Matthew 16:21-28 (NIV)
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. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” 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.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 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? 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. “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Romans 12:9-21 (NIV)
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let’s start with the gospel reading, which follows directly on from last week’s, when Peter declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and was named the rock on which the church would be built. We realise now that Jesus was starting to do some future planning, as he tells the disciples that he must be killed, the implication being that they will then need to carry on without him. The phrase “must be killed” is an interesting one, because it’s not clear if Jesus is talking about divine intention or human reality. Mike and I recently rewatched the television series Good Omens, based on the book by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, about an angel and a demon working to prevent the apocalypse. In one flashback we see them witness the crucifixion. The demon Crowley turns to the angel Aziraphale and asks “What was it he said that got everyone so upset?” and Aziraphale answers “Be kind to each other”, to which Crowley replies “Oh yeah, that’ll do it”. It sounds like a joke, but it’s a bleak one because there is an edge of truth to it. I have said before that Jesus could not have said and done the things he said and did without getting himself into trouble, because in a culture that values strength and power, kindness can be a weakness and a threat. Jesus knows he is on a dangerous path, but it is one he knows he must keep following, and so perhaps there is both human reality and divine intention at work.
Peter is horrified at the idea that Jesus must be killed, and says it will never happen. After all, he is the Messiah, and he is meant to triumph not suffer. Jesus calls him “Satan”, a name which means “accuser”, and a “stumbling block”. Perhaps he hears Peter’s words as an offer of protection, and a second temptation. I said when we reflected on the feeding of the five thousand that Jesus could have raised an army, and here he could have contracted his own personal security, but still he chose the path that would lead to the cross. It is interesting that the rock on which the church was to be founded so quickly becomes a stumbling block. I wonder how often the church still gets in God’s way. But all is not lost, because when Jesus says “get behind me”, he is using the words translated elsewhere as “follow me”. Peter isn’t being pushed aside or left behind, but given a second chance.
Jesus then declares that “whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, which raises the not insignificant question of what it means for us to take up our cross. I think we can start by saying that this expression has deep meaning and should not be used flippantly or as a means of oppression. Taking up our cross is not about bearing with daily annoyances or accepting unjust suffering. For the disciples who first heard those words, the cross represented a painful and humiliating death inflicted on political dissidents, and so to take up our cross is surely to oppose the ruling powers and accept the consequences. But this isn’t opposition for opposition’s sake, and being at odds with the world is not a guarantee that we are right. Neither is it opposition which seeks to simply defeat the other, because we have already seen that Jesus chooses invitation over annihilation. To take up our cross is to oppose everything that does not reflect the kingdom of God, working for redemption not revenge.
Warren Carter suggests that the goal is not to repeat the violence of the cross but to counter and reframe it. We might think here of the well known verse from Isaiah which says “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”, and ask what the cross could be reworked into. It would have been made of wood, so perhaps a table around which all can gather, or a door through which all can enter. Thinking a little less literally, I have a necklace which forms the shape of a cross out of the word love, which I chose because the way it twists this instrument of pain into an expression of something beautiful spoke powerfully to me. Jesus’ opposition to the world as it was may have led to his death, but it also led beyond that to new life, countering and reframing the violence enacted on him, and so paving the way to the kingdom. I think what I’m trying to say is that we take up our cross knowing that it might bring hardship, but not only so that we might suffer. We take up our cross because with the benefit of the hindsight that the disciples didn’t yet have, we know that it can be transformed and be transformative.
How though do we reconcile “take up your cross” with Jesus’ previous claim that “my yoke is easy”? A rabbi’s yoke was his particular interpretation of the law, and so it seems that Jesus was saying his teaching will not weigh us down, but a cross seems a pretty heavy thing to carry, in very real terms but also in the sense that we have been considering it this morning. Does Jesus mean that his teaching is easy to understand but may be hard to live out? That seems to make sense, and certainly resonates with my own experience of trying to live in the way of Christ. But perhaps our cross isn’t always meant to be heavy. Perhaps it is only really a problem when others are trying to crucify us on it, or we are trying to crucify ourselves by making things harder than we need to. Because if Jesus came that we may have life in abundance, then ultimately the cross we carry must liberate us and others. We’re back to it being transformed and transformative.
Here I want to come on to the passage from Romans 12. This way of life is part of what it means to take up our cross, because it is part of what it means to follow Christ, and with its general theme of “get along with each other”, I think we start to see that denying ourselves and losing our lives to find them is not about choosing self abasement so much as it is about rejecting self interest. It is finding a middle way between the two that rejoices in a life giving mutuality. This is the encouragement that comes with the challenge, as I find is so often the way in matters of faith. Perhaps getting along with one another feels like a challenge itself at times, but I do think this passage should be read as an encouragement, because I think the kind of life that it describes and the kind of community that it produces sound wonderful. I said last week that perhaps in sharing Jesus with others we need to be a little less tell and a little more show, and living by these verses would be a great start.
Mike and I chose this passage as one of the readings for our wedding. We haven’t always lived by it in the ten years since then, but we still aspire to it. I’m fairly certain I’ve preached on this passage before, because I’m fairly certain I remember telling you we had it at our wedding before, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I said about it, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure what more there is to say about it, because really it speaks for itself. It is a passage to ruminate on and to act on, and so I will offer just a couple of quick thoughts about a couple of brief phrases, and then we will have a chance to ruminate on it with a sort of mini lectio divina.
First of all, “people of low position”. I think it’s important to understand this description as a fact of how the world sees someone, not as a judgement we are making about them. If we shouldn’t treat those the world looks down on any differently to those the world reveres, then we shouldn’t perceive them any differently either. Associating with “people of low position” should not be patronising but a meeting of equals in God’s kingdom. Secondly, “God’s wrath”. It is so easy to read this as meaning we should leave the smiting to God, but I think God is a lot less keen on smiting than we are. So often God’s vengeance seems to take the form of an embarrassing generosity, which is what “heaps of burning coals” suggests to me. Think of the fate of Nineveh, who Jonah was desperate to destroy but God was delighted to redeem. And the command to feed our enemy is taken from Proverbs, so this isn’t new wisdom. Perhaps feeding our enemies is not just leaving room for God’s wrath but exercising it, because perhaps God’s vengeance is to win us over not to knock us down. That’s all I want to say really, so now I’m going to read the passage again slowly, and I invite you to listen for what catches your attention, what you might need to further reflect or act on.
Having thought about the gospel reading and meditated on the passage from Romans, I want to share a final thought which takes us back to last week, when we talked about being the church. I had to be in the building on Thursday morning to wait for a plumber and an electrician, and in a stunning example of bad planning, both my phone and my laptop ran out of battery with no charger to hand. I wrote a rough draft of this sermon by hand, and then picked a book off the shelf and sat down to read. I’m not sure why I chose Nick Page’s “A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity”, but I’m glad I did. I’ve not read much, but so far it is an insightful and entertaining history of the Christian church, which is unafraid to own the terrible mistakes that mean it has not always been as it should be, but is also shot through with a deep love for the wonderful people and events that have shown what it can be. I felt tears prick my eyes more than once, which will no doubt come as a shock to those of you who know me as a hardened cynic, as I recognised that I shared that same deep love for this broken but beautiful thing we call the church. It is good that we are here and that we are a part of this, and may we live into all we can be together.