Last week I asked you a question: ‘Who do you think Jesus is?’ which followed on from Jesus’ questioning his disciples and companions concerning his identity. Simon Peter’s robust identification of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, enabled Jesus to confirm a new and emerging identity for Simon, as Peter, the rock (Matt.16:13-21). Then Jesus told them as the Messiah, he was headed to Jerusalem and a cross. Peter is outraged and will have none of this, and Jesus quickly finds the ‘’rock has become instead a stumbling block. He rebuked Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than on faith in God.
This is true for us as well. We set off with good intentions, we see and hear Jesus clearly and know what must be done; we know where we should go and what we should do. But somehow it becomes too hard, too complicated, as we know we’ll likely hurt other people if we change as God calls, so we try to find other more personally acceptable ways for ourselves and those around us, to stay with Jesus.
Yet this passage in Matthew 16:24-26 is perhaps the clearest statement of Christian discipleship anywhere in the New Testament, remarkable for its shortness, its direct content and the extreme nature of its content. Here Jesus teaches the cost of discipleship is self-denial and the readiness to die for his sake. Jesus makes it clear whether or not we actually die for the cause on the cross, we must be prepared to sacrifice our lives for the sake of the gospel. Moreover, he argues to do less than this is not only a failure of discipleship; it is a failure of life itself.
‘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.’ (Matt. 16:24-26)
Like Peter, we have trouble putting aside our pursuit of human things. We strive to be independent, self-made, and self-reliant. Getting ahead and getting enough to live comfortably is the goal. Most of us live in a context and culture which rewards these values and goals. When we look for a church, we seek a community that feeds our spiritual needs and the needs of our family. However, the central figure in this story is the ‘self’. We look for people like ourselves to reinforce our own sense of who we are, our identity which we have created and of which we are proud and we are often offended or as I spoke about a few weeks ago, we choose to take offence, when this is revealed a bit too clearly. The problem is, there is a bit of this in all of us. We prefer a faith which encourages likeness and sameness, rather than a faith which has the cross at its centre.
Jesus is asking us to become more than simply listeners of the word, of faith, into becoming doers of it. And this means a shift in our habitual thinking, and behaviour, ‘for those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’
Jesus was acknowledging his own awareness of the choices he was making which were leading more and more inevitably to his death, on a cross.
His choices were risky in the political climate in which he lived. He was always going to be seen as political. He made a choice to accept the sacrifice on the cross, not to escape it. To die for speaking truth to power, to die for love. Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ for tempting him to choose the other path based on fear, hatred and vengeance, reminding us of the temptations he had faced previously in the wilderness, and how a good friend can still tempt us down the wrong path.
In choosing the cross, Jesus chose a loving God, and an abiding, deepening, radical love of God’s people. Our capacity to focus on Jesus rather than on our friends, our families and our enemies, is what will make the difference in the choices we make in how we follow Jesus and how our identity reflects that of God’s love, just as Jesus did.
The cross is difficult to accept. Peter’s unwillingness to see and hear this truth, is so human. What was Jesus thinking when he said, ‘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.’ (Matt.16.24-25) This sounds so much like foolishness.
We need to remember, Jesus was not crucified in cathedral or church between two candles, but on the town garbage heap. We must raise the cross in the marketplaces, in our schools, at our fundraisers, and always in the issues we pursue for the sake of God’s justice, like homelessness, poverty, domestic and family violence and discrimination in all its forms. Jesus died where he died, outside on the margins, rejected, shamed, judged a failure, and dishonoured; and that is where the church must be too, and what the church must be about. We can be reassured that by denying ourselves it means we lose ourselves in the service of compassion, love and life in the body of Christ. It means we have God’s grace in the hope and love that gives us life.
Together Peter and Jesus show us our challenge as human beings: and it is to put aside our personal claims to what is precious to us in this life, and to choose the risk and reality of pain and loss for the sake of Christ’s love for this world. Following Christ is not denying the value and worth of ourselves as children of God, rather it is a recognition our true worth is found in giving ourselves on behalf of others.
A community, a church, a parish which shares in and contributes to the formation of disciples who give away their lives for the sake of the gospel, will also walk the way of the cross. Whatever The Church, and our church does in the way of worship inside and outside of the human institution and buildings, in education, mission and justice, it should be, and must always be, a witness to the cross. In losing our lives for the sake of the gospel, we gain life. Let’s try it.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.E., Johnson, E.E. [Gen. Eds]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels Matthew Vol.2. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.