August 30, 2020
So normally the sermon outside and the sermon online are different. But when I looked at these two passages that the lectionary gives us today… they clearly needed to be read together. So first… here in Matthew’s gospel Jesus… for the first time… Jesus starts to tell his disciples what is going to happen when they go to Jerusalem… and Peter reacts. Let us open ourselves up to the hearing of God’s Word.
READ Matthew 16:21-28
So which statement stings your ears… or your heart more? Peter saying, “God forbid it, Lord!” Or Jesus telling Peter that Peter is a stumbling block of Satan… setting his mind not on divine things but on human things. Last week in our online reading from Romans, Paul had encouraged us… “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We can’t ignore those words because we know what happens when our faith is not discerning. We know what happens when our faith becomes rote without our hearts being continually convicted and transformed. Merely going through the motions of our faith takes us nowhere.
In this story, Peter is given a glimpse of what being transformed by following Christ will mean… and when he hears what this is really all about… when he hears God’s intentions… he has to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. That what Jesus just described… that is not the way of the Messiah according to Peter. You can just hear Peter say… That is not what I’ve been witnessing as we’ve traveled around among the people. That’s not the good news I have been proclaiming and hoping for in my heart. I have seen great and wondrous works of healing. I have seen demons cast out and the people… who have claimed power and authority from God and lorded it over us… I’ve seen them silenced by the truth of your teachings. I have seen crowds gathered like I’ve never before witnessed and watched you feed their spirit and their hunger. I have seen compassion for the people who have been tossed aside and now… and now you tell me this? God forbid it, Lord! You make bread out of stones and now you are telling me that your enemies… our enemies will beat you and crucify you… you who with power and might were to take the throne of David… you who would have all kingdoms of the world bow down to you the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. God forbid it, Lord!
Saints, we know well Peter’s rebuke… and not just because we’ve heard the story so many times… how Peter is able to say one minute, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” and as soon as Jesus tells him what those words really mean, the next minute come back with “God forbid it, Lord.” We know this moment so well because that’s where we ourselves get stuck too. That’s where our own rebuke of Christ rises up in our throats. Think how fast Christians move Jesus’ next lesson to his followers about the cross… think about how fast that lesson gets moved off to the side… away from front and center where it ought to be… think how fast we take these words about taking up our own cross and we pull a Peter ourselves. “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?”
Front and center. Not lurking off forgotten in the shadows. Front and center… deny yourself… take up your cross. The defining element of all who follow Christ. Their cross taken up. Our cross taken up… individually… collectively. Imagine that. Imagine if this statement defined Christendom. Because Saints, you know it doesn’t. Not even close. So much of Christianity is about getting… receiving something for the self whether that’s expressed in the desire for blessings… not spiritual blessings but worldly blessings. Or the concern so much with what is going to happen to me after I die. I may live in a world of injustice. I may know the suffering of my neighbor. But my faith is centered and built upon the assurance of my individual heavenly reward. That was the carrot that brought me in. That’s as far as I’m interested in going. Imagine what would happen that as you’re driving down the highways… imagine all those billboards that prey on the fear of death… imagine them all being replaced with the question… Have you denied yourself and taken up the cross of Christ? Be of service and use in this life and let God’s grace take care of the next. Imagine the prosperity gospel being inverted so that all that wealth instead of going up and feeding the greedy or enriching a few… instead of paying the costs for spectacle and production and performance… imagine the prosperity gospel movement in America preaching fiercely the denial of the self and putting all that focus on eradicating the conditions of childhood hunger… of helping to break apart the conditions of entrenched poverty. Imagine churches being houses of prayer and service and community.
Imagine the state of Christian character in the world today… now… here in this moment… if denying self and taking up your cross were truly front and center… if that was the defining element of the all followers of Christ despite faith traditions.
Well, you don’t have to imagine too hard… because Paul tells us all about the resultant character in his letter to the church in Rome chapter 12 starting with verse 9. God still speaks to us.
READ Romans 12:9-21
Love is the Christian response. Love between God and humanity. Love between people. Love built community. Love… not fear. If you are full of fear. If you are afraid of your neighbor. If you are afraid of the world around you. If you are afraid of what will be taken away from you if you are not prepared to fight and kill for what is yours… that you must hold onto it with all that you are… then your response to these words are the same as Peter’s… God forbid it, Lord.
God forbid it that I should love my neighbor, Lord. My neighbor who is not like me. My neighbor who does not look like me… or believe like me… or has what I have. God forbid it, Lord. Because I know… I know that neighbor is my enemy. God forbid it, Lord, that you should tell me that denying myself… that taking up my cross… a cross that focuses not on the service of myself and my own wants and needs… but a cross that is about the service to others… God forbid it that that should mean that I am to love my enemy… that I am to bless them and not curse them. You do not live in the real world, Lord. In the real world you use others to your advantage… you do whatever it takes to win and defeat your enemy. In the real world it is better to win than it is to be merciful. In the real world if evil acts bring you success… then that is not truly evil. It is necessary and savvy. To lose is the greatest evil. To win… to dominate your enemies is the way forward.
These are the words of fear and sin and evil.
The Holy Spirit… speaking through Paul… I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
God forbid it, Lord.
Can you see how much we’ve turned away from these words? These are to be the traits of our Christian character. These are the higher ideals to which we aspire through the cross. This is the result of the transformed heart. We fear no evil for God is with us. But it is telling that instead of embracing the words of scripture… that instead of being shaped by these words of faith… we are instead so much more ready to embrace any conspiracy theory that comes our way as long as it confirms our particular bias. We are ready to jump to the polarities and dance to the tune of the fringes. We are ready to shape our heart to whatever lunacy that is being pedaled to us… because that lunacy speaks to our fears… it fuels our hate… both of which make us feel superior and in control because we know… we know the real truth… we can see through the veil of their lies to the real truth… the truth that tells us vengeance is ours. If your enemies are hungry, it’s their fault and their problem; if they are thirsty, well, that’s just too bad; put the foot to the neck and cover them in the burning coals that are of their own creation… that surely we did not have a hand in creating… or keeping hot. In this battle… in this war we are waging… we are fighting for no less than the possession of the world. We cannot lose or their armageddon will destroy us all. In the blood of the battle are we made to be guiltless and our sins will be absolved… and if Jesus were smart… instead of going to Jerusalem… to give judgment on the sin of the world through that cross… if Jesus were smart… he would keep doing the ministry that he has done to this point. That’s where the success is to be found. So says Satan through the mouth of Peter.
What does God in scripture say? Listen again.
“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?” Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Saints, in this we will come to discern what is the will of God… what is good and acceptable and perfect. So let me encourage you… to reject sin and evil… to reject the lies of Satan… and set your mind on divine things… not on human things. Amen.