Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, May 24, 2013
Worship God! Proclaim Jesus! Serve With Love!
How does it feel when the moment of triumph turns into the moment of failure?
Not to drag up any painful memories, but I thought about the Steelers in the playoffs this past season. They were playing the Broncos, and almost everyone expected them to win. And then they fell behind by 14 points. But it wasn’t over yet. They fought back. They played much better in the second half than the first, and they succeeded in tying the game at the end of regulation. It seemed like they would pull it out and triumph in the end. And on the very first play of overtime, they give up an 80 yard touchdown, the longest play they’d allowed all season. Game over. Sure felt awful, didn’t it.
I have to think the disciples felt kind of like that at this moment in the gospel story. They have been following Jesus for more than two years. They are sure that he is the Messiah. They’ve witnessed his authority over spiritual powers. They’ve seen him perform miracles. They’ve heard prophetic words from his mouth. Surely he is the Messiah.
And now Jesus has taken them to Caesarea Philippi, a lonely place far in the north of the Promised Land. He asks them, “Who do people say I am?” And they say, “Some think you are a prophet. Maybe Elijah come again, or John the Baptist raised from the dead.” But what about you, “Who do you say I am?” And Peter famously responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And finally, Jesus acknowledges his identity to them.
Surely now he will start to bring about his Kingdom on earth. That’s what everyone expected of the Messiah. He would raise up an army. He would defeat their enemies. He would restore the kingdom to Israel. And everything would be hunky dory. This is surely the moment of triumph.
But instead, Jesus tells them: “Don’t tell anyone who I am.” We know that Jesus shied away from that title, Messiah, because he knew that it would create all kinds of expectations from people, and ultimately it would keep him from accomplishing his true purpose. But that must have seemed strange to the disciples. Why would Jesus not want to acknowledge his true identity?
Instead, he called himself Son of Man. That was his chosen self-description. Son of man could just mean “man.” But it was also given a greater meaning in the prophecy of Daniel. In Daniel chapter 7, it was foretold that one “like a son of man” would be ushered into the
presence of God and given authority and dominion over all creation and that he would bring in the Kingdom of God. That made it sound like another Messianic title.
But Jesus frequently used that title Son of Man in connection with his own prophecies about his suffering and death. There were prophecies and images in the Old Testament that associated the Messiah with suffering, most notably Isaiah 52 and 53. But most Jews either understood those passages to refer to someone other than the Messiah, or they just ignored them. In the common understanding of Messiah among the Hebrew people in the first century, there simply was no understanding of a suffering Messiah, only a victorious Messiah. They were looking for a very “earthly” Messiah. One would be characterized by strength, power, success, and victory.
Instead, Jesus told them he would suffer and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes or teachers of the Law. Those were the three groups that made up the Sanhedrin, the high council of Jerusalem. And then: Death. Oh, and a resurrection, too, but I guess they stopped listening after he said death.
Well, clearly this had gone on long enough. Clearly, there was something wrong with Jesus’ understanding of what he was to do. And since Peter was the leader of the disciples, it was up to him to take Jesus aside and remind him of what he was supposed to do. I’m sure this was not just Peter’s opinion, but the opinion of all of them. “Quit talking like this Jesus. You’re going to get everyone all upset. That just isn’t going to happen.”
“Get behind me, Satan! You are seeing things from the worldly point of view, not God’s!” Those are pretty harsh words. And there’s certainly a strong contrast to what happened just moments earlier when it was Peter who correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah. I guess he figured he should know what the Messiah was to do, as well.
We’re used to thinking of Satan as a name. But actually, the original use of the word “Satan” was a description, not a name. Satan was Hebrew for “adversary” or “tempter.” And that’s what Peter was doing. He was tempting Jesus with the same temptations that Jesus was already experiencing. And how often is it that temptations come in the voice of a friend. Jesus knew God’s will, but God’s will was difficult. And Peter no doubt thought he was helping Jesus when he said, “No, that will not happen.”
Peter was seeing it all from a very worldly point of view. By the world’s standards, success is being well liked, looked up to, successful, rich, powerful. Success is not dying on a cross.
