Sermon, Chick Carroll, St Pauls Episcopal Church, Brunswick ME, September 16, 2018
I feel fortunate to be able to reflect on today’s Gospel reading, as it speaks to me very personally, and maybe it may to you as well. So, I will dive right into it.
In a few words, this gospel says 2 things that are critically important to the Christian life we try to lead. For the hereafter perhaps, but most important for the life we lead here and now. The first is that, near the beginning, Jesus asks the disciples who he is for them. And he, of course, is asking us also. Who is Jesus for me, for you? And the second thing is at the end when Jesus tells the crowds, and us, to take up our cross and “follow me.”
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” He is, of course, talking about losing our old way of life in order to gain new life.
And what is this new life? That is a question you will, of course, have to answer for your self. I can tell you that over the centuries the phrase “take up your cross” has meant dying to an old way of life, or self-surrender. I perhaps also ought to say what I think Jesus does NOT mean. I do not think he reserves this only to young people. Age is no barrier to a new way of life. And secondly, I think he does not mean that new life requires a physical change, like selling everything, or moving to a monastery. While it can mean these things, for most of us the changes, while very definite, will be interior —and subtle, perhaps not even observable to our casual friends. Food for thought, for us.
Let me now dig a little deeper. I want to focus especially on the question he asks “who do you think I am ?” In other words, who is Jesus for me? For you? Let me recap the first words of today’s Gospel. In it, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, walking. And Jesus asks “who do the people say I am?’ And the simplistic and superficial answers come back from the disciples: the prophets, John the Baptist, Elijah. Yeah, says Jesus, but who do YOU say I am?
Then Peter answers “ you are the Messiah.” Now Messiah was a freighted word in the world of first century Israel. It meant a person of revolutionary leanings, a person who would restore Israel to its former glory, who would free Israel from the hated Roman oppressor. And Jesus straightens Peter out and says “ The Son of Man will have to undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders and be killed and rise again in three days.” And Peter, in turn, criticizes Jesus severely for predicting he would be the victim of persecution. Don’t be so negative, Jesus. And Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter, saying you’ve got your mind on earthly standards and not on divine matters.
What Peter meant by Messiah and what Jesus meant by it, if he even thought of himself as Messiah, are undoubtedly two different things.
Look at the theme of triumphalism that Peter implies. Why not? Isn’t that what the world wants?
I’m afraid that theme continues to the present day. Church on Easter Sunday, the day of triumph, the day of soaring music, is full to overflowing, but on Good Friday and Maunday Thursday there are many, many vacant seats. Many Protestant churches have no services at all on those days.
We do not seem to want to recognize the weakness and the poverty of Jesus during his life. As he said, “the Son of Main has nowhere to lay his head.” But, I think we edit that part out; we don’t want to hear that. In reality, isn’t it in the humility of Jesus that our religion is first founded and on which its foundation rests? The resurrection, of course, is the very crux of our religion. Without it, there would be NO Christianity. But, without the tragedy, the humility, the simplicity of his life, AND the crucifixion, there would be no resurrection. And perhaps, just perhaps, it is this humility and simplicity that is the cross Jesus asks us to take up- the cross of humility, of simplicity, of love.
I wonder if, in fact, our fascination with a Jesus of might and power also transfers itself to our view of what our church should be. Must the church really be influential and well off, and popular. It seems to me that the reality of our faith is that Jesus and the Saints both distinguish themselves through their humility and their suffering. And we resist this, just as Peter did. Do we really even want new life? Life closer to God.
For example, consider Dietrich Bonhoffer. We revere him but don’t wish to imitate him. Consider St. Francis for whom we have the same admiration, but with no wish to be like him. Bonhoffer died to his old life; he had been offered a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1939. He accepted the position with misgivings, and then after some months decided he must return to serve in Germany fully understanding that this would mean risk and danger for him. We revere him for this, but believe that such behavior is only for those of saintly proportion, and not for us. He is a prime example of dying to one’s life, in order to save it. But we resist that as being beyond us.
Consider even the Beatitudes, expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. We admire it in theory, but there is much in them we find not only puzzling but perhaps even repellent. The Beatitudes seem critical of our way of life. For example, the first Beatitude says “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.”We wonder at this statement.What does it mean? Or do we know but fear looking too deeply. Imagine the poor, those who believe their sins are so severe that they cannot be forgiven, who imagine their clothing and their general appearance is such that they do not belong in church, who imagine their lives are so insignificant and without dignity that they do not belong. These are the “poor in spirit.” And why are they blessed? Why shall “theirs be the kingdom of heaven?” We resist the obvious conclusion about that, which is this: given their situation, whether they profess religion or not, their reliance upon God or a higher power is total. They have nowhere else to turn. And think just the opposite. We resist acknowledging that we place our reliance on ourselves, and our position in the world. We imagine we deserve our success through our own efforts. We resist acknowledging that our reliance on God is mostly intellectual and does not relate to the actualities of our lives. Could we, as Jesus instructs us, die to this proud, self-sufficient view of life in order to create love in our life, to save our life?
As you may remember, Bonhoffer distinguished between what he called costly grace and cheap grace. Costly grace means that there is a cost to living our faith in Christ, whether we express that faith or keep it private. Our faith, if truly lived will change us. Christ, of course, experienced this. He spoke truth to power; he criticized the comfortable exclusionary policies of the Pharisees. He threw the merchants out of the temple. And there is for us too a cost if we actually live the faith of Christ. Less dramatic certainly, but if I am willing to question or even lose my present view of life, I will ultimately don a new way of thinking and living.
For example, you and I know that we live in difficult and troubled times. I’m not addressing the politics of the matter. I am referring to the deep divisions within our society and whether there come a time where tensions lead to trouble, even violence. I know most of us feel this potential. Might
I be prepared to do even small things- to lose my life, to save my life? To say explicitly that I am not only affected by deep divisions but to say out loud that much of what goes on in our world is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus. Am I willing to speak out? Am I prepared to say who Jesus Christ is for me? Am I prepared to answer the question that Jesus asks in today’s Gospel: “Who do you say that I am?”
Isn’t much of what we hear and see in the media about Christianity simply wrong, as we see it? Am I willing to challenge that in my ordinary life? Just as a start to dying to my old power driven way of life, could I do some small things? To sign a petition, cancel a subscription, write a letter, lead a prayer, march at a rally, speak up when we hear prejudice, love people in trouble, help an immigrant, someone who is without, be a friend to them, Will we reclaim publicly what the meaning of Jesus is for us? Are we prepared to experience possible embarrassment or even criticism for that? Is our faith important enough for that?
Some things to consider. These are small things. There is more possible, much, much more. And even to act upon?