Encounters with Rabbi Jesus, IV: Getting It Right
Then Jesus told his disciples,“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. —Matthew 16:24
God, you have spoken to us through your Son, by his presence,
his words, his love and compassion, his dying and rising.
Let your written word now be spoken and heard by each of us.
Give us ears to hear and hearts to understand,
that we may not refuse your calling or ignore your voice.
Humble us to accept your truth that we may all learn.
Bring our every thought captive to obeying Christ,
In his name we pray. Amen.
For our final sermon in this series from the Gospel of Matthew, we are listening in on a conversation Jesus is having with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi. It was a pagan outpost, far from the disciples’ homes and the norms of Jerusalem and everything about the place upset their equilibrium. But it was here that Peter was the first to grasp Jesus was unlike anyone before and represented a new beginning. He was the first to confess Jesus was the Messiah, the son of the living God.
That moment marked the turning point for Jesus and the disciples. We will hear today’s passage open with “from that time on” indicating everything Jesus will say and do in the remainder of Matthew’s gospel will now prepare the disciples for his fateful walk to the cross. Listen to what happens next between Jesus and Peter and listen for God’s living word as I read 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 Jesus 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.
History is filled with stories of failure and lack of faith…as well as examples of lives that experienced more pain by a fear of failure or a fear of faith.
Many of you know ministry is my second career. By the time I reached the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, I had resigned from my position managing a consulting practice. To pay the bills, I accepted a part-time job as marketing director, but it was not part-time, it needed fulltime attention. My mom had just been diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time.
On the first day of class, I parked in the garage at the north end of campus and as I walked head down to Swift Hall. It was a late September day but I could not see the color in the leaves, the chrysanthemums, or the silly posters for undergraduates. I was too scared to see anything. What if ministry was not for me? There are far more qualified ministers than viable positions. I knew my former colleagues and clients would accept me back if I returned, but not without wondering if I were committed to the profession. In my new job, employees and co-workers had far greater expectations of what I would do regardless of the contract hours. Plus, I did not even want to be in a firm with such blatant racism. Then I wondered “What about my mom?”
I was really scared. Just as I approached Regenstein Library, scrawled on the sidewalk in chalk was, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
I had to smile. Along with all the other posters and signs, who would have imagined at a secular university—one that oft times feels hostile to faith—I would read this?
I took a breath, walked on, and fell back to questioning if I could honestly do this. What would people think? I was spinning such a circle that as I passed under the gates made famous by the movie “When Harry Met Sally,” I could not see the gates. But, right there on the sidewalk was written again, “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.”
Although it was only a few hundred yards since I’d read this, I had forgotten it.
I continued through the quad and actually noticed other students sitting next to a fountain. Smart students. Young students. Students who were far more capable than I was at writing papers and arguing ethereal concepts. Students that could pick up Hebrew and Greek with just a glance at the vocabulary and not the stacks of flashcards I’d created. Could I learn enough to pass language exams in middle age?
Just before I approached the steps to Swift Hall, one more time the same scripture passage greeted my steps. Do you remember what it is? “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.”
It took three times before I embraced Peter’s message to me.
I had been so caught up in the story of what others’ thought I was to be or what I needed to be for success, I was unable to receive the consistent truth that was literally lying at my feet. Peter was practically shouting at me…do not be afraid. Turn to God.
My fear of the unknown was high. Who do I trust? And my fear of failure was almost as crippling. What must I do? I will candidly admit I was so afraid of not being able to manage everything; I did a really lousy job with just about everything. My fear of failure did more to foreclose on the future than actually failing might have.
In our reading last week, when Peter was asked “who do you say I am” he shared his glimpse of Jesus’ divinity by answering “you are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
Today’s reading continues that conversation but marked the turning point with “From that time on…” Throughout the remainder of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ sole focus will be to teach the disciples what being the son of “the living God” means: he would suffer, be handed over to death…and raised in three days. This was the first time Jesus predicted his death and promised resurrection. He would repeat it three more times, almost word for word.
Peter failed to understand. In his mind a Messiah is to overturn all of what is wrong with this world—like Jesus had been doing—but then take his place as the ruler. Jesus had lifted up the oppressed and outcast and should wreak destruction on those who had been persecuting them. The Messiah was to upend the wealth distribution and bring prosperity. Peter’s rebuke proved he was still trusting in the world’s ideal of success with winners and losers competing in a zero sum game.
In Peter’s estimation, Jesus was walking into complete failure regardless of what “and on the third day be raised” could mean.
They both knew the ruling forces would not tolerate Jesus’ disruption. Inevitably Jesus’ death would be the most expeditious way for the ruling elite to silence him, and not just death in the dark of night; given his growing popularity, he would endure a physically as well as emotionally torturous death, staged to destroy the dreams of his followers as well.