The world says “If something is difficult, it’s not worth doing.” I came across a quote recently: “We live in a painkiller society.” What the author meant is that we live in a society that tells us to flee from everything difficult. If you have a pain, take a pill. If you’re tired or anxious or depressed, take a pill. If something is difficult, find something else. If you’re suffering, find the quickest way out of it.
It’s not that God delights in our suffering, but suffering can be very beneficial for us in the long term. Most of the truly important lessons of life cannot be learned without going through some kind pain or difficulty on the way.
The way of the world is success, ease, comfort, power, popularity, and so on. But it’s not the way of Jesus. Jesus called in the crowd to talk about what it meant to follow him, what it means to be a disciple.
To follow Jesus means to turn from our selfish ways. Literally, to deny ourselves, to say no to ourselves. We have a natural tendency to make ourselves the center of the universe, to see everything from the perspective of whether it helps or hurts us first. To follow Christ means to make our choices based on the will of God first. Often that means to deny our own ambitions; to let our desires fall by the wayside in order to seek God’s will first. This definitely not the way of the world.
To follow Jesus means to take up our cross. What does it mean to “bear the cross?” Well, quite literally, to bear the cross means to accept the death penalty. In Jesus’ day, condemned criminals were required to carry their own cross to the place of execution. If we are truly to live for Christ, we must first die to self. We must allow our ambitions to die if we ever hope to live wholeheartedly for Christ.
This is not easy, but in the economy of the Kingdom of God, it makes sense. Nothing is worth more than your life. And eternal life is more valuable than the eighty or ninety years that we get here, if we’re lucky. What does it gain us if we have everything but lose our souls? What do we gain if we follow the way of the world and have everything, money, fame, power, pleasure, that the world holds so valuable? We can’t take it with us, and it will cost us the thing that matters most: Eternal life. That doesn’t make it easy, but it does make it make sense.
We can’t save our lives. Just try to do it. Try to save your life. You can’t. If you say to yourself, I’m going to save myself for something better, you’re still going to get older. Unless they perfect that whole cryogenics thing, you can’t save your life. You can only spend your life.
You can only spend your time, spend your energy, spend your talents and abilities. The question is: What are you spending your life on?
There is a strange paradox here: If you try to cling to your life for yourself, you lose it. You grow old and die just the same. But if you spend your life for God, you save it for all eternity.
By the way, I’m convinced that spending it slowly is harder than spending it quickly. How many of us find the thought of martyrdom difficult? If the gun were to our head, and we had the choice of denying Christ and living or choosing Christ and dying, would we not find that choice difficult? But I don’t think it’s the hardest thing about following Jesus. It’s a once and done thing. And it doesn’t happen to many believers. I think it’s much more difficult to spend your life for Christ a little bit each day for the rest of your life than to spend it all at once.
But that brings us to our last point about what it means to follow Christ. To follow Christ means that we will not deny him. If we deny him now, he will deny us at the day of the final judgment. And the world will certainly give us many chances to deny him. We deny him when we keep quiet in the face of evil, injustice, or oppression for the sake of getting along. Going to school, going to work, living in our communities will certainly give us chances to deny him.
Sometimes the choice is life and death. It has been for many believers. Millions of Christians were martyred in three centuries of persecution by the Roman Empire. But even today, it happens. I think of that young girl who died in the Columbine school shootings. She was known as a Christian, and one of the gunmen put a gun to her head and asked her if she believed in God. She said yes, and died for her faith. She was not ashamed of Jesus, and he is not ashamed of her.
Is it just me, or does this whole being a Christian thing sound difficult? It is difficult. I’m convinced that if following Jesus were easy, more people would do it. But many turned away from following Jesus when he was on the earth, and many more have turned away since.
Jesus made it challenging, I think, because only a challenge can bring out the best in us. But let us also remember that we follow one who has walked the road ahead of us. Jesus never asks us to do anything he has not already done. He denied himself. He took up the cross. He spent his life for God. If he has done it, and we want to follow him, we must as well.