It Is Necessary
Scripture - Matthew 16:21-27
A man living in Africa out on the edge of the jungle heard a commotion in his back yard. He investigated and discovered there was a very hostile gorilla up in his tree. He immediately called 911, and it was not long until an animal control officer was on the scene, with a big ferocious dog, a pair of handcuffs, and a shotgun.
Turning to the homeowner the officer said, "Here's what we have to do. I will climb up the tree and shake it as hard as I can. When the gorilla falls out, the dog will leap upon him and with his powerful jaws clamp down on the gorilla's neck & paralyze him. While he is paralyzed, you put the handcuffs on the gorilla, and we'll have him."
The man was certainly not thrilled with the plan, but since he considered the officer an expert, he reluctantly said, "Okay."
So, the officer started climbing the tree. Suddenly the man hollered, "Wait a minute. You forgot to tell me what the shotgun is for."
"Well," the officer said, “when I start shaking the tree, if I fall out instead of the gorilla, you shoot the dog."
What I am going to do this morning is to try to shake some trees. I would like us to hopefully look at our text from Mathew from a different perspective. Hear again God's Word: Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, & follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.” (Mathew 16:24-25)
Friends, these verses can make your head spin. Upon first glance, they do not seem too difficult to understand. Yet the longer you hang around them, the dizzier you will get and the more they start to play tricks on you. Deny yourselves. Take up your cross. Those who want to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life – because of me - will find it.
So, if I am selfish with my life, I will lose my life. But if I am generous and give up my life, I will gain it. Therefore, I will be generous with my life because I know that I want to gain it. But wait. Then am I simply being generous for my own gain? Am I simply being generous to save my own neck? It can indeed be a dizzying text.
And sadly, most people interpret this text in one of two ways. Some hear it as a call to live a meager life. Denying themselves of joy, denying themselves of an abundant and full life. It is an attempt to delay joy and to delay gratification until they reach heaven. They are convinced that the more they deny oneself of life's comforts here and now, the greater the reward will be in heaven. It is, in essence, the old adage: No pain, no gain.
On the other hand, others hear this text as a justification or a reason for the suffering that has already come into their life. They may say when faced with suffering, "This must be my cross to bear." It paints a picture of a drill sergeant God. A God who is in the business of giving you more and more obstacles. Giving you more and more struggles in your life to see how long you can endure them.
I am convinced that because of these interpretations many have endured hardships for years that they should never have endured. Terrified each day, they endure, they hang on, believing it is a cross. A cross that God has called them to bear. So, they just grin and bear it. Trying to trust in a God who can seem so cruel.
But what if, what if there is another way of hearing this text?
It seems to me that our Gospel reading is not about a call to a life of suffering. It is not about denying one's self the pleasures in life in order to receive a future joy in heaven. And it is not about a God who is simply playing a game with us.
I believe that this text is not addressing the reason for our suffering. It is not about a God that deliberately hurts us by giving us different crosses to bear. It is not about a God who is asking us to carry them in order to show our level of commitment and the genuineness of our faith.
We serve a loving God. Remember our Lord’s words in chapter 7: Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.
We live in a fallen world. It is the world, the flesh and the Devil that strive to hurt us. And it is our heavenly father who takes all things, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and works them together for good.
And what is that good? That we may be transformed into the image of his Son. That we are shaped and molded into the image of Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, what if our text in Matthew about denying one's self and taking up a cross, what if this text is about us not being afraid? Not being afraid of evil. Not being afraid of death. About not fearing the suffering places in our lives that can often feel so much like death.
For friends, the moment we start to fear death, it will not be long before we start to fear life. And I believe this was the case for Peter.
In last week’s reading, Jesus asked his disciples, Who do you say that I am? Peter is the one who steps forward and says, You are the Christ, the son of the living God.
Jesus affirms Peter by saying, Yes, happy are you, Simon son of Jonah, because no human has shown this to you. Rather my father who is in heaven.
