Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 31, 2008

2008.08.31 “The Rest of the Story”

Central United Methodist Church

“The Rest of the Story”

Matthew 16: 21 – 28

August 31st, 2008

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “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? “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”  – Matthew 16: 21 – 28, from The New Revised Standard Version

We’ve now reached one of those terminal points of summer, Labor Day Weekend.  While some of the nicest days of the year are still ahead of us, for most of us, summer is over: vacations are past, kids are back in school, pools close tomorrow, and our jobs call for our full attention.

Therefore, Labor Day is well timed, not so much as the last celebration of summer, but the time to get back to work.

Even if, as almost everybody knows, work is not the ladder to the good life that it used to be. In a time when corporate executives make about 420 times what their workers make, when unions are in retreat, when jobs with benefits and pensions are increasing going the way of the dodo, when workplaces are filled with gnawing anxiety and dissatisfaction about whether a job will last, and what sacrifices it will take to keep it.

Yes, the good life, a well-paying job with benefits and pensions, the kind of job that has fueled middle class prosperity since World War II, has become harder and harder to find.

On a recommendation, earlier this year I read the book by Jean Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before.  

Generation Me describes anyone born in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s — in 2008, this means people between the ages of 9 and 38.  These are today’s young people, those who take it for granted that self comes first.

What Twenge found was that while we live in a time when high self-esteem is encouraged from childhood, when young people have more freedom and independence than ever, they also experience far more depression, anxiety, cynicism, and loneliness.  Part of the reason is that this generation of young people were raised to aim for the stars – they think they can get into Harvard, win American Idol, become an Olympic athlete, and make their first million by age 30. But the actual reality that awaits, which they soon discover, is that it is more difficult than ever to get into college, find a good job, afford a house.

Yes, the “good life” is out there, shimmering like a mirage in the distance.  Yet what is the good life, and how does one get to it?

One answer to such a question — the Christian answer — may be found in today’s Gospel: that the good life is less what one gets in life, than how many and how much one serves.

If you remember, previously in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asked his followers, “Who do they say that I am?” After reporting what they were hearing, Jesus rephrased the question:  “And who do you say that I am?”  Peter was the first to get his hand up, and blurted, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God,” at which everyone applauded.  And Jesus went on to say, “You are Peter (Petros), and upon this Rock (petra), I will build my Church.  And then Jesus handed over to Peter, and to us, the “keys of the Kingdom.”

        But the story doesn’t end there, and today we hear “the rest of the story.”  Like Labor Day functions in summer, it marks a turning point.

        Up to now, Jesus had hinted in veiled allusions what was to happen in Jerusalem, but his disciples haven’t gotten it. Now, he speaks plainly: “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

What does Peter do?  Perhaps what we would have done: he puts his arm around Jesus shoulder, takes him aside, and, as it says, “began to rebuke Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This will never happen to you.”  Never mind, “What would Jesus do?”  Instead, “Lord, let me tell you what I would do, if I were you.” Remember the definition of a religious fanatic, as “someone who knows they are doing what the Lord would do if the Lord were also in possession of the facts.”  This is Peter (and often us.)

In response, Jesus doesn’t swerve, but flashes: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” As Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message:  “Peter, get out of my way.  Satan, get lost.  You have no idea how God works.”

And so, Peter the Rock becomes the Stone of Stumbling, Peter the Confessor becomes a scandalous mouthpiece for the Devil.

Not surprisingly, Christians have always found in this passage lots of lessons.  Such as, the danger of speaking before we know what we are talking about.  Such as, that we all waver between being a Rock of Faith and a Stone of Stumbling.  Such as, whether we are “using” God for our purposes, or allowing God to use us for God’s purposes, difficult to understand as they may be.  Anybody here identify with Peter?

And why did Jesus flash?  Wasn’t he a little hard on Peter?

Maybe not. I believe Peter was thinking triumphantly, that what he thought the kingdom was going to be was the good life as he saw it, war horses and the defeat of his enemies and seats of honor in the kingdom, for himself and his friends, and he was not about to give that up. 

It’s the attitude reflected in the poem by the late Shel Silverstein, entitled, “God’s Wheel.”  

God says to me with a kind of a smile,

“Hey how would you like to be God awhile

And steer the world?”

