28 February 2010

The Journey of the Cross: II. Temptation

Matthew 16: 13-28

Second Sunday in Lent/ 28th February 2010

Last week we wandered with Jesus in the wilderness of Judea as he was confronted by the Tempter. The temptations, indeed the entire experience in the wilderness can be seen in a positive light because it proved to be a time of considerable growth and insight. There Jesus discovered who he was, discerned the calling and purpose of his life, and left the wilderness for the Galilee all the stronger for it. He was born to proclaim the Kingdom of God, to announce God’s revolution of love, justice, and generous grace. He came out of the wilderness on fire with God’s power preaching and teaching and healing.

Because Jesus was faithful to himself and his God, faithful to his calling, he was courageous and had the guts to confess this power in the face of the enormous power and brutality of Caesar’s armies. This is what inevitably led to his death at the hands of the Romans. It’s the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus because it could not tolerate the threat Jesus posed by preaching and embodying with his life the Empire of God.

This is how we left things last week, viewing Jesus’ cross as the consequence of being faithful to his purpose, his work, his calling, his identity. Being faithful to your God-given identity and work comes with a price. The focus of this series is Jesus’ cross, but it’s really more about our own journey of the cross. What does it means for us today to bear the cross? We know something of what it meant for Jesus. But what about us, we who seek to follow him? What does it means for us to have a cross-shaped, cruciform life? (1) For following Jesus inevitably leads to a cross of some kind. It’s right here in the text.

In Matthew 16, we find this classic exchange between Peter and Jesus and these memorable verses 24-26” “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.”

What does this really mean? First, let’s focus on what it doesn’t mean. The cross isn’t simply a synonym for any difficult task or demanding situation that we might find ourselves in. For example, listen to how Billy Joel uses this expression in one of his songs. Here are the lyrics: “We all have our cross to bear./ We all walk in darkness sometimes./ Though I know it don’t seem fair, /We all have our cross to bear.” (2) It’s become a turn of phrase, an expression basically meaning we have all our difficulties, so grin and bear yours. We all have our challenges. Here’s another example. There is a cartoon of a manager sitting behind his desk talking with a disgruntled employee. The employee is standing in front of the desk with his hands actually nailed to a large cross on his back. To which the manager replies, “Oh come on, we all have our crosses to bear.”
To refer to the cross in this way belittles its meaning and cheapens Jesus’ journey to it. It also depoliticizes Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman Empire. His cross is not our cross. But there is something of his cross that shapes the way we live when we’re walking with him.

But it’s complicated. In this text there are at least two narratives going on. Matthew wrote his gospel to provide a theological rendering of the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. From our vantage, we tend to view the gospels as a kind of history (although they’re not). We forget that Matthew is also writing as a pastor for his congregation, for his community of believers trying to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile environment. Embedded in this gospel, in almost every chapter, is the Jewish-Gentile tension prevalent throughout the first century. Do Gentiles have to become Jews before they can worship Jesus and be welcomed into the synagogue? Can Gentiles be welcomed as Gentiles? And how does one worship Jesus as Lord within a larger society that says only Caesar is Lord? How does one serve God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, as citizens or slaves of another Empire? So that when we read Matthew 16 and hear Jesus talk about taking up a cross, it’s confusing. Is he calling for treason against the state, because only the state crucified people? And how could verses 24-26 have made any sense to the disciples at that time, prior to the crucifixion? What do you mean we have to be crucified? Peter’s resistance to the idea makes perfect sense; Jesus’ harsh critique seems inappropriate. These verses make more sense on the tongue of a preacher writing to his congregation decades after the resurrection. Matthew the preacher is basically saying that Jesus showed us something in and with his life: that to follow him inevitably means suffering and loss for a higher purpose. Therefore, don’t be surprised when people tell you otherwise and try to divert you from your calling. Just say to them, “Get behind me Satan.”

That’s what Peter and the other disciples learned in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus intentionally takes the disciples away from familiar territory, out of their comfort zones, to the edge of the Jewish-Gentile region, to this wild, very un-Jewish place. Caesarea Philippi was settled by Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) in the 3rd century BC, in 20 BC it was annexed to Herod the Great (74-4 BC), later given to Herod’s son, Philip (d. 34 AD), who renamed it in 14 AD in honor of Caesar Augustus (63 BC- 14 AD). It was a Gentile community, full of temples to many gods, including a colossal temple, an Augusteum, not far away, to the divinity of Caesar. During the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD), after Jesus’ life but before the writing of this gospel, Caesarea Philippi was used as the staging area for the Roman troops that attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple in 70 AD. There’s an enormous cave or grotto at the center of Caesarea Philippi that is the birthplace of the god Pan. It’s called the Gate of Hades (not hell, there’s a difference), the entrance into the underworld of the Greek pantheon of deities.

