Sunday 3 September 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 22A
In the Gospel lesson last week, Peter confesses that he believes Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And Jesus praises him for this testimony and tells the other disciples that Peter is the Rock on which he will build his church. It’s one of Peter’s brightest moments, when he proves to Jesus that he knows what’s going on.
In today’s lesson, which follows immediately on the last, Peter is caught by surprise when Jesus seems to turn away from his role as Messiah. Peter, like any good first-century Jew, knows that the Messiah is God’s anointed king, the one who will once again lead Israel to independence and liberty, the one who will throw off the foreign oppressors and inaugurate the imperial reign of God. The Messiah will be a powerful political leader, he will be a war hero, he will be an inspiration to the people, and he will bring unity and prosperity to Israel, who have for so long been persecuted. Peter has proclaimed that Jesus is this Messiah, and Jesus himself has confirmed it to his disciples.
So now, when Jesus starts talking about suffering at the hands of the religious authorities and being killed, Peter knows that something is wrong. Jesus must have fallen into some sort of depression. He must be doubting his call as God’s Messiah. So Peter takes him aside to cheer him up and straighten him out. After all, if the crowds start hearing Jesus talk like this, then everything will be lost. They will all lose faith in him, and their mission to bring about the restoration of Israel, the Kingdom of God, will be lost.
It must have come as an even greater shock when Jesus rebuked him as a satan, an adversary, a tempter, who was standing in the way of Jesus’s calling and mission. What he didn’t realize is that God’s idea of a Messiah is much different than human ideas of a Messiah, that God’s idea of a kingdom of heaven on earth is much different than human ideas about that kingdom.
Peter thought that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was all about glory and praise and victory. But Jesus understood a very different reality, that the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God was about suffering and humility and redemption.
“If you want to be a part of my mission,” Jesus says, “then take up your cross and follow me.” To put that in contemporary language, Jesus says, “tie a noose around your neck and follow me, strap yourself into an electric chair and follow me, stick a needle in your arm and follow me.” It’s absolutely shocking. It was shocking for the first disciples, who had not planned on getting killed as part of this mission. And it is equally shocking to us today. Jesus says, “If you plan on following me, then you had better get used to suffering, and you had better be prepared to die for the cause if it comes to that.”
Like Peter, we usually think of God’s kingdom as glorious, praiseworthy, victorious. If we just stick with Jesus, he will protect us and take care of us, he will make our lives better, give us everything we need, make us happy and healthy. God will intervene for us because we are God’s special children.
There are a lot of preachers out there preaching a gospel of prosperity. They’re not difficult to find on the radio or on your television. They’re saying that if you confess belief in Jesus Christ then you will be rewarded with health, safety, and wealth. As they tell it, prosperity on earth is a direct result of faithfulness to God and a sign of God’s favor. This view has become a major part of American Christianity.
Even though most of us here don’t subscribe to that kind of prosperity theology, chances are that most of us tend to see our religion as something that will make our lives happier, easier, or more prosperous. We come to Christ seeking peace, seeking happiness, seeking satisfaction. We come to the one who says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And so for us, Jesus’s call to take up our cross may be just as unwelcome as it was for those first disciples. We have a hard time accepting that suffering might be a part of the faith. We have a hard time believing that following God might mean walking straight into adversity, and might even lead to our death.
Christians in the first few generations after Jesus knew exactly what he was talking about. They faced opposition from their fellow Jews, and, later, periods of fierce persecution from the Roman Empire. At times it was illegal simply to claim the name Christian, and the crime could be punishable by torture and death.
In modern times, in the western world, being a Christian is rarely so dangerous. Most of us can’t imagine putting our lives at risk for Christ. There are, of course, exceptions. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and many others risked their lives proclaiming Christ’s saving message for all people and decrying the sins of racism and systemic poverty. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated for proclaiming Christ’s good news for the poor. Still, most of us never face that kind of pressure, never take those kinds of risks.
And when we do face hardship in our lives, we sometimes feel like God has abandoned us. If life is difficult, if I have doubts, if I’m unhappy, if I’m ill, then maybe it’s because God doesn’t care for me any longer. Maybe it’s because I’ve done something wrong and God has decided to withhold blessing. Maybe God is too busy to pay attention to little old me. For many of us, adversity seems at odds with faith.
We sometimes forget that God never promised that our lives would be easy. God never promised that we would not face hardship, never promised everything would be sweetness and light. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, if we believe Jesus’s words from today.
But we are promised something else. We are promised that whatever hardship we might face, whatever suffering we might endure, whatever troubles we might encounter, Jesus walks with us. Don’t forget that we have a savior who understands suffering, who understands rejection, hardship, and even death. That is one of the most amazing truths of the gospel. We have a God who, in order to be in closer relationship with us, became human and suffered cruelty, rejection, and death. That same Jesus understands our suffering, not as some distant, ethereal observer, but as one who has experienced it for himself, and as one who suffers along with all those who suffer.
We are not promised an easy life with all the pleasures of this world. What we are promised is a savior who knows our hurts, knows our fears, knows our pain, and who stands beside us even in our darkest hours, walking beside us, showing us the way, and sometimes even carrying us. We are promised Jesus the Christ, who shocked the world by winning the victory not through force of arms or political power, but through suffering, death, and resurrection.
And Christ calls us to shock the world, not with glory or power or wealth or charisma, but with humility, with suffering, and with grace. Christ calls us to face our trials with the confidence of knowing the Christ faces them with us. Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him.