Imagine someone who is selfless. In other words, who do you know that gives of themselves all the time? Maybe it’s a mom or dad who always puts their family first. Maybe it’s a missionary who travels the world serving the poor and lonely. Maybe it’s a teacher who takes time for every student. Often, we use dramatic stories to describe or define selflessness. I remember the billboard with a father pushing his son in a recumbent wheelchair. The son suffered some debilitating disease and, to raise money, they “ran” marathons together. This is, indeed, a selfless, impressive act. The ordinary, everyday selfless acts are just as important.
Today’s Gospel is one where I am quick to nod my head and not really listen: oh yes, I know this one. There is Peter’s blunder, something we’ve come to expect. Then, we have the challenging words of Jesus, which seem to sum up the Gospel. It’s all wrapped up nice and neat with an obscure Jesus saying that is just clear enough to scare me.
As a preacher, I often feel that I have nothing new to say. Think about all the sermons you’ve heard in your lifetime; how many do you remember? This is less a judgment on preaching and more a reflection of our reality: as much as things change, they stay the same. No matter the decade, century or millennium: Jesus’ message doesn’t really change. If we want to be his disciples, we must take up our cross; give up our lives; live selflessly.
(Here I told a joke. It was really funny. I practiced it all week. Bishop Sauls told it first, so I can't claim it. It's about a man being run down by a squirrel driving a car. On the third run, the squirrel stops, rolls down teh window and says to the man: "It's not that easy is it?")
Now, I realize that this analogy will not get us very far. However, “It’s not that easy is it…” could be the tagline for Jesus’ marketing campaign (perhaps a not very successful marketing campaign…) A few weeks ago we heard the story of Peter’s desire to walk on water. He doesn’t get very far and soon Jesus is pulling him out of the water saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I suppose this is Jesus’ kind way of saying, “It’s not that easy is it…” Like the squirrel dodging cars, the life of discipleship, following Jesus, is not easy. I don’t know anyone who hears the call to “take up their cross” and jumps at the first chance. And, this is what we do. The squirrel dodges cars; we seek to live for someone, something, other than ourselves.
I think that discipleship was hardest for Peter. I have no doubt that Peter loved Jesus: he was his teacher and his friend. I have no doubt that Peter believed Jesus is the Messiah. It is Peter’s belief and love for Christ that stand in his way.
Peter knows what it means to find the Messiah; at least, he thinks he knows. It means that Israel will have a new king; they will no longer live under the persecution of the Romans; they will be set free.
I don’t think Peter hears anything after Jesus begins to describe his betrayal and death. I think he must’ve been in shock or dismay. For Jesus to die, means that Peter’s reality, his belief, his understanding, must make a dramatic shift.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve experienced a dramatic shift in your life. If you have, then you know they change everything. I remember when our son, Jacob, was born five weeks early. He had trouble breathing, grunting they called it, and they took him away to the NICU. The next morning, the NICU doctor came by. I was all alone in the room and the only word I understood was ventilator. That morning began a slow process, where I experienced a dramatic shift. I began to confront everything I “knew” about parenting and love. I had to confront the reality that Jacob, and Elise, are not “ours.” God began to move my knowing from ownership to stewardship; that children are a gift from God entrusted to us as stewards of their lives. This one story is just an example of the many shifts our knowing takes in a lifetime. I hope we all have at least one story like Peters, a moment when we confront our “knowing.” These confrontations or shifts bring us to some deeper knowledge of ourselves and in our faith.
So, here is Peter, expecting a king, only to discover that God has given them something else, a Christ. Jesus makes it clear: what Peter wants is different from what God is doing. A human king fulfills a human desire for power and control. Jesus has not come to rule human lives. Jesus comes to rule human hearts.
As Peter rebukes Jesus, he is no longer a disciple, one who follows. Instead, in this moment, Peter tries to claim Jesus as his and mold him to his expectations. Jesus reprimands Peter because his discipleship is at stake. Jesus knows that Peter is a faithful disciple, the rock. He also knows that rocks can be stumbling blocks, obstructing the path of discipleship. This is a crucial moment for Peter and the Church. Jesus does not give into Peter’s way of thinking. Instead, he returns Peter’s rebuke with a reprimand and explanation.
The life of discipleship is not a life where all of our dreams come true, at least not the way we expect. The life of discipleship, the life of faith, is a life of service. This is isn’t only service to others: caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, loving our neighbors. A life of discipleship seeks to serve God before all others. It means diligently seeking God’s wisdom and desires for our lives and for creation. It means looking for Jesus everywhere, all the time, and serving him. We are disciples when our lives are ruled by God’s dream for all of creation: the dream of abundant life. This is hard work. It requires faith and diligence.
The good news is we don’t walk the path of discipleship alone. We have one another. Together we guide each other as we discern our role in God’s kingdom. And we have God.The final sentences of our Gospel serve as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Whatever lies ahead, whatever the struggle, God is paying attention and will respond. It may not be the way we imagine and it will reveal the God’s glory in our lives and our world.
I want to end with a prayer from our prayer book. It is one of the collects for use after the Prayers of the People: it is a prayer that centers us. It reminds us what and who our lives are about. It guides us as we shift our hearts and thinking from our selves to God’s self.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, to whom our needs are known before we ask: Help us to ask only what accords with your will; and those good things which we dare not, or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.