August 30, 2020
Today’s gospel passage really belongs attached to last week’s. Last week, we heard Jesus ask the disciples what they had been saying about him, and Peter spoke up—“You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus called him Peter, the Rock.
Today, as Jesus explains what it means to be Messiah, Peter backpedals. “Jesus, no! You’ve got it wrong! You’re supposed to be a victorious Messiah, not a suffering Messiah.” And Jesus goes from calling Peter a building block to calling him a stumbling block. So quickly do the descriptions get upended in this passage. Last week, Jesus said that it wasn’t flesh and blood that revealed his identity to Peter; it was God. Today, he tells Peter that he’s contemplating the things of humanity rather than the things of God.
How quickly do we, too, turn from noble, holy thought to human, greedy, prideful contemplation? It takes very little for us to go from intentions of service and love to intentions of protection and security. All it takes is the threat of dying to turn us from faithful followers of Christ to fear-filled followers of our own way.
All it takes is to be faced with the cross for us to turn and run the opposite direction. It’s understandable. It’s natural. It’s human. But that’s not a good enough excuse, Jesus says.
He goes on to say that those who intend to be his disciples will take up their own cross, get behind him, and follow him. Now, remember that this is said before his crucifixion, so the cross is not yet a symbol of hope or resurrection. It is simply a symbol of death, destruction, oppression, and loss. It’s directly related to his prior statement about Peter’s about-face. If you’re going to follow Jesus with the proclamations of gospel and the challenge of empire, things are going to get hard. There’s no way around it.
For those of us on this side of the resurrection, you can’t face the cross and run from the cross at the same time. You must choose which God you will serve—the God of prosperity and ease or the God of the cross and, subsequently, the resurrection.
Peter’s rebuke is a form of temptation for Jesus. It offers a spectator version of faithfulness—one which we are very familiar with as American Christians. His temptation is insidious and alluring. He suggests that being the Messiah means being victorious and powerful and winning the day—by human standards. And that’s something we like to hear. That’s a movie we’ll watch. Because we like to be winners. We strive to be victorious and powerful. Failure, we say, is not an option.
But this just doesn’t work alongside the life and death of God—for that’s what it is. God died. God died for us. And God called us to follow Christ into death so that we, too, might rise again and serve others. That’s what baptism is all about. We have already died so that death and fear and hatred and evil won’t hold us captive. We have already died so that we are free to live in service to the gospel and not to ourselves.
We have died in Christ because he showed us that even for an incarnated God, death is inevitable. And if death is inevitable, how then shall we live?
We can live, hoarding the things and memories of a better day. We can live numbing ourselves to the pain around and within us. We can live running in fear of what might happen and in regret for what has already happened. We can live always putting ourselves first, working to secure what we have and strive for having more. We can even live in an effort to be more holy—to pray more, study more, worship more, tithe more, volunteer more, and serve more, hoping to ensure God’s love and being so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good. We can live in misery, presuming that being a victim of another’s harm is just our ‘cross to bear.’ We can live denying ourselves the pleasures of life as if being miserable will somehow please God.
But the question is this: how do things serve the gospel? How do they proclaim good news of renewed, abundant life in Jesus Christ? How do they liberate us from sin, death, and the devil? They don’t.
So, we can live a prosperity-gospel kind of life…Or, we can live generously, giving often more of ourselves than we are comfortable with because another is in need. We can live abundantly, being grateful for all that we have and all that we’ve come through. We can live in faith that God is indeed good and in hope that the challenges of this life are not the last word in this world or the next. We can live putting the well-being of others before our own. We can live praying more, studying more, worshiping more, tithing more, volunteering more, and serving more because we are so filled with love and grace that it overflows into every moment of every day of our lives. We can live in love for the unlovable, knowing that that often includes us, as well.
We are at a crossroads—like Peter. Are we to be a stumbling block that impedes others in their desire for God’s grace? Or are we to be a building block on which the gospel can grow?
Jesus’ conversation here is his disclaimer that discipleship comes with a cross attached—free of charge. It’s a BOGO offer—buy one, get one. In for a penny, in for a pound. If you’re going to be a disciple of Christ, you’re going to carry a cross—not one you have designed for its ease and comfort but one designed for you. But do not worry. Jesus says “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden. Take my yoke upon you…for my weight is easy and my burden light.” We never carry our cross alone. Jesus is always there with us, bearing the brunt of the weight of sin death.
I like how Debie Thomas encapsulates Jesus’ work from the cross. She says, “Jesus willingly took the violence, the contempt, the apathy, and the arrogance of the world, and absorbed them all into his body.” He took all of our fears and pride and ideas of victories and rebirthed them into something gospel-bearing. Fear becomes faith. Pride becomes humility. And victory becomes death—so that we might truly live. On the cross, Jesus is unwavering in his message of good news, liberation, forgiveness, and abundant life—for all of creation.
That is why he is bound to this destiny. That is why he rebuked Peter when he argued for victory instead of death. Because a holy life isn’t about living; it’s about dying. Once we make our peace with that, we are free to serve God’s mission in this world without hindrance.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church