Does This Cross Make My Butt Look Big?
A Sermon on Matthew 16:21-28
By Richard Bryant
Sometimes it seems (just from reading the Gospels) that we are more into evangelism, witnessing, and sharing the Good News than Jesus is. I’m not kidding. Just look at how last week’s gospel lesson ended. (Now remember, even though it was only week ago these events only occurred seconds before what you just heard.) “Then he (Jesus) sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone he was the messiah.” Now, I don’t know about you, but Jesus sounds like he needs to go back to discipleship school. Jesus is not sounding very Christian. He’s not coming across like he wants to “win” anyone over to himself. Get with the program Jesus. It’s all about the quarterly statistics we have to turn in to the conference office.
This is exactly the problem Peter sees. Peter isn’t cool with Jesus not living up to the “winning” image of a Messiah who is capable of bringing back the dead and feeding thousands of people. To put it mildly, it disturbs Peter that Jesus is being so negative and not riding the wave of his own popularity. In addition, it’s not just that Jesus is keeping his Messiah-ness on the down low and under wraps, he saying that he’s going to die. And it’s not that he’s simply referring to the end of his natural life. Jesus is saying he’s going to be killed; he’s going to be killed, by the chief priests, elders, and scribes. It’s going to be a gruesome and painful death. It’s going to amount to serious suffering. In conventional terms, the way we define the word, there is no way you could define it as winning. In fact the world would collectively define it as loosing. Then, on top of all of that, Jesus tells them that this suffering business doesn’t just include him. No. Not by a long shot. It also includes his followers. They will be subject to the same level of suffering. They too face this ill-defined punishment called “the cross”.
This is too much for Peter to bear. The son of God isn’t supposed to talk this way We’re winners. Surely you’re just a little burnout, Jesus. Maybe you just need some prayer. Jesus please don’t be so negative. Jesus, clearly you don’t get your own message. Jesus, you’re supposed outgoing and positive, winning people to you and to our movement. You’re never going to convince people to follow us with this level pessimism. You can’t tell people this Jesus? What will people think? We can’t ask people to make this kind of commitment? Death, suffering, following you, bearing a cross? Have you lost your mind?
These are the kinds of things Peter said and thought on that afternoon in Caesarea Philippi.
In case you’ve forgotten, let me tell you what Jesus said to Peter.
“Hey Satan, stand over there.” You’re in my way, jerk.
That’s my translation.
Clearly, that’s not a sentiment or idea that Jesus is not too fond of.
So why does Jesus not want to let the cat out of the bag?
It’s what I call the “dancing with Richard theory”.
He didn’t want the idea of a savior to get ahead of the actual work of being savior.
Say I got to a club and I start dancing out on the dance floor. I really show my moves to the hit songs of the day. I demonstrate my ability to do things with my arms, legs, and hips to Beyonce, Jessie J, and the other first ladies of Pop. People will be enthralled with my dancing abilities. They will say, where, per chance did that fellow learn to move in such a rhythmic and seductive like fashion. No one will be interested in my philosophical insights on Kierkegaard or Schleiermacher.
It’s the same thing with Jesus, if the word spreads that he is the Messiah and is just a miracle worker who makes tons of bread, do you think anyone is going to be interested in hearing the real heart of the message; the Good News about the coming kingdom of God, helping the poor, feeding the widows and orphans, and treating your neighbor as you treat yourself. No, I say! They are going to want Jesus to do it again. That’s all he’ll be hearing. Do it again, Jesus. Do it again. Make more bread, Jesus. Bring this person back to life Jesus. I’m sick Jesus. My foot hurts, Jesus. And so on, and so on.
Now let me ask you a question. Do you see why Jesus got upset? Do you see why he became frustrated enough to compare his best friend to the prince of darkness?
Now let me ask you a second question. We wouldn’t do that to Jesus, would we? We wouldn’t bring him some long laundry list of concerns and lose sight of the bigger picture, the main message just so we could get our needs met? We wouldn’t do that, would we? Is there any degree of familiarity at all? Isn’t this exactly how we treat our relationship with Jesus? At times, don’t we regard him as some kind of divine vending machine? Give us what we want, keep doing what we want, going the direction we want, saying what we want, regardless of your plan, Jesus?
The disciples were very insecure people, a lot like us, in some ways. Never quite sure where they stood in and around Jesus and they were in physical proximity to Jesus.
We get so caught up in the style; i.e. trying to figure out what we need to do please Jesus (Jesus love you this He knows, he is pleased)-for Jesus, it’s about the substance of what he’s doing-not trying to us trying to prove how much we love him. That’s why the message is more important than the miracles or even the titles for Jesus. That’s what this passage is about.
For Jesus, the substance of the message and the embodiment of his message will ultimately define what makes a follower. Let me say that again. It is the substance of the message (the content) and the embodiment of his message when it comes in conflict with the power structures of this world that will define who becomes one of his followers. I can’t stress enough how crucial that is.
The substance of the message is pretty clear by now. Being God’s anointed means that you love the unloved. That’s a given. You make good on those promises you made in that first sermon, the one they ran you out of town for preaching, the one you did in your home synagogue of Nazareth. You stood up and quoted from Isaiah. You said you were here to bring a freeing, liberating news to the poor, to unbind those who were held in all forms of captivity, to restore sight to those living in the darkness caused by our world, and bring an overall sense of wholeness and restoration to everything which was broken and needed mending. Chief among those things which need mending are human hearts. The way to mend human hearts is through love. That is the substance of the message.
How do you get love, show love, display love? Now is where it gets hard. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Peter didn’t understand Jesus nor did the other disciples. We rarely do. We water down this expression. We sanitize the cross. To be blunt, we don’t want to go anywhere near following Jesus on the cross. What does he mean? Here’s what it means to me. Here’s what I’ve come to understand. Following Jesus means freely loving until it hurts. It means forgiving Judas. It means forgiving the people who crucify you. It means loving until it hurts. It means being willing and able to say Mr. Roman, please hit me again, I forgive you. It means loving the thieves and criminals hanging next to you. It means extending compassion to those around as they watch you suffer. That’s what it looked like for Jesus.
What does that look like in your life? Brokenness and the need to love are still as relevant as ever. It’s going to look different but there are going to be places and people where it hurts to love, especially freely and without reservation.
Being a Christian is not about being a religious, pious, or devout person; it’s about being a loving person. Some of the most religious people I know, people who call themselves Christian, are also some of the most loveless, miserable human beings I’ve ever met. In fact, I would rather have no religion than bad religion any day of the week. You can be religious and have no love in your heart. Being a follower of Christ is all about living a life of sacrificial love. This is what Jesus is saying.
Why do you think Paul put such emphasis on 1 Corinthians 13? Do you think he was just writing letters to churches and thought he’d write something that would be used at every wedding under the sun and loose all connection to Jesus’ message about the coming kingdom of God? No.
The values created by love never fade, that’s what Paul says. Jesus is saying that getting from here, to where those love values are permanent, is a difficult journey but a journey worth the effort. Paul couldn’t make it any clearer-Everything that is not rooted in love will fail; that’s why the journey toward the kingdom like the one Jesus describes is so painful at times. It’s not pretty as we bear the crosses called poverty, racism, sexism, and war (just to name a few).
So the question for today, for me, isn’t so much can you bear the cross? It’s this. Can you live the life of love?