Sunday, 3 September 2017

Take Up Your Cross

Holy Communion at Wingrave – 3 September 2017

Gospel Matthew 16

Jesus predicts his death

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples 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.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘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.’

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 ‘Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’


Here’s a good question for a pub quiz:

“Red sky at night, shepherd’s delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning”. Where does it come from?

1. Shakespeare

2. The Bible

3. A well-known phrase of unknown origin.

The answer:
Jesus quoted it at the beginning of Matthew 16:

16 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

2 He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” 3 and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

The signs of the times are of course the miracles of Christ—especially the stilling of the storm, walking on the water, and feeding of the 5,000.

The Pharisees and Sadducees asked for their own personal sign, as we heard in last Sunday’s gospel reading; but they had too much self-interest to be able to interpret what Jesus was doing—who he was and what was his mission here on earth.

Privately, Jesus asked his disciples who people thought he was: he received a variety of answers, but this discussion led on to the most important question of all: “Who do you say I am?” Like so many of the interactions with his followers, Jesus is also addressing us down the ages, as well as his contemporary audience. Who do we say he is, in our lives, in our worship, and in our very being?

Peter impulsively jumps in with what seems the perfect answer: “You are the anointed one, the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” He is commended for what the Spirit had confessed through his lips. The turning point comes when Jesus warns his followers not to tell anyone he is the Messiah, the so-called Messianic Secret as theologians have dubbed it, and this leads on to him predicting his own death in Jerusalem.

In just a handful of verses, Peter goes from the ultimate praise for his confession that Jesus is Son of the Living God to absolute condemnation when Jesus likens him to everything that is evil. Peter, the Rock, has become Peter the stumbling block.

Can you imagine how this must have felt? All Peter was doing was trying to save Jesus from certain death. In the circumstances, who can argue with him for offering comfort and reassurance to Christ, and attempting to divert him away from a journey to Jerusalem and to keep him safe? For this, Peter was likened to a hazard on which people will trip, thinking more of human concerns than God’s.

You see, Peter acted quite reasonably as any human being would act. He wanted to keep the disciples and their leader safe. To steer them away from threat of danger. He wanted to live in love: maintain good relations with friends and acquaintances. He wanted to make a little money, enough to feed and clothe his family. He wanted to protect them.

All these things are understandable. They are how you and I would instinctively act. But they are all human concerns, and not what God may want us to do. Instead, we are to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow God’s way rather than our own.

Perhaps Jesus is saying to Peter, and to us, that if we think we have everything sorted out in our minds, just as Peter did in his declaration of faith, we might be completely wrong. We might think our theology is tight, right and settled. But perhaps Jesus is telling us, like Peter, than we are wrong and have become a stumbling block for others who are working out their faith or seeking their own mission.

For Peter, the way of the cross was unthinkable, avoidable and a gross failure. For Jesus, the way of the cross was the only way. For the cross can be a symbol of death, pain, humiliation and rejection, but I don’t think this is the sense in which this passage is to be understood. The cross can be a sign of sacrifice and a heavy burden, but on the other hand it became a symbol of atonement, new life, salvation, forgiveness, and freedom from the weight of sin.

For the disciples, and for us, the sacrifice must be made, for nothing can be allowed to stand in the way of the will of the Father. Our lives must be turned upside down. As it says in our reading from Romans 12:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 

And in the gospel:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  Amen

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