Yet shortly thereafter Jesus shares these words in our text: Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and legal experts, and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day. Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”
In Peter's mind, and in the mind of many the Messiah is one who comes in strength and power. One who will defeat the evil powers of the world. And as a follower of Jesus, Peter expects to be part of such a glorious battle.
So, when Jesus begins to share with his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, that he must undergo great suffering and death, it is no wonder that Peter cries out, God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.
Suffering and death were not the future Peter envisioned for the Messiah, and these events were not the future he envisioned for himself. If Jesus must go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death, doesn't that mean that Peter, as one of his disciples, must go and experience the same? Peter surely was afraid for Jesus' life, but he was most likely afraid also for his own life.
I say it again: The moment we start to fear death, it will not long before we begin to fear life.
Brothers and sisters, we must not fear death. We must not fear the evil in this world. Death is our enemy. But praise God, Jesus has conquered death! We are sons and daughters of the king of kings and the Lord of Lords! Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world. Amen? Amen!
A mother was so focused on protecting her children from any danger in the world that she kept them home-schooled, which was fine. But she also never let them outside of their home. As a result, they had no concept of building relationships, no concept of friends, or how to make them. She had convinced them that the world was an evil place and that they must fear it. She did this because she thought, she believed, that this would protect her children. Yet, in the end each of them needed much counseling because she had been suffocating the life out of them.
Obviously, this was an extreme case. But be warned. The moment you start to fear evil, to fear death, it will not long before you will also fear life.
Friends, Jesus wants us to have life and to have it abundantly. To be filled to overflowing with joy. Jesus places before us life, a new, abundant life.
Did you notice that Jesus is in search of life in our text? I did not see it at first either. Listen to the text once again: Jesus began to show his disciples that he had to go to Jerusalem and suffer… and that he had to be killed and raised on the third day.
And on the third day what? Be raised. Resurrection! Jesus was to go to Jerusalem to be resurrected! Jesus is not going to Jerusalem in search of death. Sisters and brothers, he is going to Jerusalem in search of life. And more than that, a new life for his followers: A New life. An Abundant life. A Resurrected life.
Jesus asks us - actually he commands us - to take up our cross and follow him. Follow him where? Not to death, but to life - a resurrected life.
This text is about not fearing death and about not fearing those suffering moments in life that, yes at times, can feel like death. In life there will be pain. In life there will be suffering. These are part of the human experience. Jesus tells his followers to take up their crosses and follow him; follow him into a resurrected life.
And friends he is asking you and I to do the same. Not because He wants to give us pain and suffering. May that never be. He already knows we have pain and suffering. For Jesus is fully God and he is fully human. He has experienced pain and he has experienced suffering. Pain and suffering are a part of the human experience on this side of eternity. They are part of this world. And sisters and brothers, God loves this world.
So, we take up our crosses because there are crosses to be taken up. What else is there to do? The only other option is to deny that there are any crosses in this world. Which will lead us into denial of the truth of life and to a fear of death, and thus to a fear of life. To take up one's cross is to embrace both the pain and suffering of the world, and to embrace the hope of discovering life - a resurrected life - within it all.
A full life is not one that is absent of suffering, but one that faces suffering with the courage to search for life within it. Jesus calls us to seek and bring forth life in the midst of evil. Even in the midst of death. The path to walk is ours to choose. But remember: if you try to save your own life you will lose it.
Friends take up the crosses in your life, whatever they may be. Why? Because we all have crosses in our lives. And as you carry your cross, you just might find a person who has a cross like yours. Someone who has found a way to carry it that makes it a little less painful. A full life is not one that is absent of suffering, but one that faces suffering with the courage to search for life, a resurrected life, in the midst of it all.
Friends choose life. Choose an abundant life. Choose a resurrected life. Choose a life filled with joy. Jesus tells us to take up our cross and to follow him, and we, the family at Shiloh, we will go through this together. Together in the light of the resurrection.