Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Cross: The Only Way to Life

[I shared this during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio this morning.]

Matthew 16:21-28
As if it hasn’t lasted long enough already, we now have about nine weeks left in the US presidential election. Throughout this period, the candidates of both parties will tell us a lot of things, much of it things we want to hear designed to win us over.

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that Jesus never took the advice of political “handlers.” Otherwise, He wouldn’t have said any of what He says to us today.

Let’s set the scene. Our lesson is a continuation of an incident that made up last Sunday’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus applauds the confession of one of his disciples. The man whose parents named him Simon confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Savior King for whom the Jews had been waiting for centuries. Jesus applauded the disciple’s confession, noting that the man had reached this conclusion about Jesus not through intellectual analysis or his emotions, but as a result of that truth being revealed by God to Simon’s open mind. And then, Jesus gave Simon a new name: Peter, a word meaning rock. On the rock of Simon’s confession, Jesus would build his church. Not even death would destroy His Church, Jesus says.

Immediately after this, Jesus tells Simon and the other disciples what would happen to Him as the Messiah: “I’m going to Jerusalem to be spurned by the leaders of our people, to suffer at their hands, to be executed at their prompting, and on the third day following my death, rise again.”

This isn’t what Simon the Rock of faith or the other disciples had in mind at all.

And it isn’t the sort of thing designed to win people over.

Nobody wants a Savor King, a Christ, Who suffers and dies, even if death is followed by resurrection.

Whether from love and loyalty for Jesus, or from fear that his dreams for peace and prosperity are being threatened, or from a combination of both fears, Peter's reaction to Jesus is immediate and forceful.

“God forbid, Lord” Peter tells Jesus, “this will never happen to you!” Then Jesus gives Simon a new name. Thundering with anger, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus goes on: “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Jesus was saying that the problem with the man who he’d just designated as the stand-in for the whole Church--for you and me--was being satanic, opposing the plans of God, because he spent too much time thinking like everybody else. Jesus drives His point home when He says, “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.”

What exactly did Jesus have in mind when He told us to take up our crosses and follow Him?

Father Andrew Greeley tells the fictional story of a family packing up to return home after a long summer vacation. The family’s oldest child is to be a senior in high school and the parents are dreading going back. They wish somehow they could freeze time and have their lives remain as they are. They feel so in control and so happy. But the high school senior finally talks sense to his parents. “We have to move on. We can’t live in the past without taking away the present and the future.” Wise words!

They remind me of the lyrics from the bridge of a song by the late Christian music pioneer Larry Norman: “It all comes down to who you crucify/You either kiss the future or the past goodbye.”

The cross that Jesus was calling Simon Peter and the other disciples to bear represented their very human dreams of comfort and ease, of vindication and revenge, of prosperity and power. They were the dreams that we all entertain.

Understandably, Peter and the overwhelming majority of those in first-century Judea held onto stubborn dreams that their country would be freed of the Romans when the Messiah came and that the Messiah would bring them endless prosperity. They would be control. That’s really what all of we earth-bound thinkers want when we’re completely honest.

But Jesus points out that’s faulty thinking. What good is it to have all the money and all the power we want in this life if their our real and most basic needs aren’t met? Or, as Jesus put it: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?”

The real problem of Simon and his people, is our sin. That's our real problem too, our inborn alienation from God that causes us to turn away from God and that gives rise to all the stupid, tragic, horrible things we do to ourselves and to each other.

Taking up the cross means renouncing short-term gain in favor of living under the reign of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

The way of the cross isn’t the path we would choose if we were looking for self-preservation as the world sees self-preservation. But it’s the only way to the future that God wants to give to us, to eternity with God.

I’m terrified of water. It’s irrational, but because of my fear, I’ve never learned to swim. That’s why I could identify with the person I read about who was learning to swim.* He wanted to keep his foot on the bottom of the pool. But the instructor pointed out that there are no half measures in learning to swim. “If you keep yourself anchored there, you’ll never get the hang of it,” he said. In just the same way, if you and I are going to get the new life that Jesus wants to give us, we have to let go of the old life that’s pulling us down.

