Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 Psalm 22: 22-30 Romans 4:13-25 Mark 8:31-38
In my college World Literature class, my professor explained the concept presented in a book by saying, “You are only a king when you are kinging.” I don’t remember the title of the book, only his explanation. We tend to think that we are whatever our title is, but the author was suggesting that titles, such as king, are merely adjectives. If we applied what he was teaching to Christianity, we could say we are Christians only when we are actually following Christ’s teachings – something even Peter struggled with in today’s gospel. Immediately before our gospel reading, Jesus asks Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.”
Peter gets it. But after he says this, Peter tries to lead Jesus, the Messiah, down the path Peter wants him to take. Jesus, responds with, “Get you behind me Satan!” In the blink of an eye Peter goes from one who is following Christ, to one who is tempting Jesus to take a different path. This passage provides an excellent argument for what that the author was teaching. If we believe that to be a Christian means we are a follower of Christ, then we are really not a Christian when we put our own desires and wants ahead of Christ by attempting to take charge, and make things be the way we want them to be.
We all do this, it is the reason we pray for forgiveness for the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We tend to treat our Christianity as a part-time job, rather than to do all that we can to make it our way of life. The good news is that Jesus does not give up on Peter, and Jesus does not give up on us. That does not mean, however, we get a pass.
After rebuking Peter, Jesus tells the crowd (meaning us) and his disciples (meaning us WHEN we are truly following him), what we must do to be his disciples, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The thought of literally taking up a cross and following Jesus should be enough to turn most of us away, toward a religion that demands less of us. But we are here, nonetheless. In part, I believe because we don’t believe he means for us to take him literally – after all, Christians today are seldom called to become martyred.
Seldom, but not unheard of today. The football coach, Aaron Feis, in Florida, ran toward the shooting at the high school and used his body as a shield to protect students – he offered his life for others. I seriously doubt he thought it was his Christian duty to so. People said this was just who he was, he was always putting others first. It was a way of life for him. Police officers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel run toward danger, not away. Among the stories from Florida, we also heard of an officer who did not run to danger. Officers are people, who like us, sometimes do not live up to others expectations. Here the temptation is to judge – and as a Christian who does not always put others first, I am in no place to judge.
When my children were young, I told them there were three things I wanted them to always remember. The first was that I would always love them. The second was that it is okay to get help when they need it – we are not alone in this world and we all need help from time to time. The third was actually my prayer for them: I pray that your mistakes will not be life threatening – for you or for others. I told them this, because I wanted them to know that I knew they would make mistakes, no one is perfect. So, my prayer for all of us is that our mistakes will not threaten the lives of others or ourselves – still some mistakes do result in loss of life.
One of the greatest temptations that exists is our temptation to judge others. In essence, this is what Peter was doing. He heard Jesus talk about what was to happened and he judged God’s plan, saying it was unacceptable. In Matthew’s telling, Peter says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” One minute Peter says he is the Messiah, the next he is telling Jesus, “God forbid do not go down the path you are own.” In Matthew, Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Coach Feis set his mind on divine things, he set his mind on helping others – and that is what Jesus means when he tells us to take up our cross and follow him. We are to deny ourselves, our wants, and work to achieve God’s purpose. The sacrifices that most us must make are mild by comparison.
Sacrifice for many of us, is giving the cost of a dinner out to the church, rather than allowing ourselves the indulgence of an addition night out. It may mean helping with a fall or spring cleanup or with a reception. It may mean serving on a committee, or visiting someone in the hospital, or taking a meal to someone who is sick. There are many ways we can, and do, give of ourselves, and these ways are not to be discounted.
After Jesus tells us to take up our cross – whatever it might be in our lives, he says, “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 not speaking literally. True living is achieved when we learn to live in community, sharing the burdens of others and drawing our strength from giving.
Over the past few months, our church has experienced a great deal of loss. Yet, we have also come together to support one another in our grief. Death can drive a family apart or and can bring it together. Our church family is grieving, but it has responded by coming together – which is what it means to live as a Christian. We need to support one another, and in doing so, we will find the strength we need to move forward.
Let us pray.
Loving and gracious God, fill us with your Spirit that we might live as Christians, loving our neighbor ourselves and demonstrating to others, your love for all humanity, not only with our lips, but in our lives. We offer our prayers to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.