Sunday Sermon :: August 31, 2014
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
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.’
The Cross and Self-Denial
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.’
Grace to you and peace, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
One of the first things I remember learning in elementary science classes is the idea of “cause and effect.” Following the logic of this idea, for everything that happens, there is something to have caused it. That is an aspect of our culture in the United States that is widely held as the backbone of what makes this nation work. It’s the idea that with enough work and stick-to-it-iveness, good things happen. This is a major tenant of what drives education, media, politics, and business in our country. In our natural line of thinking, there is always a cause and an effect. Sometimes it’s a positive correlation, meaning that certain causes produce a positive effect. This is the driving force in a lot of reality television these days, as we have the ability to watch people regain control over their weight, their house, a disease, or another potential obstacle that stands between them and the person they want to be become. Other times, it’s a negative correlation, meaning that some actions have a negative effect. This type is commonly found in drug prevention ads or other warnings. For instance, we’ve all heard it said that if you drink or smoke or do drugs, you put your life at risk. I’m not saying that these cultural aspects are wrong or evil. There’s a lot of power in being able to take some responsibility for ourselves. But, what do we do when bad things happen when we feel we’ve done everything right? How do we manage when life seems unfair and we seem less than adequate to fix the problem on our own?
This situation has been around for generations. It seems that even though things may be done the correct way, problems can still arise the stop people from having or being what they feel they should be by now. This happens to everybody. We instinctively try to find reasons for the failure and rationalize why things went wrong. We have a tendency to blame any number of possible reasons. Some blame themselves. Some blame others. Still others blame the political system, or the government, or God. We long to have a reason why everything has fallen down around us and we want to know whose responsibility it is to fix it. Why can’t things just work out the way I planned? Why can’t things be fair? Why can’t my hopes and dreams become a reality? Why can’t I get what I feel I’ve earned?
This week’s texts are pretty raw in that regard. They discuss the challenges and the temptation surrounding our struggles in life. Here, it seems, we do not find the Jesus who is kindly patting us on the back, telling us everything is going to be okay, like the Jesus we often expect to meet in the scriptures. We can’t read these passages and walk away believing that following Jesus will be all sunshine and fairy tales. We see that Jesus is not some passive teacher with nice things to say to everybody. He’s not telling us life is going to be easy if we follow him. In fact, he tells his disciples that, if they want to follow him, they must follow him right to the cross with their cross in tow. These days, we put crosses on jewelry, coffee cups, bumper stickers, clothing, tattoos, and sing songs like “The Wonderful Cross” and “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”. Imagine, though, doing the same for a noose or an electric chair. The thought is a bit unsettling, isn’t it? The cross was not a pretty thing, it was an instrument of death. So, to take up one’s cross daily had very heavy implications. The only time someone picked up a cross was a march to their death, whether they have earned it or not. We shouldn’t fool ourselves, then, into thinking that taking up our cross is a simple, easy task.
Peter was so uncomfortable with Jesus talking about his undeserved death that he pulled Jesus aside and began scolding him. Peter, who we read about just last week declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, is now telling Jesus that he knows better how things ought to go. “This must never happen to you, Lord.” Notice, in the text, that Jesus even told his disciples that he would be raised from the dead! They knew the ending of the story, and yet Peter still had the audacity to tell Jesus how to things ought to happen. This shouldn’t surprise us too much, though, knowing Simon Peter’s track record. We can look throughout the Gospels as see that Peter is constantly waffling back and forth between strong proclamation and cowardice. His very name is an oxymoron. His parents named him Simon, which means shifting sands in Greek. Jesus changes his name to Peter, or Petros, which means “solid rock” after his proclamation that Jesus is the “Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Calling him Simon Peter, then, shifting sands solid rock, is a bit like calling someone a jumbo shrimp or a genuine imitation. It’s hard to be both, and we’ve quickly seen the rock turning back into sand.
