdom takes hold of you (the one Jesus keeps calling about).
Here is what I propose:
- As we start our time together let us remember the foundation of our faith – the confession not only that Jesus is Lord – but that he is Christ, the Messiah, the one who comes to take away the sin of the world.
- Let’s not be timid about who we are and what we are about. We are called to be bold and courageous – bearing the cross (of all things) in the world. That’s not easy. Let’s never think it is; but let’s claim together that the cross is worth something that its worth everything – and nothing is going to stop us, even when we are being blockheads.
You’ve already done this:
-You saw there weren’t enough preschools in town so you started one
-You saw started a homework club for those who need extra help, because you knew it would make a difference.
-You support things like Calumet, send young people on mission trips and participate with other local churches to feed the hungry.
we can do more, looking for the ones that Jesus keeps calling about.
- Can we have a little fun? Can we bear each other’s burdens, get serious when we need to, get tasks accomplished, but also spend a little time laughing, joking, giggling, skipping, singing and experience this faith of ours for what it is supposed to be – pure joy?
An invitation to follow. The promise of the cross. A call to action in Jesus’ name. You are the ones Jesus keeps calling about. Together we can look for the others. The cross isn’t about putting our feet up or putting the world on our shoulders, it is knowing the mercy & love of God – carrying it joyfully in the world to the ones Jesus keeps calling about.
I’m ready. If you’re with me, let’s get to work. Amen
St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church, 56 Great Hammock Road, Old Saybrook, CT 06475 (860) 388-2398
Sunday worship @ 8:30 A.M. & 10:45 A.M.