“Okay,” says I, “I’ll give it a try.

Where do I set?

How much do I get?

What time is lunch?

When can I quit?”

“Gimme back that wheel,” says God,

“I don’t think you’re quite ready yet.”

I believe Peter chided Jesus at the point where Jesus was struggling, of facing what the cost of bringing the Kingdom was going to be.  I believe in the voice of his friend and disciple Peter, Jesus heard a voice he’d heard before and would hear again: “Make these stones become bread.” “Throw yourself down from the temple; God will protect you.” “Here are all the kingdoms of the world; bow down to me and they will be yours.”  “Come down from that cross and save yourself.”  Take the easy way.

But that was not to be.  If anything, Jesus makes it clearer: “Listen up! 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.”

It’s still hard to hear, isn’t it?  That the “good life” as we see often dangled before us, the life of health and wealth and prosperity, may not be the “best life.”  How as someone once said, “We climb the ladder of success rung by rung to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall.”  That the best life may not be the life of things, but the life of service; not how far we climb, but how many we serve.

So if last week, Jesus handed over the keys to kingdom; this week, he hands over a cross.  In case the first should make us arrogant; the second is sure to make us humble. 

I don’t believe that the cross Jesus hands us is personal martyrdom (though it still could be, one never fully knows where the way will lead).  I believe the cross Jesus hands over to us is our own distinctly personal form of Christian service, which we are willing to shoulder, for which we are willing to suffer and sacrifice, for the sake of others. 

For some, it may be a work of compassion, caring for one or many, such as HIV patients or the orphaned or imprisoned or the homeless, either complete strangers or someone we know personally. 

For others, it may be a work of justice: for those who labor; for migrant workers who are used and mistreated; for anyone who by reason of race or gender or sexual orientation who is discriminated against.

For some, the road may be high and exalted and bring fame; for others it may be lowly and humble and involve anonymity.  The truth is, whenever we answer Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow, we never know where it is going to lead.

But what we discover along the way, perhaps even contrary to what we were led to believe, is that, as preacher Tom Long put it, “A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, caring for children in need, hammering nails in houses for those without shelter, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age, but in the storehouse of heaven, it is a lavish treasure.”

        Like Peter, we may confess Jesus the Christ (orthodoxy), but also like Peter, do we understand what it means to take up the cross and follow (orthopraxy)?

Noted preacher and storyteller Fred Craddock was twenty years old when he read Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus. He says he found Schweitzer’s Christology woefully lacking – more water than wine.  So he marked in the book, wrote in the margins, raised questions of all kinds. 

        One day, he read in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Albert Schweitzer was going to be in Cleveland, Ohio, to play the dedicatory concert for an organ in a big church up there.  According to the article, Schweitzer would remain afterward in the fellowship hall for conversation and refreshment.

        So Craddock bought a Greyhound bus ticket and went to Cleveland.  All the way up there he worked on this Quest for the Historical Jesus.  He laid out his questions, even had them on a separate sheet of paper, making reference to the page numbers: “You said . . .” Because he figured, if there was a conversation in the fellowship hall, there’d be room for a question or two. 

        So he went there, heard the concert; rushed into fellowship hall, got a seat in the front row, and waited with his lap full of questions. 

        After a while, says Craddock, Schweitzer came in, shaggy hair, big white mustache, stooped, and seventy-five years old.  He had played a marvelous concert. He was a master organist, medical doctor, philosopher, biblical scholar, lecturer, writer, everything. He came in with a cup of tea and some refreshments and stood in front of the group, and there I was, close.

Dr. Schweitzer thanked everybody: “You’ve been very warm, hospitable to me.  I thank you for it, and I wish I could stay longer among you, but I must go back to Africa. I must go back to Africa because my people are poor and diseased and hungry and dying, and I have to go.  We have a medical station in Lambarene.  If there’s anyone here in this room who has the love of Jesus, would you be prompted by that love to go with me and help me?” 

        Says Craddock, I looked down at my questions; they were so absolutely stupid.  And I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.” (Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, Editors, pp. 125 – 126.)

“Take up thy cross,” the Savior said,

“if thou wouldst my disciple be;

deny thyself, the world forsake,

and humbly follow after me.”

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