(Note: the podcast on Youtube is a little different from the written text following.)
Our Gospel lesson today is so rich, it’s so deep that much could be said about it. Much could be written about it, and it has. Volumes have been written about taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. There is not enough time this morning to do justice to this text and its implications for our lives, but never-the-less, we are called to wrestle with it this morning, and we shall.
This snippet from the Gospel of Matthew follows another very important snippet, and I think we need to visit it for just a moment as well. Let’s look at the verses directly preceding our appointed text for this morning. From Matthew 16:
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Now, immediately after this episode–immediately after Peter’s declaration, Jesus begins telling the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, endure persecution, be killed, and be raised. Peter is not happy with this. Mind you, this is the same Peter who has just had loads of praise heaped upon him by Jesus just a few verses earlier. I don’t exactly know what was going through Peter’s head. I don’t’ know if Jesus’ praise earlier emboldened him or gave him the idea he could confront Jesus about what he was saying. I’m not sure why he suddenly thinks that as the student he could correct the teacher. But what I do know is that Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Now, rebuke is the word used in English, but perhaps it doesn’t quite fit. The Greek word is epitimao, which has as its basic meaning to properly assign value as fitting the situation. I want you to think about this because Peter is doing exactly that to Jesus. Remember, Peter had just said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah.”
And what was the expectation of the Messiah? You’ve probably heard me say this more than a few times in preaching here. The Messiah, according to Jewish tradition, would be God’s representative on earth. He would be an earthly king who would establish Jerusalem as the city of God. The Messiah would establish Israel as the kingdom of God and wipe out Israel’s enemies–this particularly meant the Romans at the time. The Messiah would then issue in a time of peace, prosperity, and justice for Israel. All nations would look upon Israel as a place of power and prestige and honor. This was what the Messiah was supposed to do, and yet, Jesus had just said, He would go to Jerusalem, be persecuted, die, and be raised. This did not fit the Messianic narrative. This was not what Jews expected of their Messiah, and Peter was taking it upon himself to “properly assign value as fitting the situation.” Peter was letting Jesus know what He was supposed to do as the Messiah. Peter wasn’t letting Jesus be Jesus; Peter was trying to make Jesus fit into a particular box. Jesus isn’t too thrilled with Peter, but we will get to that in a moment.
Because here we need to recognize something about ourselves. Here we need to recognize our own desire to put Jesus in a box. We need to recognize how we oftentimes construct our own, personal Jesus–with apologies to Depesche Mode. We need to recognize that many times we construct and find a Jesus to suit our needs, our wants, and our desires. We construct and find a Jesus who makes us feel good–who meets our expectations; who comforts us and makes us feel good about ourselves. It is not Jesus who impacts and changes us–it is we who make Jesus in our own image to justify ourselves and our wants and expectations.
As you can imagine, Jesus doesn’t exactly relish this thought. Jesus doesn’t relish being turned into something to be used by others. Jesus doesn’t like being told what He has to do and how He has to do it. I mean, apparently, He doesn’t even let Peter get very far into the argument. The text says, “Peter began–BEGAN, to rebuke Jesus, and Jesus turned his back on Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan. For you are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” We will come back to this in just a moment because it is important. But let’s continue for just a moment with Jesus’ teaching because He then turns to His disciples and says, “If anyone wants to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?”
Lots to unpack here. Lots. First, let’s start with Jesus’ response to Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” This is a harsh word–a very harsh word. “For you are a stumbling block to me.” Why is this reaction so harsh? Do any of you remember the story of when Jesus was tempted by the devil in Matthew chapter four? Do you remember when the Devil took Jesus to a high mountain, showed Jesus the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give to you if you would bow down and worship me.”? Do you remember this episode? You might not, but I am sure Jesus heard those echoes coming through Peter’s voice right here. I am sure Jesus heard the exact same temptation He faced when the Devil came to Him in the middle of the desert. Same temptation. Different voice. And Jesus responds appropriately. “I told you once, Satan. I tell you again. No. You are a stumbling block to me because you are setting your mind on earthly things and not on divine things.” See how that ties together?
And Jesus nails not only Satan, but He nails Peter–and all of us. For you see, most of us like to use Jesus as a means to an end. Most of us like to use Jesus as our ticket to the things we think will make us happy. I am sure you have heard one or more preachers proclaim that if you believe in Jesus, you will have all that you desire. You will have health, you will have wealth, you will have victory in your finances, in your life, your relationships will be perfect, and you will be completely happy. You see, if you adhere to this kind of belief, you really don’t want Jesus. You want health; you want wealth; you want happiness; you want the perfect family; you want all these things, and you want Jesus to give them to you. You want your own personal, Jesus. And Jesus says, “No.” “Get behind me.” “You are setting your mind on earthly things, not divine things.”
Which begs the question, how do we set our mind on divine things? Jesus says, “If anyone wants to follow me, let them take up their cross and follow me. For if anyone wants to save their life, they must lose it; and if anyone loses their life for my sake, they will find it.”
Now, it is at this point where those of us who are pastors and preachers usually start talking about what it means to live a Christian life. We start telling you that taking up your cross means doing all the things listed in our second lesson from the book of Romans. I will not read this text in its entirety, but I will read a couple of verses, “9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” That’s four verses. There’s a lot more. Let me ask you this: have you managed to do those things listed in those four verses very well? Have you managed to let love be genuine? Love one another with mutual affection? Outdo each other in showing honor? Probably not. None of us do–at least to the extent we know we should. In fact, if we focus on trying to do all of these things. If we try to follow the Law in order to please God as if this will save our lives, we will actually lose them. How, you might ask? Aren’t we supposed to do these things? Aren’t we supposed to love and honor and be generous? Yes, we are, but if you place these things as the ultimate things in your life, it will lead to despair and death. What do I mean by that?
Just this: you are not trying to get Jesus–you are trying to save yourself. You are trying to achieve perfection. And when you put anything other than Jesus as your ultimate goal, you will not have life. You will find death. And I am not simply talking about hell. No. I am talking about this life right here and right now. You will spend your entire life in frustration becoming angry and bitter and upset and burned out and tired because you will be chasing a rabbit down an endless hole–never catching that rabbit; never feeling like you have accomplished enough. If you believe in Jesus so that you can get wealth; you will never get enough wealth. If you believe in Jesus so that you can get health; you will never find yourself healthy enough, and when you start declining, you will become bitter. If you believe in Jesus so that you can get happiness; you will be miserable when bad things happen to you. If you think Jesus makes you try to be perfect and do all the works of the Law, you will tire yourself out trying to follow them; you will never think you’ve done enough; and you will become resentful toward God and toward those who aren’t trying hard like you. In all of these instances, and many more, divine things have been shoved out, and earthly things have consumed your mind. And you’ve lost your life. You aren’t really living.
“If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose their life. And if anyone loses their life for my sake they will find it.” How is this possible?
If we follow Jesus, where will it eventually lead? If we follow Jesus where does He take us? To the cross. Not where we die, but where Jesus died. Not where we earned our salvation, but where Jesus stretched out His arms and bought it for us. Not because we lived the perfect life and did all the right things, but precisely the opposite–because we were constantly setting our mind on earthly things and neglecting the things of God.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.
This was the divine mission of Jesus. This is what He came into the world to do. Anything else was a stumbling block. He came to reconcile the world unto God–to die for you because He loves you. Set your mind on this. Let it be at the center of your heart. It will change you. You will die to yourself, and you will find abundant life. Amen.