Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Preached by The Rev. Jason Haddox
Last year when we began to plan for Holy Week, I asked about a wooden cross we might use for Good Friday. There was no such object, so I asked Bob Hatcher to make one for us—and did he ever come through! Made from two huge tree branches, and rope to lash them together, “Old Rugged” is outside in the churchyard if you haven’t seen it already. Sometimes we hear Jesus’ words in the gospel this morning “Take up your cross” and imagine that he’s talking about something that big and rough and heavy, that we’re literally supposed to lug around with us. I don’ t think that’s the point.
Let’s review. Last Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 16:13-20) was part one of this morning’s story—Jesus asks this followers “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s chosen and Holy One.
No sooner has he said this, but “Jesus [begins] 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.”
All of the Christian scriptures were written after the resurrection, so the raising on the third day is a given in the minds of the hearers. It is the lens through which they read the scriptures, and through which they see and make sense of the world they live in.
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter’s response is perfectly understandable. We’ve just established a few verses ago that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen Holy One of God. What on earth could Jesus now mean by saying all this about suffering and being killed? What self-respecting Messiah would put any of that on his to-do list? The Messiah should go to Jerusalem, certainly, and be hailed as the hero who would restore the fortunes of Israel and put the Davidic monarchy back together…but this agenda Jesus suggests is not only inappropriate, but foolish and degrading and just WRONG! Jesus, Jesus—what are you talking about?
“But he turned to Peter and said ‘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.”
Now it is Peter who is rebuked—and the word here is most apt. “Satanas” is a proper name, often associated with “the tempter,” as we learned back in Ch. 4, in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism. In fact, the words Jesus uses here to address Peter are EXACTLY the words he uses to rebuke the third temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:10).
“You are a stumbling block to me”…you are causing me to fall down, get distracted. “Stumbling block” is our translation of the Greek word skandalos…from which we get our English word “scandal.” Someone falls down in public and we laugh. Someone in public authority is discovered to be all too human, and we rush together to hurl insults and place blame. It is death by stoning in a media-soaked culture, where every move is known almost as it happens.
You, Peter, are causing me to get distracted, to go in the wrong direction. “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Better translation: You are not thinking of God-things but of man-things. (from Greek, anthropos, so “human” is okay, but the NRSV is avoiding “mannish” language and so loses the God/man contrast.)
In other words—you, Peter, have just not two minutes ago said as plainly as can be that you understand who I am—but you don’t. Not really. You still think it’s about the power game as Jerusalem and Rome have set the terms.
He calls everyone together and says “Look y’all, here’s the deal…
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 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?”
The NIV translates “save/lose his soul,” which is also proper, but problematic (to say the least!) in the first instance… the possibility of “losing one’s soul” is not the same question.
Nevertheless, it’s a worthy question. Life (in the abundance that Jesus intends for his followers) or Soul (in its fullness, in this world and the life of the world to come)—what is the price of such a treasure? And how is it to be gotten and kept? Jesus seems to be telling them—and us—that it is not by the ways we think. That holding on to status or dignity or our own notions of how power in this world works, will ultimately prove a disappointment. That in fact there is something far deeper and more subtle at work here…something in which the universe itself has a vested interest.
This language of self-denial and carrying the cross is, and has been, a profound part of our vocabulary as Christians. I would argue that it is profoundly powerful language—and as with any great power, it can do great harm, or great good.
The great danger is that it be given as counsel or guidance too soon, or wrongly. For someone who is not yet sure of who they themselves truly are—because of being chronologically or emotionally young or unformed—“deny yourself” might be used as a means of control. For someone who has been the victim of systemic oppression or even abuse, “Deny yourself” could be a distorted use of scripture, an attempt to justify that abuse or oppression to the one victimized.
Jesus does not ask anyone to pretend that they themselves do not exist. That is not what’s going on here.
He tells the disciples, Peter and James and John and Magdalen and Joanna and all the others who were within earshot: “You know what you have seen and heard while you have been with me. And you know that some of it has not made sense—not in the ordinary way. Not in the same way you were taught to understand, and to see the world. But I’m telling you, this is the God-way of seeing, and understanding, and exercising leadership and power. It’s not about forcing other people to do things against their wills—it’s about looking at your own will, and desires, and fears and worries, and saying “In spite of all of this, I will follow the way of God. Which is not violent, or coercive, or angry—even when it is met with violence and anger and coercion.” Which does not insist on winning at any cost; which is even willing to suffer the indignity of death rather than meet hatred with more hatred.
Paul is telling the Romans the same thing. “Bless those who curse you; do not avenge yourselves; give food and drink to your enemies when they hunger and thirst.” It is beyond strange—such actions overturn the world’s values, by intentionally and consciously and repeatedly choosing to follow a different way of life.
That’s what Jesus is telling his hearers this morning. I am taking a road to God, which will be misunderstood and feared and scorned by the powers of this world as impotent and foolish and useless. And I’m inviting you to come with me. No obligation; no coercion. You can try to go it alone, the way you always have, the way the principalities and powers of Rome and Jerusalem, Washington and Wall Street and Beijing tell you you’re supposed to. But I have something wonderful, something they can’t even imagine, that I want you to have also. And I want you to share it with everyone you meet. Come with me and see—you’ve begun to discover it already.
Every time we baptize, we brand the new Christian with the cross. In water and oil, with the words “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” We don’t have to go find a cross to carry, or ask someone to build one for us from tree branches and rope—it’s already on us.
The question then is: What are you—what are we—going to do with it?