The man whom Jesus had called a “rock” of faith just breaths ago he now called a “stumbling block.” Peter could not see salvation through a cross. Although Peter was the lone voice recorded at the time, even at the end of Matthew’s gospel, some of the disciples who heard all four predictions, were present at the cross, and then watched the risen Christ ascend to heaven we are told still doubted. Jesus’ way of the cross defies human logic.
Like Peter, what we most often want is more of what the world already offers—security or wealth or status or popularity. But, “from that time on” Jesus embodied the truth that our life is far more precious than our concern for comfort. He came as the son of the living God to free us. And Peter’s first step towards this freedom meant he needed to realize his ideas obstructed Jesus’ plan for him and everyone else. Peter had to give up his notions of success and failure before he could be free. Since Peter didn’t understand what Jesus as Messiah meant, he was told to get behind and follow.
Before the cross was something for us to believe in, it symbolized condemnation and provoked fear. No one would willingly walk towards such an agonizing and disgraceful death.
But, our Messiah had entered into all aspects of messy, human life. He was born in an animal’s barn to an unwed mother. As an infant he had to escape Herod’s sword by becoming a refugee. Jesus labored with his hands and lived as an itinerant preacher with nothing but the clothes on his back. Everything about Jesus’ existence revealed God is fully invested in bringing holiness to the human life. And it was by embracing human suffering and death that our Messiah would redeem life.
The cross of Jesus is where God is joined to the fullest human experience of loss—suffering an unjust and cruel death. Out of love for our lives, God is always present—not causing chaos but entering into it, not sending calamity but suffering through it, not standing over us but holding tightly onto us and promising never to let go. Wherever there is human tragedy and pain, the incarnate and crucified God is there.
Before the cross was something to believe in, it was the event that taught the disciples, and us, what it means to profess Jesus as Messiah.
No one gets this right the first time or the second and continues in the struggle between seeking after worldly security and trusting in the cross, just like Peter. How do you live now and how do you inherit eternal life? Even though we are taught serving and following Jesus is the way, we still have such a hard time grasping the cross and living into such grace.
Jesus’ cross changes everything.
The lovely summer weather we have enjoyed seems to contradict the tragedies and violence that permeated our lives during August: Charlottesville erupted out of the blue, North Korea continues to hiss, and neo-Nazis creep out of dark holes. Any one of these could be enough for us to want to shut down those causing such disruption rather than face the problems that fostered such threats. Then we experienced Hurricane Harvey, which could prompt some outside of its path to hunker down and just be thankful the storm missed them.
Someone could stay outside of the fray by offering platitudes of “it was God’s will” or “God does not give us more than we can handle” or “God helps those who help themselves,” those Christian lies we have talked about over the last few weeks. To hide behind these lies implies one holds on to notions of success and failure. But, clutching these platitudes so tightly keeps one’s hands closed around a very small ideal of humanity and God. A closed hand cannot receive the gift of grace.
The cross that will save us is the cross that also involves us. We have seen this in action also during August: ordinary people who mustered the courage to live counter to the ways of the world by speaking out against injustice, giving generously, and risking life to honor human life.
I’ll admit, as I planned this sermon several weeks ago, I had in mind the story of two swimmers who were caught in a riptide off the coast of Panama City. Each successive rescuer fell victim to the water’s current only compounding the scope of the problem. Complete strangers on the beach joined hands, attracting more and more people together, until they reached and saved the swimmers.
Human response to Hurricane Harvey read that script and magnified it. The storm that dumped an epic volume of water on the Gulf Coast also transformed an army of people into heroes who will forever be unnamed and not rewarded for their acts beyond a “thank you.”
What happened in Harvey defies human logic of a world of winners and losers, but it confirms a willingness to serve a greater good gives all of us life.
What about those who were not part of the Cajun or Texan Navy? Or after we have wept our tears and given, generously, to rebuild? How do we experience what it is like to have faith in the cross?
We can give someone another chance instead of writing them off. We can forgive someone who has wronged us instead of seeking retribution. With Jesus, we get do-overs after our failures and we can offer the same. We can offer our future to God seeking joy in service rather than acquisition. We can speak against racism and sexism and those other ‘isms that demean others rather than sit in our comfortable silence. These things may feel like little deaths, giving up what we have earned or risking what we created. But, we give them up on the cross for God to raise us to new life.
In the words of Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus (him) is not a “salvation scheme” or a means of creating some ideal social order as much as it is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the World, and to love the way that God loves—which we cannot do by ourselves.
If grasping the grace of the cross is too much of a stretch or when fear gets in the way of your life, just remember what Peter said: “Cast all your anxiety on God, because God cares for you.”
May it be so.
 Karoline Lewis, “The Cross at the Crossroads,” Dear Working Preacher, (Accessed August 28, 2017) https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4960
 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 177-182.