Jeremiah 20, 7-9 + Psalm 63 + Romans 12, 1-2 + Matthew 16, 2127
Peter talks, but his words and ideas reflect the thinking of everyone of those disciples. Nothing in their history, in their religious tradition, or in their wildest dreams could have prepared them for what they were hearing from this one they have just acknowledged as the “Christ”, the “Messiah.” That anointed and long awaited one was going to wreck havoc, suffering, and death upon all enemies and all the evil-doers within Israel. Jesus has it all wrong thinks Peter who speaks up in protest to what he is hearing but not understanding. So it will take Matthew two more predictions of what is to come before the understanding sinks in.
All Peter and his companion hear is the negative side, the suffering, the rejection, the death part of what Jesus is revealing to them. Too many of us are still in the same place. This whole idea of self-denial and taking up a cross is all we can hear, and it seems tough, dangerous, and very unpleasant. But this proclamation of Jesus is the very heart of the Good News. It does not come as Bad News; and this contradiction is the challenge before us today.
Think of this way: suppose while we are here this morning, a semi goes out of control over there on the street and rolls over on your car. To make matters worse, the fact is, you forgot to renew your insurance last month. The grace period has passed, and tomorrow morning you were going to deal with this matter first thing! The truck company has gone into chapter eleven, so there is nothing get from them. Your car is gone, and you are left with nothing. Sounds like bad news. But, the driver of the truck is holding the winning Power Ball Ticket. He is a good, generous, responsible human being who looks at you once you have calmed down and says: “I will see to it that you have the car of your dream, and one to replace it every year hear-after.” Now in light of the whole picture with deeper understanding, is it bad news to hear that your car has been totaled?
Now stay with that thought in the back of your mind, and think about this which is something you may not have known before. Jesus uses a very significant and precise word in this announcement that is easily missed in terms of what it really means. He says: “The Son of Man MUST be handed over and suffer. Jesus does not say “WILL”. That choice of words is very important to understand because it expresses that this is God’s will, God’s choice of plan. There is divine necessity here. We are not told why at this point. That will come after the third announcement of his death in chapter 20 when it is revealed that the Messiah’s death will have saving power. So, there is a Good News side to this that must figure into our thinking: salvation.
All through Matthew’s Gospel there is the constant theme and invitation to follow Jesus. When Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan” he wants Peter and all of us for that matter to stop getting in the way. Stop telling God how to do things. “Get back where you belong” he is saying. “You follow from behind.” When we get in the right spot and begin to follow Jesus rather than telling him what to do and where to go, things take on a different character.
Denying ones self is not a call to some kind of asceticism or some kind of penitential life that is miserable, painful, and sad. That kind of thinking and behavior ends up leaving one more self-centered than before because it’s all about me. What is asked of us here is a re-ordering of our relationship with God. It simply means subordinating our will to God’s will, which is exactly what we pray for every time we use the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. This understanding leads us into the heart of it all, and embracing this kind of self denial is not hard, demanding, or unpleasant, because it is about love and about the one loved. Self denial does not make for misery. It is a response of love, and it leads to joy and expresses love in an undeniable way. Parents deny themselves all the time. They deny themselves of all sorts of things and pleasures for their children because they love them. Spouses do the same thing. They deny all kinds of things for themselves in order to care for and fulfill the wishes needs, and desires of the one they love.
So the call of Jesus is not an invitation to be miserable and unhappy. It is a call to the joy found in love and loving service that puts the needs of another ahead of our own. At the same time, thinking that taking up one’s cross means putting up with the day to day inconveniences and family problems and that can so test our patience is to trivialize the strength and power of what Jesus asks of us. The “cross” means more than death. It means going all the way. It means accepting the ridicule and dismissal of those whose thinking reflects this world and not God’s. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is Tau which is written like a “T”. This letter/symbol was often used to indicate totality and completion much the way we sometimes talk about doing something from A to Z. The invitation to take up the Tau, the Cross, is a call to go all the way, to set aside half way efforts and feeble attempts and make ourselves obedient and subject to God’s will.
One who follows Christ is one who is obedient in a disobedient world. They seek God’s will in all things at all times rather than their own will, wishes, and desires. They are a person of love who embraces joyfully every opportunity to deny themselves not because it hurts but because when you are a person of love it does not hurt to make sacrifice for another. One who follows Christ has discovered that obedience to the plan of God is redemptive and ultimately lifts us out of sin and sadness, into a world of hope and joy. So a call to self denial and the command to take up the cross is really good news with the best promise of all.