The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 16:21-28

 

What exactly is happening here in Matthew’s gospel? One minute (last week’s lesson), Peter’s a rock, with Jesus praising him for his faith, and the next minute (this week’s lessons), he’s Satan, as Jesus rebukes him for his lack of faith and trust in God’s plan.

It’s always easy for me to identify with Peter in the gospels but maybe never more so than here. The always eager and well-meaning but generally half-cocked disciple, whose actions are usually about a step ahead of his thinking, has gotten himself into a pickle with Jesus again. And this time, it’s his pride that has gotten him there.

Since Peter had had the “divine insight” to confess him as the Messiah, he now thought he could tell Jesus how to be the Messiah: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

So Jesus spoke harshly to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” Those are strong words, but what Jesus is saying is that to deny that he must die is the work of Satan, because it is to seek some
other will than God’s will, some other agenda than God’s agenda, some other plan than God’s plan. It is to be an adversary rather than a disciple.

Then Jesus tells Peter and the others what it means to be a disciple. To be a disciple means to come after Jesus, to follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus is to deny one’s self (which includes one’s self-pride and one’s own will) and to take up the cross. And to take up the cross means to assume the burdens of others and to live for the well-being of others.

Today, in the United States, most Christians believe that we live in a society that is reasonably favorable toward religion – and in many senses that is true, of course. We experience no great persecution for holding our faith, and we have an amazing range of freedom to express our religion and to commend it to others.

So it would be easy to conclude that our spiritual situation, our spiritual opportunity and place (and discernment), in America holds very little danger. But this would be a mistake. For one thing, the very openness of our society toward any and all religions can give the impression that it really doesn’t make much difference what we believe or if we even get around to considering the claim of God upon our lives at all.

But the more serious danger that confronts Christians in this country is related to the great prosperity and affluence that most of us enjoy. Research has shown that very few Americans think of themselves as well off. There is too much a sense of struggle and precariousness in most of our lives for that. But judged by how most of the people on this planet live, the vast majority of Americans, and I dare say, almost everyone in this room, is very well off indeed.

The Bible warns again and again that while God created the world full of good things and good opportunities, nevertheless, all of this can become a temptation to spiritual blindness and indifference. We can be so busy with our things, or with our responsibilities at work or at home, or even with our ministries, that life rushes by and we give little thought to what is deepest or most important. We mean well, but, like Peter, we have so much else on our minds, so much of our own agendas to attend to, that we never quite settle down to thinking about our faith and our relationship with God. Not really. Not Truly.

So you see, brothers and sisters, it’s not just the crazy street preacher who warns people against “human desires” and all the other dangers the world contains, but, in this morning’s lessons, it’s Paul and even Jesus himself who remind us that we all ought to be aware of the world’s dangers and have a strategy for coping with the difficulty. Namely, to seek the discernment for the will of God in our lives.

Paul was writing to the church in Rome, at that time the capital city of the world and a place of luxury and power and diversity, –and he tells the Roman Christians that they must not be conformed to this world. Paul knew that this could happen to nice people, sincere, well-meaning people, because they didn’t understand that at the very deepest level there is real enmity between the powers of force and greed and lust and pride and self-care that dominate every society and the gospel of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ.

Likewise, our Lord, in explaining to those who follow him in every generation that the way of discipleship is the way of the cross, has to warn us as well: Whoever holds on to life will surely lose it. For what will it profit us to gain the whole world and lose our souls?

And here is the real danger: such a path to destruction doesn’t begin with deliberately setting out to defy God or to embrace the world in its sin and wickedness. The path to conformity, to spiritual destruction, to “worldliness,” as Paul would call it, begins with small, seemingly harmless steps.

We’re busy, we’re tired, we don’t want to get involved in anything serious, just do our duty. (& because of our human desires, pride, fear,) we even get a little stingy about giving back to God a part of those gifts he gave to us in the first place. And eventually, those small steps and those rationalizations can close our hearts and our minds to being able to hear the word of God at all.

But, there is a simple test we can do to help us diagnose or determine our spiritual situation. Ask yourself, at some regular time each day, whether you have remembered in all your doings and all your plans that you are a person who is certain to die. What will it profit any of us to get that raise or close that deal or take out that loan or pay off that debt or settle that issue with our neighbor or take on that job or put up our feet to rest, if in the process we forget to come to terms with God who has given us life?

That God comes to greet us in our worship this morning. The God of the world and beyond the world has come to the world in Emmanuel, God with us and for us in Jesus.

God wants to interrupt us in the best sense of the word, not because God resents our lives and our projects, but because God wants to warn us of the danger and spiritual destruction that comes through pursuing our own “worldly” agendas in God’s name, and to keep us on the path to life.

And God understands how strong our temptation is to be conformed to the world, to excuse ourselves with the thought that we’re acting just like everyone else.

So, this morning, as you come to receive the bread and wine, the sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, remember that in that moment you will be bound into a different reality from the one that the world knows and claims and that dominates our daily routine. You will be bound into the reality of Jesus, who as he predicted walked the path of obedience and met his death on the cross.

He didn’t deny death was coming for him. He was certain of that. And yet, on the night he was betrayed, he blessed bread and broke it, and gave it to his immediate disciples and to all those who would come after as a sign of his continued presence and help.

And may we never resent that presence in our lives, whether in warning or in forgiving, in loving or in rebuking, in living or in dying. For God comes to see that we do not lose our lives but find true life in the world that is restored to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

And in the Name of the father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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