Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year A – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – September 3, 2017
Peter got it right only a few lines ago in the Gospel account. “‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’” Yay! You know those moments when you get something right and you’re feeling great about it and then you push it too far and fall short, or embarrass yourself. Well, this is Peter’s “should have quit while I was ahead” moment.
Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for not only his upcoming crucifixion, but also his resurrection. But Peter can’t hear it. “This isn’t fitting in with the game plan at all! If he’s the Messiah, the Son of the living God, what’s he going on about suffering and death for? That’s not what the anointed one of God is supposed to do, is it?” So Peter pulls Jesus aside and tells him that he doesn’t want this to happen to Jesus. And really, who can blame him? If your leader and friend started talking that way, you’d want to have a sidebar with her, too, wouldn’t you? But Jesus won’t stand for it. He tells him, “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.”
Now, the word “Satan” in Hebrew simply means “adversary.” But in a few short lines, Peter has gone from being called “blessed” to being the “adversary;” from being the “rock” on which Jesus will build the church to being a “stumbling block.” It only takes a moment to turn, doesn’t it? I think we’ve all experienced that. Things will be going great and then suddenly something will happen that will turn the world upside down. You’ll be feeling like you’ve finally got everything figured out and then things will fall apart and you’re left holding the pieces. Life shifts quickly. And so do we. We’ll be kind, gracious, and generous one moment and bitter, selfish, and petty the next – maybe not even out loud, but we can tell when that shift has occurred in our hearts. This shouldn’t be news to any of us.
But Jesus is modeling something far different for the disciples and for all of us. He is modeling not the path of glory, triumph, and power, but a path of suffering, apparent powerlessness, self-sacrifice, and life that comes from death. We know this. We have heard this. But what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus? What does it mean to lose our lives for his sake and to find them?
This chapter of Matthew’s gospel began with Pharisees and Sadducees asking for a “sign from heaven” so that they might know who Jesus is. He told them they would only receive the sign of Jonah – the sign of a prophet sealed off from and dead to the world for three days in the belly of a whale. And now, Jesus is telling his followers that he will suffer and die at the hands of those who don’t understand only to rise again.
Around 312 CE, Constantine I was reported to have had a vision of the sign of cross. In that vision, next to the cross, he saw the words, “in this, conquer” or as it would later be interpreted “in this sign you will conquer.” Initially he didn’t understand, but the following night he had a dream in which he heard Christ say that this sign should be used against his enemies. And so, the story goes, Constantine painted the Chi Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, on his soldier’s shields and marched into battle against Maxentius. Constantine won and became the sole Roman Emperor, later converting to Christianity, and making it the religion of the Empire. The accounts and timeline of all of this vary, but they paint a clear story of how the cross was used. What might have happened if Constantine instead interpreted the vision and dream to mean that he was to love his enemies in Jesus’ name?
Time and time again the cross has been used to conquer, to subdue, to marginalize, and to exclude. The crusades, pogroms and Anti-Semitism, colonialism, slavery, the issues of sexism we’ve been discussing in the Adult Forum, and frequently against members of the LGBTQ community. Even now a document called the “Nashville Statement” has been signed by some evangelicals, stating that homosexuality and transgenderism is a sin and Christians who “agree to disagree” on this are wrong. And so rather than a sign of welcome and a clear display of God’s incredible love for all humanity, the cross has all too often been a sign and a weapon of division.
Brothers and sisters, we come from a variety of backgrounds and hold different views on social issues. But Christ’s call to pick up our cross means that each day of our lives is spent dying to our expectations, to ourselves, and to our own egos, for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the other. So often, we are tempted, like Peter, to pull Jesus aside and tell him he’s got it all wrong. That there shouldn’t be any suffering. That he should do something about thosepeople who are wrong. About those who are “clearly worse sinners” than we are. About the way others should be able to pull their acts together and do better like we have.
To this, Jesus says, “Get behind me! You are my followers. You’re not supposed to be out in front of me. I’m doing a new thing and I want you on board!” He bids us to let go. To give up what we think makes sense because of what we’ve seen be “successful” in the world. To stop casting the first stone. To instead listen deeply to that voice within that tells us quietly and persistently to follow the humble servant. It is following Christ into places we never thought we’d go. It is following him into situations deemed foolish by the world. It is allowing him to transform us through challenging us to empty ourselves and be open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It is following him even into the very heart of suffering, not because God wants us to suffer, but because that is precisely the place where God is. It is following him into the fullness and joy of a life lived in God.
As German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “we are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” If we love our lives, our stuff, and the things that we think make us important or powerful, we will be shaped by those things. We will seek acquiring things at the expense of others without even realizing we are doing it. We will seek to hold onto our own security when we feel someone is threatening us even by just being themselves. We will fight for affection when we feel others are getting too much attention. We will fight for control when we sense even wrongly that others may be wresting it from our grasp. None of this is necessarily conscious, but it happens every single day.
If, instead, we keep our eyes on Jesus and the way of the cross, we will be constantly invited and challenged to step back and to live from a place of humility, love, and compassion for ourselves and others. It is this cycle of dying and being raised to new life in Christ that we step into when we are baptized.
Methodist minister Ted Noffs said this: “The tragedy of Christianity has been that Christians have left it all to Jesus. Christians have never tired of seeing the spectacle of Christ Himself upon the Cross — in some mysterious way He is our stand-in or proxy representative in every age. We love to sing about the Cross, to pray about the Cross, to preach about the Cross. As long as we are so fascinated and mesmerized, humanity troops on to its doom. What will save the world is not Christ’s suffering and death but ours. … In fact, this is what Christianity is all about. It concerns the followers of Christ no less than it concerned Christ Himself. They must be radically obedient to God, Truth and Humanity.”
This does not mean for a moment that we save ourselves. Only Christ can do that. But it means that we have a part to play. We are disciples – students of Jesus. And we are to live our lives as he lived his. It means extending hospitality to strangers, blessing those who persecute you, associating with the lowly, feeding your enemies and giving them water, rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep all in the name of Christ. Following Jesus means we have a responsibility to live in the way of the cross, turning again and again away from our own egos to follow God. And to live and to die by the cross takes vulnerability because it means we don’t have to have it all together. We don’t have all the answers or have it all figured out. There’s tremendous freedom in that. We are open to being surprised by the ways that God’s love, grace, and forgiveness may invite us into new ways of living and being. Just as Jesus gave Peter a new vocation, he invites us into the lifelong vocation of being followers, experiencing a richness and fullness of life far greater than we could imagine.
And so I leave you with a few questions. When I do not take up the cross and follow Jesus, who suffers? What has to die in me for me to be truly open to receive the abundance of Christ – the hope, joy, peace, and grace he offers? These are not once in a lifetime questions, but questions we are called to ask ourselves every day. May the Spirit of the crucified and risen One flow freely in and among us, challenging, breathing new life into, and strengthening us to follow Jesus in the world. Amen.