A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Based on Matthew 16:21-28

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

St. John’s in the Wilderness, Stony Point

     They had left everything, just to go follow him.  Left their homes, their families, their professions, their towns, their friends.  All for someone who one day came out of the blue to call to them in their boats, “Come in now; come with me; I want you to go with me to fish for people,” of all things.  And one look at him, and they just picked up and left. 

     And “fishing for people” started.  And soon the people came.  They flocked around them, came to hear their teacher, came to ask him (and them) to help them with their problems, followed after him for miles.  They gradually knew they were into something successful here.  A new movement, with new people joining the crowds every day.  Everything looked so good.  And they were his right-hand men.

     Finally, half-way through the story, it dawns on them that something very special is happening right before their very eyes, until, finally, one of them, their leader, says, “Jesus, you’re the Messiah.”  And then suddenly instead of “Good for you, you finally got it!” – the teacher tells them to shut up about it – not to go around saying he’s the Messiah.  Because if they do, everybody’s going to get the wrong idea about that.     

     Now, half-way through the journey, it’s time for them to get the right idea.  So he tells them in crystal clear terms what they should have figured out for themselves from his parables, his teachings, his actions.  He has to spell it out.  He has to sit them down and tell them what it’s all about:  he’s going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.  And that shocked them so much that they couldn’t even hear the third part – “and on the third day be raised.”  They couldn’t get to that part; instead they asked him “What’s this suffering and dying business?  You have the crowds.  They’re on your side.  You’re their man!”  In fact, as our Gospel reading for today tells us, Peter felt that he had to flat out rebuke Jesus for what he just said:  “suffer and die?  No way!  That’s not going to happen,” Peter said.  

     And at that point the Jesus who had called them from their homes, called them to leave everything to follow him, made them his own disciples, the Jesus who loved them, looked Peter directly in the eyes, and called him the devil.  “Get behind me, Satan!” he said to Peter.  “You’re getting in the way; you’re a stumbling block.  You’re tied up by your own ambitions.  You have to reset yourself; because right now you’re set on getting your way – and not God’s.”

     When Peter rebuked Jesus it struck a nerve, and Jesus reacted accordingly.  We’re half-way through the story and he discovers that his disciples hadn’t learned a thing.  Yes, he had the crowds – and when he fed them they wanted to make him king on the spot (John 6;15).  They loved his miracles, and they wanted him to entertain them by doing new ones again and again – and, of course, to prove to others how great he was (John 6:30-31).  They wanted him to show himself openly to the world and prove that he was God’s chosen one (John 7:4-5).  But each time they asked him to do that he refused, because that would be making God fit our standards and our ambitions.  So he told them you can’t prove God, because every time you try that you’re asking God to obey your rules, to act according to your standards for proof.  You want to make God accountable to you?  That’s what a demonic temptation is, to want to make God do things our way – to make God dance to our tune.  

     So when Peter rebuked Jesus, and told him he ought to be giving the people what they want, it struck a nerve in Jesus’ thinking, and he called his disciple “Satan,” and told him he needed to reset his thinking.  And then he gave them all an example of the new mindset that he wanted to see in them:  “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, then let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” 

     What a hard lesson to learn!  I remember an incident from my first parish when today’s lesson was the preaching text, and I titled the sermon “Losers Finders, Keepers Weepers.”  A few days later a woman in our congregation told me that her two little daughters do listen to my sermons.  That afternoon one of the girls came crying to her that her sister had found her toy and was playing with it and should really give it back to her.  But the other one said, “No I shouldn’t; and besides `weepers losers, keepers finders’ – Pastor said so.”

     It’s a hard lesson to learn, because we want to keep our own lives the way we want them, and Jesus’ words about losing them for his sake come very hard for us.  But he makes that the very essence of discipleship:  that those who want to be followers of his are to deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow him.  That’s what he’s going to do, by the way; it’s not just something they’re supposed to do.  How easy it would be to give the crowds what they want.  But he will go to the cross, because only there is resurrection on the other side.

     Today people choose churches according to their needs.  They leave churches who do not “fulfill their needs.”  They flock to churches that tell them that God wants them to be happy and rich.  God is going to bless them with riches and happiness.  What a great message to hear!  God forbid that someone should tell them to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Jesus.  That’s not a message that will get the crowds – after all, they’ll only come in and ruin your expensive carpet.   

     Of course, Jesus had the crowds, but the more he talked about his cross and losing themselves in his mission, the more he lost them.  Of course he wanted the crowds.  That’s what he sent his disciples out to do, to call them to him.  But not just to be entertained by his miracles, or to benefit from the food he could give them in dire circumstances.  He did not train people to be takers, but to be givers, as he himself would give.  He called them to deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow him.  

     Crowds or not, Jesus wants to talk to Peter about where he had set his mind:  on what you want, or on what God wants.  If consumerism is the mark of church life today, then what would Jesus have to say about that?  Would he give the crowds what they want?  Well, he didn’t.  He didn’t give his own disciples what they wanted.  He asked them to adjust their minds, to have minds set on what God wants, not just on what they want, to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him. 

     What makes that so difficult for us?  Luther had an answer, and he taught it to us with a Latin phrase.  He said that the human being is by nature “homo incurvatus se” – the human being turned in on himself.  He said that was the story of the Bible:  it begins with two people in the Garden doing what they wanted, to people building a tower to show their splendor, to a king willing to kill to satisfy his own lusts, to prophets and priests who sell themselves to the government.  All these stories depict the very nature of the human being, a creature turned in upon itself, a person that thinks this whole world is all about himself.  Until – and this is the good news – until God steps in and offers another way:  by the power of the gospel to turn us away from ourselves, to see that God has redeemed us through Christ the Crucified, so that we can see the whole world, including our own nature, made new by the power of his resurrection.  Only through God’s saving action are we turned away from ourselves to live for others, as Christ has lived for us.  

     Back in the 1930’s what Jesus said in today’s Gospel lesson inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer to leave the safety of a seminary in America to return to his native Germany and give his life to rebuilding the church within an atmosphere hostile to the church.  It led him to write his book called The Cost of Discipleship with its famous sentence:  “When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die.”  And then he adds another:  “To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy.”  Bonhoeffers’ favorite image of Jesus was not that of a crowd-pleasing entrepreneur, but a “man for others.”  For Bonhoeffer Jesus suffered the cross, because he was a “man for others.”

     So we will continue to lift high Jesus’ cross in this congregation, because that cross is the prime example of someone who gave himself for others, i.e. for us.  It has the power to get people to reset themselves, and to find out what real life is all about:  not locked into ourselves and our own needs, but aware also of the needs of others.  We are changed from takers into givers, and now we invite people into the giving, something they are not used to doing.  And along the way we will remember that Jesus started with twelve, only twelve, and now his name is uttered this day throughout the earth.  Today Christians throughout the world gather in front of a cross with the ability to reset their minds not on what they want, but what God wants of us, so that all people may experience the love of Jesus Christ.

    -- Richard L. Jeske