Last Sunday’s sermon on Matthew 16:21-28, preached at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Peter has got to be one of my favorite disciples. I mean, last week, he gets a gold star for naming Jesus as the Messiah. And then this week, Jesus is calling him Satan. In my mind I imagine Peter frolicking around saying “Jesus is Messiah! I got it! I got it!” Then in the next moment, he’s looking down at his shoes and saying, “I don’t got it…”

To use a recent metaphor, it was like Jeff and me trying to kayak between Chincoteague and Assateague on Monday. We could see where we wanted to go and were paddling together thinking, “we’re getting there!” But then when we looked around, we realized we hadn’t gone anywhere and we were, in fact, drifting backwards due to the currents and the wind. So sad. One step forward… two steps back.

And frankly, don’t we all sometimes feel like Peter must have felt?I know it’s usually the minute I think I’ve got something figured out that I realize, “nope! Still oblivious!” And really, who can blame Peter for his outburst – for trying to stop Jesus from talking about the fact he must suffer and die? Peter is listening to his Lord – his friend – and he’s hearing that this person he loves is going to suffer and die. No one wants to hear that someone they love is hurting or dying. And no one is really certain what to do or what to say when someone they love is hurting. No wonder Peter takes Jesus aside and tells him, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Jesus’ response makes it clear that his future suffering and death on the cross aren’t easy for him either. He responds by calling Peter, “Satan,” a word meaning “the adversary.” Jesus hears in Peter’s words the temptation to abandon his mission. And his forceful response shows that whereas Peter’s insight about Jesus as the Messiah was divinely given, this statement is temptation from the one who opposes God. Although Peter might have thought he was being helpful and saying there had to be a better way to save the world, Jesus straightens Peter out by saying he’s not looking at things from God’s point of view.

As the Talmud says, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” Peter saw as he was – sad and afraid of what might come down the road for him. He couldn’t see that this was the way to new life.  He couldn’t see that Jesus’ suffering and death would bring about new life for all of creation. He saw things from a human, not divine, point of view.

And boy is that easy to do! Believing in Jesus and loving him, ok. But denying yourself, taking up your cross, following someone else, and losing your life… that’s a hard sell! Who really wants to do that? Who wants to die to themselves in order to gain new life? I’m just fine where I am now, thank you very much!

But that is what Jesus is calling Peter and us to in this passage. It’s what we are invited into when we are baptized. In those waters and with ancient words we are crucified with Christ and raised to new life. We die to our old selves and as the Apostle Paul describes, we are clothed with Christ. We’re marked with the cross of Christ forever. That is not only a phrase we say, but a part of our identity – in baptism we are made a people of the cross, saved by God’s grace, and called to follow the way our Lord and Savior walked.

Called to turn from ourselves and our own egos and to turn toward God. Called to turn from merely serving our own desires to serve and care for others. Called to practice dying to our selfishness in order to listen for and obey God’s call in our lives.

         Whoa. That’s a tall order. Frankly, it sounds exhausting and like a lot of hard work. I like the way Audrey Assad puts it in her song, “The Way You Move:”

I know that the hardest part
of love is not the
things I have to give, no
It’s what I give up, I’m giving up ground
and I’m trading in my solitude for safety now,

All my pride, you know it doesn’t stand a chance
against the way you move,
You’re tearing up roots & breaking down walls,
and I don’t stand a chance at all,
against the way you move.

I think she hits the nail on the head. It’s hard to hear Jesus’ call in this morning’s reading because it challenges us to let go of our pride for the sake of the Gospel. To die to ourselves in order to be free to experience new life and transformation in Christ. It’s a call that requires sacrifice for the sake of God’s rule and for the benefit of others – even those we don’t particularly like. In a society of individualism, instant gratification, and consumerism, so many things bombard us and promise to make us better or happier people. It’s especially hard to turn away from those things in order to follow this challenging, but life-giving call of Jesus.

So what are you unwilling to let go of or to lose in order to follow Christ? Maybe it’s your reputation. Maybe it’s your money. Maybe it’s your feeling of superiority. Maybe it’s control. Maybe it’s your idea of success. And what about us as a congregation?

We want to grow, but it’s so hard for us to really let go and say, “Ok, God. I’m all yours. Help me to follow you, even if it’s into places I don’t want to go. Shape me into the person you’re calling me to be.” We find ourselves thinking, “what will I be giving up in order to grow deeper in my faith?” Or, “God, what are you going to change about me or ask me to do?” Or, “God, I’m scared that you will call me to something I cannot possibly handle.”

Following God is hard because it requires sacrifice and probably doing things we don’t readily want to do. Look at Jeremiah. He was serving as God’s prophet. He called God’s word a joy and a delight and he took these words on wholeheartedly, living them out. As he says in the reading, he didn’t even hang out with the fun crowd, but sat with the weight of God’s words of judgment to the people on his shoulders. And now he’s fed up, hurting, indignant and telling God he feels like he got suckered into something that he doesn’t really want to do anymore!

And God’s response is interesting. If you come back to me and continue to do my will, you will speak my words as a prophet and people will listen and turn to you.   Even though they fight against you, I will give you strength so that they will not overtake you. I will be with you even though this road is difficult. This is the promise we, too, have in Christ. In taking up our crosses and following Jesus, we are going where he has been and he is accompanying us on the journey. No matter what. It is not a promise of an easy life, but the promise of Emmanuel, God with us through it all.

When we find ourselves stuck in a rut or overwhelmed by fears or worries, remember that carrying our crosses is never something we do alone. Even Jesus had help carrying his cross from Simon of Cyrene. We too, need help from Christ and from others in the body of Christ to carry our crosses. When we are baptized and marked with the cross, parents, sponsors and the entire congregation promise to help us live out our faith in the world.  

Because, ultimately, the act of taking up a cross is public.   Those condemned to die by crucifixion were forced to take up their cross and parade to the location of their execution. It was a public humiliation. And when we take up the cross, the ultimate symbol of Christ’s love and obedience, it is a public event. We don’t simply do it in the safety of our own homes, but it calls us to go out into the world and follow Christ in word and deed. We take up the cross for the sake of others. We bear one another’s burdens and lay down our lives that we might find new life in the people and places God calls us to encounter.

To be a disciple means to not only be a follower, but to be a student. As we think about the school year and Sunday School beginning again, we are reminded that we are called to be life-long students of Christ and his cross. We are students always learning what it means to walk in the way of the cross, to turn from ourselves and to God.   To turn outward, instead of being curved in upon ourselves, Luther’s very definition of sin. We may balk at or stumble and fall under the weight of the cross, but we are never alone in trying to carry it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

© 2014. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

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