I think we can all relate to Peter in this occasion. How often have we reveled in the glory of God, found refuge in God’s promises, and confessed that “Jesus is Lord” only to have something come up a few weeks, days, or even hours later that challenges us to our very core? Sometimes it comes in the form of a tragedy or an injustice. Sometimes, our ideas of what is fair seem to be turned on their heads. It seems that, deep down, we all carry the dichotomy between shifting sands and solid rock. Certainly Jeremiah did, as we read earlier (Jeremiah 15.15-21). He was given a message by God for Israel and was promised by God that he would be safe. Yet, Jeremiah did not always feel so protected. He asks God, “Why is my pain unceasing?” and accuses God of being a “deceitful brook.” Pretty harsh words to say to the Almighty God. Yet God and Jesus, despite harsh words, is not intimidated by these challenges. Our doubts and struggles do not phase them, knock them off balance, or make them self-conscious. God, to Jeremiah, restates the promise – that God will protect Jeremiah, that those who persecute Jeremiah will not defeat him. Jesus, to Peter and the rest of the disciples, promises that even though they may take up their cross and face death, that those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus will find it. And how much more does this protection and life mean to us in the midst of struggle when everything else has let us down?
This life that Jesus talks about here has a nuance to it. In the English language, we have one word for life to describe its many forms. The specific form of life he uses is psuche. The best way I can describe psuche is that it’s the inner life. Zoe life is the ups-and-downs kind of life, a roller coaster that takes us in different directions and can make us feel that we have no control at all. Bios life is the body part of life, the breathing, digesting, and brain activity part of life. Psuche, on the other hand, is the inner life, the undercurrent happening beneath the surface. If zoe is the waves on the surface of the ocean, psuche is the strong current underneath. Waves have no direction other than that given by the wind. Currents, though, are constantly moving. They are not controlled by the winds of nature. So, when Jesus says those who lose their life for his sake will find it, he’s talking about giving up control of the current of our lives. He’s not telling us to stop caring about what is happening around us or to just not notice the waves as we try to walk on water. He’s not telling you not to feel pain or disappointment or embarrassment or shame. And, I want to be clear, he’s not telling us that everything will be perfect when we take up our cross.
Jesus knows that we struggle. Jesus knows that we will doubt at times. Jesus knows the zoe life still exists and we will always feel the waves battering us. Jesus understands that we are always at the same time sinner and saint, Simon and Peter. But, beneath it all, there is something else. And that “something else” is not going to leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere, looking for a way to safety. That “something else”, that undercurrent, that psuche life IS our way to safety. And that is the life that is given when we learn to trust God and God’s promises.
In the times that we trust God completely, if we can get there at all, we aren’t carried away by the struggles of this world. That list of behaviors in the Romans text (Romans 12.9-21) begins to happen naturally. The list of actions sounds like something from the book of Proverbs. Try as we might, though, that list is pretty much impossible to complete on our own. In fact, if you have one of these actions figured out and completely integrated into your life, please find me sometime in the near future. I want to learn your secrets! If you get a chance later today or this week sometime, reread that passage. All those items sound pretty nice, but, without the promised undercurrent of the life, it is not even a viable option. That is not the way we, as people, naturally tend to lean. If we honestly look at our relationships and our culture, we tend to believe “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and “one good turn deserves another.” Paul, however, writes that if our enemies are hungry, we should feed them. Being patient in suffering is not always our first instinct.
Now, I want to be clear, there are times when action needs to be taken to relieve suffering. I’m not suggesting that if someone is in an abusive relationship that they should stick it out. I’m not telling someone who is sick not to seek help from doctors. I’m not telling someone who cannot afford adequate housing or food to just accept that as part of the cross they bear. The cross we bear, we bear together. We, the children of God, are not to sit complacently by as injustice is practiced around the world. We are not to be cold or uncaring to people around us. If we take a look at our Romans text that we are encouraged to “rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” You see, we are all experiencing this zoe life together, all the time. We see it on the evening news, social media postings, and in the faces of everybody we meet. We are not immune to the struggles of life and we shouldn’t pretend like we are. We can all relate to life’s struggles and we all have the ability to walk with our friends, neighbors, and, yes, our enemies in those struggles.
We all, like Peter and Jeremiah, can and will doubt God’s plan at times. That’s normal. That’s just part of the brokenness of this world. However, we can understand that the struggles of this life are momentary and that the psuche life, the inner life of Christ, is never ending. Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus’ own struggle and his literally bearing the cross, are known to us. They secure our salvation, not because we have earned it through living a perfect life or always believing, but by grace, an unearned gift, through faith.
So brothers and sisters, don’t be surprised by the struggles of this world. They are going to happen. God knows that. God understands that sometimes we will doubt. But God is always, and I can’t emphasize this enough, always bigger than those doubts. Fear can, and sometimes will, get the best of us. But God is always there, underneath it all, gently and steadily guiding us, all the while telling us that we are loved, we are important, and we are worth the price Jesus paid. Amen.