you may have figured out, I have been preaching this summer from the
gospel of Matthew, the parables and stories of Jesus that a part of
the lectionary -- the three-year cycle of biblical readings. Having
biblical texts laid out years in advance is a gift for planning and
preparation, but it has its liabilities, too. Some texts are just
difficult, or don’t seem right for the moment we’re in.
This text from Matthew 16 is difficult, but I think it is exactly
what we need to hear -- at least it’s what I need to hear--for
the moment we’re in.
I’d begin with two truths which I bet most of you would agree
with: I think these are Christian principles, but in my experience,
nearly everyone would acknowledge the first truth, whatever their
faith tradition. Here’s the first one: Life is difficult.
I haven’t met anyone over the age of 30 or so who would disagree
with this; and I know teenagers who have already experienced difficulties
which I pray will never happen to me. Of course it isn’t a
contest to see whose life is the most difficult, but grief and loss
and suffering are realities of life. Would you agree? And here is
the second truth: this one may not have as universal agreement as
the first, but I believe it is equally important:. Here is the second
truth: Life is good. There are significant theological overtones
in that statement, resonating all the way back to the story of creation,
and God pronouncing it “good.” Life is difficult; Life
is good. I don’t think those are contradictory statements,
but the way we reconcile them in our minds and our hearts and our
lives is absolutely the work of faith, and is at the heart of the
Christian message. I believe that’s what’s going on
in this passage from Matthew 16.
Jesus is well into his earthly ministry at this time: he has been
baptized by John, tempted in the wilderness, been teaching and healing,
fed thousands of people with a few barley loaves, and walked across
the water and calmed a storm. The disciples -- not always swift
on the uptake -- have begun to realize that this is no ordinary
man; Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. And just when Jesus confirms
this realization, he orders the disciples not to tell anyone, and
starts telling them how he’s going to suffer and be killed.
And when Peter pulls Jesus aside to say, “Hey now, you’re
God’s chosen -- surely nothing bad will happen to you”
; Jesus fires back with a verbal slap which had to hurt: “Get
behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” Jesus
knew he needed to face the reality of his own suffering.
And here’s where this gets tricky for me: I don’t want
my life to be difficult. I am certainly not seeking out suffering
for myself or my family -- it can find me on its own., thank you
very much. I don’t believe that Jesus was seeking out suffering
or looking forward to it, but he had accepted that it would be part
of the life and ministry which he was called to, and which he agreed
to. Of course we try to do what we can to make our lives less difficult,
but loved ones still die, we still age and get ill, hurricanes,
floods, fires, drought happen: we can’t run from those things
forever, and no one is immune from mortality.
I have sampled only sparsely from the Democratic and Republican
National Conventions over the past two weeks. Both of those parties
have promised better days, and predicted dire consequences if the
other side is elected or re-elected. And while I believe voting
is a right and responsibility for citizens of our country, but I’m
not sure that any politician has the courage to speak the truth
which Jesus tells us in verses 25-26: “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?” There is not a single person who can
keep a promise that your life will not be difficult. No pastor,
no politician, no president. Jesus Christ was not a candidate for
political office, and he was not afraid to say that the only way
to experience the goodness of life in this world is to let go. Let
go of the expectation that you’re entitled to a painless life;
let go of the idea that you should get a free pass because of your
faith, your intelligence, your righteousness, your money, your family
. . . whatever. Let go of the conviction that life is good only
if it goes the way I want it to.
If I were in charge of the world, there wouldn’t be war or
poverty or systemic racism or domestic abuse or infant mortality.
There wouldn’t be earthquakes and floods and fires and drought.
There wouldn’t be cancer, and there sure wouldn’t be
a global pandemic. You probably know this, but I am not in charge
of the world. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I live in this world
with all of its pain and suffering -- and only the tiniest fraction
of it is my own -- and am called to love the people in it, and to
manifest the goodness that is God’s intention for it. As a
Christian I need to pray the prayer which Jesus prayed, “not
my will, but Yours be done,” and let go of my own agenda and
instead try to not only see Christ’s vision of the kingdom
of heaven, but actually do what I can to help it become a reality.
You may be surprised to hear, given the case I’ve just made
for life being difficult, that I find Christianity to be profoundly
hopeful, despite all that we are called to give up. Here’s
why: what Jesus predicted in Matthew 16 absolutely came to pass:
he underwent great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests
and scribes. He was tortured and killed by the most powerful empire
in the world. And none of that could stop God’s purpose, God’s
goodness, or God’s love. Because Christ was willing to lose
his life for the sake of the world -- his disciples, the Jews who
condemned him, the Romans who killed him, and folks like you and
me who still deny him or just don’t get it -- because Christ
was willing to give up his divine right to power and kingship and
glory; because Christ was willing to forfeit the whole world, he
gained eternal life and a place at the right hand of God. Everyone
who believes in Jesus Christ can claim that same promise of eternal
life, whatever their sin, shame, or circumstances in this life.
If you believe that -- and I pray that you believe that -- than
I think we’d have to agree that life is good. Christ is alive
and goes before us, God is on the throne of heaven, the kingdom
of God will one day be on earth as it is in heaven: there are better
days ahead. We are called to participate in making the dream of
those better days a reality. If we try to deny or minimize or blame
other people for our suffering , we will not be able to let it go;
it will consume us. But if we can acknowledge the brokenness in
our lives and in our country and in the world, and especially when
we can work to make that world a more just and compassionate place
for all God’s people, we give our lives to God’s kingdom
and we will find our lives for the sake of Christ.
In difficult times, I pray that we would find the courage to continue,
and the determination to make a difference. Christ is alive; goodness
wins; there are better days ahead. God bless you. Amen.