Monday, 29 August 2011

‘Taking the Cross’ can be fun.

Sermon on Matthew 16: 21 - 28 and Acts 3: 1-16, St Matthew's, 28th August 2011

I wonder what your reaction to today’s theme is and in particular to today’s gospel reading was. Did you think when you heard Carolyn read the gospel reading: ‘That’s amazing’ or, ‘Mmm….very true… I have no problem with any of that’. Or did you think, ‘Yikes …that’s going to be difficult’ or even, ‘That’s appalling’. Friedrich Nietzsche says of such a passage: ‘Such things as this cannot be sufficiently despised’ and, ‘One does well to put gloves on when reading the New Testament’ . He, like many, have found this passage not just difficult but appalling.

Nietzsche particularly objects to Jesus saying to his disciples ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’. Now I do not wish to deny the importance of this verse, or even to soften its impact, but this is not the only thing Jesus says about discipleship. So this morning before coming back to it, I want to set this verse in context, by talking about discipleship in general, and Peter’s discipleship in particular.

Discipleship is – I think something we should be talking and thinking about at this time of the Church Year. The Church Year is organised around the life of Jesus. It begins, you’ll remember, with Advent, starting in late November, when we prepare for Jesus’ birth celebrated at Christmas. Christmas and Epiphany are followed by Lent when we prepare for Easter. We remember Jesus’ death on Good Friday, his resurrection on Easter Sunday and his Ascension 40 days later. The last thing we really celebrate in the Church Year is Pentecost, when we commemorate the coming of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps over the summer we should be thinking about what happened to the disciples after Pentecost.

Now this sermon comes at the end of a series of five sermons all based on scenes in Matthew’s gospel. And this final scene needs I think to be viewed in the context of those five scenes as well as in the context of what the bible says about discipleship in general To remind you of those five scenes.

First we had the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (14: 13-21).
Secondly we had the miracle of Jesus’ walking on water (14: 21-36).
Thirdly we heard about Jesus’ confrontation with the Canaanite woman and the miraculous healing of her daughter (15: 21-28).
Fourthly – last week - we had Jesus asking his disciples who they thought he was (16: 13-20).
Fifthly – today’s reading - we have another conversation between Jesus and his disciples (16: 21-28.

Jesus was the main character in all five scenes but Peter and the disciples were also always there - in a supporting role. Peter – as the disciple par excellence if you like - is explicitly mentioned in three of the five scenes and implicitly in the other two. I’ll come back to those scenes in a moment

But first a word about Peter. You may remember we recently had a zone service which focussed on Peter. You may also remember that I facilitated the art zone. Two of the pictures were of the scenes from Matthew’s gospel that we have been thinking of. These two: Jesus walking on the water and Peter sinking – by an unknown child as part of the Children Illustrate the Bible Competition (Scene 2) and this one of Jesus presenting the keys of the kingdom to Peter – by Perugino (Scene 4).

It was very easy to find pictures of Peter by many different artists, all down the ages. This is because Peter appears in the Gospels so many times. Think for the moment about Matthew. He only appears three times in his own gospel and what he says on those occasions isn’t recorded. On the other had Peter is mentioned by name 25 times – in Matthew’s gospel alone - and on about half of those occasions we get to hear what he actually said. Peter of course represents all the disciples at times.

What struck me about looking for and collecting pictures of Peter was three things:

Firstly we get to see exactly what Peter is like as a person – particularly though the gospels. He is not just a faceless foil for Jesus. He is such an interesting character. A born leader, brave and decisive but loyal, caring –often demonstrably concerned about Jesus’ welfare - but also impetuous to the point of foolishness and of course, in many other ways, not perfect. At Jesus’ crucifixion his courage fails and he denies knowing Jesus. He’s very wise at times: he gets it. I think we generally think of the disciples as stupid but of course they weren’t, or not all of them. Peter argues with, even challenges Jesus, and of course he gets it wrong sometimes, as in today’s reading.

Secondly – from the point at which Peter meets Jesus - he does such a lot of different and exciting things. Being with Jesus for the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry must have been an amazing experience. But of course it wasn’t to end there. He gets to meet the risen Jesus and see him ascend into heaven. Then of course he is present in the upper room when – at Pentecost - the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire on the disciples. And in Acts we hear more about his life after Pentecost – such as the story of the healing of the lame man we also heard this morning.

In Acts Luke tells us that Peter does various miracles, including raising a young woman – Tabitha – from the dead, gets arrested for preaching the gospel (twice), miraculously escapes from prison (once) and has an important vision about who the gospel is actually for. We last lose sight of Peter – as far as the Biblical record is concerned - at the Council of Jerusalem in around AD50 where we hear what he has to say in discussions with Paul, Barnabas and others about the extent to which Christians need to abide by the old Jewish laws. Oh then we also have two of his letters.

This summary of Peter’s life reminds us that life for Peter went on after his encounter with the earthly Jesus. It was not just the conversation with Jesus we heard about in today’s reading from Matthew – important as that was – it was more than that. I chose today’s second reading from Acts to illustrate this point.

Thirdly, in searching for pictures, I found that most of those pictures also have Jesus in them as well. The pictures are – perhaps not surprisingly - mostly of the Gospel stories rather than the stories from Acts. There are of course no stories about Peter in the Gospels that don’t also feature Jesus. Perhaps Peter’s denial of Jesus is an exception but even then Luke records that Jesus turned and looked at Peter after Peter’s third denial.

