Matthew 16:21-28 Carrying our cross
This sermon was delivered at Itchen Valley Parish Parish Communion this morning. Here it is in audio below
Or written as follows:
The picture is quite striking. A group of Christians huddle in the centre of the arena. A lion is padding towards them. The cartoon is entitled, ’God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life’.
How do we cope with the fact that Christians suffer?
If God is all powerful and good and we are his people, his children whom he loves, who are following the plan that he has for our lives, our calling, then how come so many of us suffer so badly? Surely, a good God would look after his followers so that they don’t experience pain?
We can start to see an answer to this question by looking at the passage we have just heard today.
Let’s remember the context. Back in Matthew 14, Jesus has fed the five thousand, a feat so remarkable, that the crowd wanted to make him king…by force, if necessary. Then Jesus gave his disciples a lesson in discipleship: sending them to battle the waves while crossing the sea of Galilee, before that astonishing scene of Jesus walking on water and Peter getting out of the boat to walk towards him…..Then, in chapter 16, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and, surrounded by temples to the pagan gods, asks the disciples ‘who do people say that I am?’
And Peter speaks out that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus then says that Peter has been guided by Father God to say this and concludes and ‘on this rock (meaning Peter) I will build my church!’
Heady stuff! How wonderful must Peter have felt, to receive that recognition from the Messiah out of all the disciples. It must have been amazing for him.
And now we have Jesus speaking about how he, Jesus, must suffer and die…and be raised again.
I know that many of us will have received bad news, say, from a doctor and been unable to process it at the time, even despite the physical clues that doctors are trained to give to us in these circumstances…to make it clear how important the news is for us, how serious it is…sometimes, we just don’t take it in, its just too shocking. And that’s why doctors often suggest that someone comes with us to the appointment.
I wonder whether something similar is going on with Peter here.
Jesus has said to his disciples (verse 21) that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders the chief priests and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Perhaps Peter just doesn’t hear the second bit, the bit about Jesus being ‘raised to life’.
He takes Jesus aside to have a private word. He is, after all, (after recognising who Jesus is, after speaking out that Jesus is the Messiah), he is, after all ‘the Rock’, Jesus’ lieutenant…his trusty number 2
As Jesus’ trusted deputy, Peter takes Jesus to one side….He says ‘never Lord…….this shall never happen to you’.
But then Jesus says to the first person who recognised him as the Messiah, whom Jesus described as a rock upon whom he will build his church, he says: ‘Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me. You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’
Quite a shock for Peter, the rock is now the stumbling block…
But Peter hasn’t even heard Jesus say that in three days he will be ‘raised to life’. Perhaps that was just too fantastical to be comprehended.
Jesus then turns to all the disciples and says:
‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’
When Garibaldi, the great Italian military hero from the 19th century, raised an incredibly committed volunteer army. His appeal for recruits was a bit different. He said: “I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country with his heart and not with his lips only, follow me!”
Garibaldi was not the first to appeal to followers in these terms. Nor the last. We think of Churchill “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.
Jesus said, ’Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’
But why should this be necessary?
The world is not the way that it should be.
The world is not the way that it should be.
The world is not the way Father God created it.
But the way the world is, is the inevitable consequence of God loving us so much that he gives us free will. A free will that over centuries humans have used not to reflect the loving nature of their creator, but to make decisions which are all about themselves. As if the two most important commandments were’: love yourself with all your heart’.
Instead of ‘love God’ and ‘love your family, love what’s yours’
Instead of ‘love your neighbour as yourself’.
And the outcome of all this self love results in conflict between individuals and nations, results in lack of forgiveness, which all spirals into more and more suffering, generation after generation, results in exploitation and greed, pollution and destruction of the planet.
Almost all the causes of suffering today can be put down to someone’s sin now or at some time in the past and its consequences over the generations.
The reality of the world which Garibaldi and Churchill encapsulated in those quotations, is that Christians, those who follow Christ, are fighting a battle and we will continually find ourselves coming up against those who do not love God and do not love neighbour, people who have been damaged by selfishness or people who are simply out for themselves and may not even be conscious of this. Or we will come up against the results to the way the world is of those who have taken these decisions motivated by selfishness and there will be consequences for Christians.
But Jesus is saying we are not to seek to avoid those consequences, we are to follow him despite those consequences. We are to carry our cross. We are to carry the inevitable consequences of following a saviour who is at odds with a fallen world.
As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:13, Jesus is effectively saying to us, as Paul says: ‘Be on your guard, stand firm in the faith, be courageous, be strong, do everything in love’.
He is talking about suffering we incur directly from following Christ that Jesus is talking about, Because sometimes people say, ‘its my cross to bear….’ referring to their wayward child or difficult husband, but Jesus is not talking about that. He says verse 25 ‘whoever loses their life ‘for me’ will find it…’
You know, its so easy for us to choose not to suffer for being a Christian.
It’s so easy to take the comfortable path.
It’s so easy to concede to people in power over us.
It’s so easy to concede to people whom we don’t want to offend…
like the powerful elites in and around government and the media, who are so often pursuing an agenda which is totally alien to a Christian perspective on the world.
It’s so easy to concede even to our neighbours who may pursue life styles which are so contrary to how Christ teaches us to live and who are desperate for us, as Christians, to affirm them in their actions
It’s so easy to concede our doubts about our faith to those who mock and want to undermine us and, because we are embarrassed and not so sure of our own position, of who Jesus says we are in Him
We are, of course, called to be kind. We are to do, ’everything in love’ and silence may often be the best policy, but we must not endorse or encourage anything which is not of Christ.
We need to be careful with our words and what message our actions send.
We need to be salt and light in our communities, even if people don’t like us because of this.
And we need to be cheerful and optimistic about the future and sing a sweeter song than the pessimistic misery guts all around us, because we have a great future in store for us.
We need to stand firm in our faith.
This can firstly mean speaking: being willing to assert what our faith is and secondly doing: acting in a way which is clearly Christian but inconsistent with the way that everyone else behaves.
Both can get us in a lot of trouble!
Firstly we may need to speak our faith.
Whilst we should not initiate conversations on what we know to be controversial issues, we may need to respond when what we or other Christians believe is being maligned in our presence by someone who knows that we are a Christian.
For example, as I was the other day on a walk, I had a chat with someone who in our conversation started to rubbish the idea of ‘faith’ (a sceptic like him will say that it is blind adherence to something, regardless of the evidence, whilst what we believe is that faith is trust,in a trustworthy God). We need to respond patiently, but firmly on what we do believe, without being cowed by sceptics into silence.
But secondly we must act in a way which reflects what we believe. For example, we must not lie or act corruptly, even if we fear our job may depend on it.
My boss at the law firm had a Christian PA. On one occasion some important client called while a crisis was going on on deal for someone else. Her boss said to her ‘Tell him I’m not in the office’!
She said to the client, ’He says to tell you that he’s not in the office’.
He never asked her to do that again
Both these actions may get us into trouble but, we must be willing to carry our cross whatever the consequences of doing so, even if this leads us to risk our jobs or to be thought of as boring by our neighbours.
Ultimately, if we are followers of Christ, we must be willing to follow Christ to the Cross
Or even to the centre of the arena with the lions baying for blood….
We are to carry our cross, but, as we do so, we have that promise, which Peter just could not hear when Jesus first said it: a promise both of his presence now to give us peace, despite our challenges and resurrection in the future with Jesus for eternity.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “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.”
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For 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?
27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mt 16:21–28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.