This call of Jesus to take up our cross and follow Him causes people to do strange things.

A couple I once knew joined a congregation that was struggling and had little to offer their family. Why had they done that when there were larger congregations with lots of programs and plenty of money just down the street? “Because,” the woman said, “we were looking for a place where we could serve. This congregation needed us more.” It was a strange thing to do, but that couple took up their cross to follow Jesus.

The pastor of a wealthy suburban church once shocked us by taking a call to a congregation that was in an impoverished area. “Why did you do that?” a colleague had asked. “Well,” he said, “this was the last place on earth we would have chosen to go. We figured that when God called us here, it was where we were supposed to be.” That pastor and his family bore the cross and followed Jesus.

A few weeks ago, Ann was visiting with old friends from Cincinnati when one of them made a racist joke about Senator Obama. Now, it doesn’t matter what your opinion of Obama or whether you intend to vote for him or not, racial prejudice is sin. Ann turned to her friend and said, “Vicky, I love you. But that isn’t funny.” Ann bore the cross, risking tearing up the moorings of acceptance from a friend, to follow Jesus in loving God and loving neighbor. I don’t know whether I would have chosen Christ or to protect myself at that moment. But I am proud and inspired by the choice Ann made!**

A man had been a quiet drunk for years. Although he made it to work each day and even rose within his company, his addiction to alcohol had frozen him emotionally and spiritually. At home, he had few real connections with his family. He drank because he couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with the messiness of life. He walled himself off beneath a veneer of booze and false optimism. It was too painful to him. One day though, he confided to a doctor friend that he had a problem. From then, he began a detox program and started the painful work of rebuilding his life. Why had he done that? He could have gone on and nobody would have been the wiser. He did it, he said, because he’d come to believe that exposing himself to the realities of life sober was better than anesthetizing himself from them with drink. He bore his cross. He committed himself to living life, to loving God and neighbor, no matter what pain and difficulty it might bring. The old self began to die so the new self, the self turned to God, could live.

And what about you? Are you protecting yourself from life, looking out for number one and so denying yourself the life with God that belongs to those who follow Jesus Christ?

It’s a life filled with challenges, to be sure. It’s not an easy way. But it is the way to eternity, the way to peace with God and peace with ourselves. The only way.

I pray that you—and I—will let God give us the faith and the courage to follow Jesus and so become the people and the church God calls us to be.

Take some time this week to do an inventory of your life. Is there anything in your life to which you’re clinging, even otherwise innocent things, that are preventing you from following Jesus. They may be as innocuous as spending too much time watching TV or as serious as withholding forgiveness or being abusive toward a family member. Whatever prevents you from following Jesus, take up the cross. Admit the problem to God. Enlist the help you need. And commit yourself to following Christ in every facet of your life. Amen

*This represents my own slight reworking of an illustration used by N.T. Wright in explaining this passage of the Bible.

**In the coming weeks of this campaign, you and I may face many such calls to carry the cross and follow Jesus when we're subjected to other bigoted jokes about senior citizens directed at John McCain and women directed at Sarah Palin. Those bigoted jokes will also be expressions of sin and as Christians, we can't allow ourselves to be party to them!

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATION: I love the pen and ink representation of this passage created by Cerezo Barredo. Notice that Peter holds keys in his hands. Peter, the stand-in for the Church, holds the keys to the kingdom which Jesus entrusts to the Church: the power to declare or withhold the forgiveness of God, to repentant or unrepentant sinners, respectively. This is a great way of conveying the truth that the Church, composed of finite, sinful human beings, is both divine and human. Similarly, individual Christians are saints and sinners.

[This is an unadorned acoustic version of 'The Weight of the World' performed by the song's composer, the late Larry Norman. Throughout his life, Norman wrestled with his demons, but seemed always to come back to Christ. The performance here was originally part of a medley that cuts off the song abruptly. But it's a great song that has been covered by such diverse artists as Lost and Found and Ringo Starr.]

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