Of course we only really remember Peter because of his relationship with Jesus. Ultimately it isn’t really important what he was like or what he did, at least compared with Jesus. The gospel writers and the artists seem instinctively to grasp this and when talking about or painting Peter – it’s Peter’s relationship with Jesus that matters most.

So back to our five scenes from Matthew’s Gospel.

The first two scenes are miracles. The first the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5,000. Peter is not mentioned by name but presumably he is one of the disciples who anxiously point out to Jesus that evening is approaching and the crowd are getting hungry and then helps distribute the bread and fish to the people.

The second scene is the miracle of the Jesus’ walking on the water. Here Peter is explicitly mentioned as trying to emulate Jesus. Why on earth Peter gets out of the boat has never been clear to me and I missed the sermon when I presume Steve explained it. Perhaps sheer sense of adventure?

The third scene is both a miracle and a conversation. Jesus heals the Canaanite woman’s daughter but only after she has persuaded him to do so. Peter again is not mentioned but again presumably he was one of the disciples who came to Jesus to ask him to send her way.

The fourth and fifth scenes are ’just’ conversations between Jesus and his disciples (i.e. no miracles on these occasions) and in both conversations Peter plays a major role.

In the fourth scene which Steve talked to us about last week: Peter seemingly gets it right: very right indeed. He understands – perhaps indeed he is the first to fully understand who Jesus really is: ‘the Christ, the son of the living God’. In the fifth scene – today’s reading - Peter doesn’t get it all. When Jesus starts to tell the disciples what he is going to do: go to Jerusalem, be killed and on the third day be raised Peter tells Jesus that he, Jesus, is getting it all wrong.

Peter misunderstands the word ‘must’ when Jesus says ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things’. Peter thinks that Jesus means merely that ‘he must’ in the sense that he intends to go. Peter argues with this intention. He assumes that Jesus has a choice. Jesus on the contrary knows that he really has no choice. On the contrary he knows he must go if his life is to have any meaning. Peter’s objection to Jesus saying this is, in a sense, the same as Nietzsche’s. It is appalling that anyone should choose suffering and death rather than life.

On the human level Jesus clearly still does have a choice. Perhaps this is one reason why he reacts so emotionally to Peter challenging him. ‘Get behind me Satan’ is not a rational response to Peter’s – quite reasonable objection to what Jesus has just been telling them. But Jesus calms down and tries to explain. What he says is this:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’ It’s virtually impossible to explain this explanation without reducing its challenge.

But here is one thought: By cross – and taking the cross - Jesus doesn’t primarily mean suffering but sacrifice. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross he doesn’t means he is calling us to suffering but to sacrifice.

The cross for Jesus did involve suffering but not suffering just for the sake of it: suffering as a sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice through laying down his life changes everything: it means for one thing that there is no longer any necessity for suffering. We certainly do not need to die on a cross. Jesus has done that for us. Death has been overcome so in a sense physical death is no longer necessary - difficult as that is to understand. (If you don’t like the word necessary’ try ‘final’)

But on the other hand discipleship does mean sacrifice. For to find life we need to lose it first –as Jesus says. Now this may sound all very dramatic. Sacrifice sounds a big word but need it be so big a deal. Translate it as ‘letting go’ and it doesn’t sound so scary. Let’s calm down and think of what it means in relation to the first four of the five scenes in Matthew we have been thinking of. They all involve a sacrifice – a letting go on the disciples’ part.

With the feeding of the five thousand the disciples have to let go of their anxiety about the crowd getting hungry. They had to accept that Jesus had things under control, more than just under control that he would provide, and provide he did, so that there was even food left over.

In the walking on water scene – Peter has to let go of his pride and reach his hand out to Jesus to rescue him. Although he thought he was a powerful leader he had on that day to lose some of his self-confidence.

In the encounter with the Canaanite woman Jesus himself has to let go of some of his assumptions about his ministry and the disciples likewise. He and they had to let ago of the idea that the Church was an exclusive club for people like us. Jesus challenges all our conventional beliefs about the way things are and should be. We need to let go of these of these beliefs. Peter recognises this when he acknowledges Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God.

For Jesus himself sacrifice does mean suffering. But dare it be said – for us, sacrifice can be fun. If we give things up, we will get so much more back.

What did sacrificial discipleship mean in Peter’s case? If we follow his life - from the conversation with Jesus about taking up your cross into the future - we find that it wasn’t all gloom. OK there were some bad bits. His denial of Jesus and Jesus’ death were certainly low points! But there were good times too. His meeting with Jesus after Jesus’ resurrection joyfully restored his spirits and his purpose in life.

Obviously life didn’t stop, either, with Jesus’ ascension. Peter’s life goes on for at least another 20 or 30 years. His is an exciting life as I summarised earlier. His healing of the lame man, in Jesus’ name must have been fun. So too must have been his escaping from prison with the help of an angel. Did he sacrifice much to follow Jesus: yes of course. He left behind a lucrative fishing business in Galilee to preach the gospel. Did he die on a cross or did he die of a ripe old age. We don’t really know and it doesn’t matter.¬

So when Jesus calls us to ‘take up our cross’ is he calling us to a life of suffering as Nietzsche and indeed many Christians seem to think? No I don’t think so. He is calling us to ‘life in all its fullness’. This means that taking up your cross can be fun.

No comments:

Post a Comment