The Rev. Joyce Matthews
We all know the story of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a true disciple of Christ. A servant of God called to speak a prophetic word not only to America but to the world. His path was difficult and often he stood within the shadow of death, but God took away his fear. Dr. King remembered that he was not alone, that God was always with him. King denied himself and took up his cross to follow Jesus.
Some of you may have heard of the news about a patient at MD Anderson Cancer Center, John Cornay is his name, and he has advanced melanoma and has been receiving infusion therapy on a regular schedule. When Hurricane Harvey rolled into Houston, John sat in his room looking out the window wondering how the team of five physicians would be able to get to the hospital to give him his infusion therapy as scheduled. The infusion would need to be administered as scheduled or he would need to begin his series of infusions all over again.
Each of the five members of the team made it to the hospital, in spite of the problems in their own homes with the hurricane, and driving through lots of water, including one physician who had to abandon his car and walk three miles through the flooded streets. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, this group of physicians denied themselves and picked up their cross to follow Jesus.
In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus had been preparing His disciples for discipleship, as well as His messiahship, when he asked, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered for the disciples, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Messiah.” Jesus affirmed them and even told Peter he was a rock on which He would build the Church. Today, we hear Jesus telling Peter and the disciples the sacrificial cost of what he must do to carry out God’s will for all people, and the sacrificial costs of what they must do as the Body of Christ, the Church, the disciples.
Jesus’s followers associated victory and glory with the Messiah, not suffering and death. Peter being Peter took the initiative again, speaking for the disciples, “God forbid, Lord, this must never happen to you.” Peter was telling Jesus they would protect him, they would make sure he was accepted, not rejected. He felt they would never let Jesus die. Peter and the disciples did not want their leader to experience pain, suffering, rejection, and death. After all, Jesus is the Messiah.
Hearing this, Jesus became so angry that he took Peter to task and said, “Get behind me, Satan.” He was so frustrated he felt once more Peter did not understand what was going on. After all, Peter was the main disciple Jesus counted on to provide leadership after his death. Jesus felt Peter needed to understand what God truly intends for his Christ and for his disciples. Just moments before, remember Jesus had blessed Peter and designated him as the rock on which He would build his Church. Now, Peter is chastised as a stumbling block.
Jesus makes it clear that Peter is viewing the future through human eyes which differ greatly from divine eyes. Human understanding of successful ministry is altogether different from God’s approach to ministry. Faithful living is not all glory, ease, and flowery epitaphs. Faith living is the ministry of servanthood, the kind of servanthood we saw in the team of physicians in Houston, and in Martin Luther King Jr., that requires humility and sacrifice, sometimes even death. Sometimes when we respond to the call to discipleship, we anticipate a glorious, exhilarating journey of promise and success. To be more realistic, the journey will also include tears, pain, disappointment, frustration, and even failure.
As we follow Jesus we learn that the road to Jerusalem and Golgotha is still there, and that we cannot avoid it. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us hope and purpose to go on in our life, despite the difficulties or tragedies that may come to pass. Discipleship exacts a high personal cost. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, expects, in fact demands, a lot from his disciples, his followers. Jesus instructs the disciples and us, the community of faith, on what is required to be a passionate follower. He said he we must deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow him. If Jesus must demonstrate sacrificial love by being nailed to a cross, then whoever attempts to follow Jesus as his disciple must accept dying to self.
To hold life in this world is to lose life eternal. To renounce life in this world is to gain what is everlasting. Forgiveness is to be proclaimed with repentance. He said that baptismal vows are to be practiced to include worshipping and community, and giving our time, talent, and treasure to the Church. One must declare one’s faith in Jesus as the Christ, as God’s definitive act of revelation and salvation.
In the letters to the Romans, the apostle Paul gives further instructions to the community of faith on what is required to be a passionate follower of Jesus. He begins by urging the community to love one another with mutual affection. He explains one must be patient in suffering. One must have perseverance in prayer. We must contribute to the needs of others. Christians should also bless their persecutors, while sharing in the joy and grief of the community. Christians are to claim no special privilege for themselves and never repay evil for evil. We must aim to live peaceably with all, never to seek retribution as vengeance is the Lord’s concern. In this way, evil will be overcome by good. We must be aware that service and sacrifice, humility and self-giving are all signs of our calling.
So what is the good news in our gospel story today? The good news of today is being a Christian is not always easy, but it is always life giving and meaningful. We have the resources to give up or take on whatever we must for the sake of God. We can make the necessary sacrifices, the offering and giving of ourselves, so that God’s work may be done.
We have the resources to take up our own crosses. We can give ourselves away. Not hoarding our resources, knowing that God gave us life not to keep but to spend for the sake of God and God’s children. We take up our crosses to follow by giving our time, our talent and treasure for God’s uses. Being truly faithful to traveling our own hills of Calvary, following Jesus’ steps, doing our utmost to live in his example, striving everyday to do what he would do in our particular situation.
The reality that those who want to save their life will lose it, for what profit are there in having worldly riches but losing spiritual life? He adds, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Each of us faces the challenge of being Christian. Christ directs us to love God with our whole selves and to love our neighbor as completely as we love ourselves. Living a life that evidences such love is the epitome of a holy life. One that seeks justice for all shows kindness and compassion to all, and walks within humility with God.
The Christian life depends on faith in Christ and a denial of self for the good of the community. It is a life in which thoughts and actions based on love align and reflect the kingdom of God. We meet the challenge only by living in Christ’s presence, and reflecting Christ’s light to the glory of God. And this is the path upon which any of Jesus’ followers must tread. The disciples are not just witnesses of Jesus’ suffering but participants in it. They just don’t get to talk about it, they actually will live through Jesus’ suffering in their own bodies.
What does it look like to follow the Messiah, the Anointed of God? That path is lined with crosses and paved with Jesus’ passion. This is a matter of life and death for his followers as much as it is for Jesus. And yet, we learn that this suffering, this cruciform existence, is not all that there will be. The Son of man will return and bring justice in his wake. Such justice is not merely the paying off of old debts, or the settling of bitter scores. Instead, this judgment is a promise of deliverance.
The cross will appear to span finality. The cross will appear to be the end of the story for us all. But the promise Jesus makes here, and the promises God has made from the beginning assure a future, a future in which justice blooms, a future in which the hungry are fed and the imprisoned are comforted, and that future is not a long way off. The late Dr. Maya Angelou once said, “I am grateful to have been loved and to be able to love because that liberates. Love liberates. It doesn’t just hold, that’s ego. Love liberates. It doesn’t bind. So invite your sisters and brothers in hope to the kind of love and justice Jesus here commends. Ask them to imagine how the Son of man coming in His Kingdom occurs in great and small ways in their lives already, and how that promise, assured by God’s Messiah, drives us into a hopeful future, even when our present troubles are engulfing us.”
After all, Jesus walked this path before us. Jesus knew too well rejection and loathing. He has gone before us, know we will follow him in faith. This narrative draws us to wonder whether we are willing to align our beliefs and the path upon which we walk and live. It’s a reminder that speaking the words, “Jesus is the Messiah,” requires only the exertion of the mind, but living those words is a gift of God. Embodying hope in the Messiah is an act of God’s love. Whether the road is easy or rough, we are to do justice and walk humbly with God. Prosperity is not to be found in things and power but rather in a closer walk with God.