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Last week – you totally got a gold star. But this week? Well, this week’s Gospel tells a different story. Last week Jesus was giving Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven – and naming him the rock on which the church would be built. But today – Peter says one thing – and gets hit with, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.”
Ouch. That’s gotta hurt. It gives me chills, actually.
How could Peter get it so right one minute – and so very wrong the next? Well. We know that Peter sees Jesus for who he is. Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah – the Son of the living God. And so often this scene is portrayed as Peter wanting to protect Jesus.
Which one of us would not – if we could – protect someone we love from “great suffering”? Which one of us would not – if we could – hold on to someone we love – and try to keep them safe? Try to keep them from being killed? Seems like a no-brainer to me, really.
But Jesus knows that what is to come will be hard. And that this suffering – and persecution – and death – is the very reason he came to this earth. To take on our flesh and blood and bone – and suffer with us. Jesus knows that his journey back to Jerusalem will not be an easy one. And he has some sense of the suffering that awaits him there. But he knows – that in order to show the world the love of God – that he has to go to that hard place.
He has to choose to take up the cross. He has to choose to suffer with the folks who need him. This is the mission of God’s love. Bringing peace – and good news – and companionship – and compassion – to a world that is suffering.
So Peter’s desire to protect him – to keep him safe – to hold on to him – perhaps even to keep Jesus for himself – to keep Jesus always with the disciples…to meet their needs…to love them…This desire of Peter’s – which is perfectly natural – and rational – is met by Jesus’ anger.
Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.
In other words – when you think about what you want – when you try to keep me from doing the right thing – the hard thing – you are a stumbling block. Instead – Peter, Jesus is saying, you ought to be thinking about how to pick up your own cross – not keep me from mine. Instead of being a stumbling block to me – you ought to be thinking about how to put the needs of others ahead of your own. Instead, Peter, you ought to be thinking about where the hard places are in your life – in your community – that you ought to be going to bring God’s love.
How to take up your own cross and follow.
But since you aren’t – since you’re only thinking about yourself – and your own comfort…Then get behind me. Because you’ve missed the point.
At the beginning of the service – in the collect – we prayed these words:
Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works…
Increase in us true religion – which apparently has a lot to do with loving the Name of God – loving who Jesus is – and being nourished with the goodness of God’s love – then going forth into the world and DOING something. So – Peter’s proclamation last week – Peter’s ability just to name Jesus – isn’t enough. We can’t just sit here and think about how lucky we are to know Jesus. Or to be able to name him. Or even to have a good prayer life – or a good relationship with God.
If we keep this “religion” – this faith – to ourselves – then we, like Peter, are missing the point. Instead – Jesus – and true religion – true faith – call us into the hard places. To find the Jerusalems in our lives. In our communities.
To find the places where people are suffering. To find the places even where we are suffering – and then to flood those places with the light and love of God. If we fail to go into those hard places – to take up our cross – then we’ve missed the point.
And Jesus has some pretty clear things to say about that, too :
"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?”
Denying ourselves and taking up the cross and following Jesus – that’s about going to the hard places. It’s about identifying the stumbling blocks – those things – whether they are people, ideas, fears, stereotypes – or anything else – that keep us from going to the hard places. That keep us from bringing the companionship – and love – and compassion of Jesus Christ to those who are suffering.
Speaking of suffering – Jeremiah talks a bit about that, today, too. Jeremiah knows what it is to carry God’s word into the hard places. And we can hear his anguish. Jeremiah’s life – his path – were not easy. And yet – he continued to choose to go to the hard places. To speak the truth in these places – because this is what the Lord required of him. He puts the needs of his people – ahead of his own needs. Submitting himself to the work of God – even when it’s hard.
This is what Romans is about, too. Putting the needs of others before our own.
Putting the needs of the whole congregation – the larger body of Christ – above individual interests. We start with this great list of activities :
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Outdo one another in showing honor. I love that. And then these last two – are very much about putting the needs of others ahead of our own. Contribute to the needs of the saints – that’s very often thought of as a financial instruction. Pledge – tithe. Offer money to God – that builds up the church and ensures that its members will be cared for. Give of your resources so that together – we – the church – can care for the poor. And reach out to the world.
It might be nice – or safer – or perhaps we’d feel more secure if we didn’t pledge – or tithe – or give money to the church. But it’s clear the Gospel expects this of us. And – offer hospitality to strangers.
That’s about going to the hard places too, isn’t it?
Where fear might hold us back. Strangers…by definition – are people we don’t know. And – that includes – the poor – and hungry folks around this building right now.
What kind of hospitality are we offering to the strangers who live outside our walls?
And how brave are we actually being – how much are we actually doing – to serve these folks?
All of this – is rolled into taking up the cross and following after Jesus. In part – it’s about putting the needs of others ahead of our own. In part – it’s choosing to be brave like Jesus – and go to the hard places. To carry God’s love there – even when it comes at a high cost to us – cost here – could be financial – could be emotional – or like Jesus – it could cost us our very lives.
God’s promise to us – through Jesus – is that when we do this, we will find new life in the kingdom of heaven. Not only because we are able to see Jesus and name him as our Lord – But because we are actually brave enough to pick up the cross and follow after him. In big and small ways every day.
Chasing down the hard places in our lives – and in our communities – and in this country – and in the world. It means we have to pay attention to the big things – as well as the small things. And that means we have to be brave, too – because there’s a lot going on in the world right now. There are a lot of hard places.
And instead of being overwhelmed or afraid – we need to pick up our cross and go.
And talk about how we can care for our brothers and sisters – faithful Christians – members of the Body of Christ – who are being persecuted – and killed in Iraq and Syria right now – right now. This minute. It means we need to do more than just pray for the folk in this city who don’t know Jesus. It means we need to do more than just worship for an hour each week. Because that simply isn't enough.
We all have a role to play. A gift that helps us carry our cross. If you don’t know what that is – come see me. And we’ll talk about it. But be assured that God has work for you to do – and know that there are hard places to go to.
And the promise is – that when we go to the hard places – when we step out in faith – to pick up our own crosses and follow Jesus down the road to Calvary – God will give us what we need. What we need to be strong. What we need to be faithful.
What we need to see the mission through – to wherever it is meant to go – and to offer that love and compassion and companionship that God intends to give to the whole world.
How is God calling you to take up your cross? Where are the hard places in your life – in your communities – that you’re supposed to be going? And what are the stumbling blocks that are keeping you from getting there?
Jesus tells us our very lives depend on whether or not we choose to do this – to take up the cross – and follow him. Amen.