That’s where Jesus takes his people to test them, to see inquire after what the people are saying about him, and to challenge them to say, honestly, with their hearts, to answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s the setting where Jesus wants his people to make their confession. Not in houses of worship — it doesn’t cost us anything to say “Jesus is Lord” here in a sanctuary — not in safe places, but in inhospitable places. It’s here that Peter makes his famous confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” To which Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon…for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” You are Peter, you really are a rock, and upon what you said, I will build my church, “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against.”

But then Peter quickly realizes what Jesus means by being a Messiah, what it means to be the Son of God – it means suffering and loss because people do not welcome the kingdom’s message. He tells his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem, to undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the their day be raised. That’s when Peter interrupts Jesus and says, “Excuse me, may I have a word with you,” whisks Jesus off to the side and says, “Jesus, I have a question for you. What are you on, DRUGS? What are you talking about? This can’t happen to you. This is not supposed to happen to you. Never. For God’s sake, Jesus, you’re the Messiah!” He turned to Peter, looked him dead in the eye, and said, “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.” And that’s when we hear these words about the cross. It’s easy to understand Peter’s astonishment.

But why is Jesus so harsh toward Peter? It seems cruel. To be called “Satan” by the Son of God, one doesn’t easily get over hearing that! These are words that cut. Yet, we have to remember what is at stake here: God’s Kingdom. This is serious business. It’s a matter of life and death, for Jesus and for all those who follow him. Jesus was sent to proclaim God’s Kingdom, which will mean the undoing of every other kingdom that claims to serve God and God’s people. As God’s Son, this is his calling, his purpose, his reason for being. The meaning of his life was not found in his life, per se, but his life placed in service to something, someone larger than himself. And that’s why Peter becomes Satan, literally, “Adversary.” Because Peter’s vision for Jesus’ life would take him away from the vision he knew he had to fulfill. Peter’s understanding of the Messiah, was at odds with his life-purpose. Peter’s hopes and dreams for Jesus are no more than Peter’s projections of his own hopes and dreams for himself. (3) They’re self-centered. They’re not supporting Jesus in his vision, but trying to preempt Jesus’ vision with his own self-serving ends.

Here again, as we saw last week, Jesus is tempted to be something other than himself. Jesus it tempted to fulfill a different calling. Jesus probably struggled with this on a daily basis. When we think about “temptation” (if we think or talk about it), we often view it as being tempted to do something that we either know we shouldn’t do or want to do. We say we’re tempted by chocolate or ice cream, tempted by other cravings or habits that we know are destructive. They’re often temptations of doing. “The devil made me do it.” But there are also temptations of being, which are far more serious, when we are pulled away from being something or someone we’re not. There’s plenty in this world trying to pull us away from our calling, the God-given purpose of our lives. There’s plenty within the human heart and outside it that runs hell-bent away from the glorious vision God has for us and for the world. The Spirit in love draws us into a larger life; the ego, in fear, pulls back, toward diminishment, recoils. Martin Luther (1483-1546) spoke to this tendency when he defined sin as “the heart turned in upon itself (incurvatus se).” There’s plenty within us and without us that resists the difficult path, that resists the struggle, that resists the fight, that resists the hard work of God. (4) There’s plenty within us that does not want to give up control, that seeks after happiness and comfort and security, as if these were kingdom values (and they’re not!), and never tries everything of significance on behalf of God’s kingdom. To listen to the voice and will of God means not listening to the voice of our weak, fearful, narrow-minded ego. It probably means not being lured away by the call of the ego, or the tribe, or community, or the church, or even one’s family, one’s parents, or even one’s spouse. All these voices can pull us away from our calling. To be faithful to our calling means a change of mind, a change of perspective.

Peter’s understanding needs to be crucified, his assumptions about God and the ways of God need to be put to a cross, in other words, they need to die, they need to be given up, for something new, something far more profound and meaningful, something larger than the narrow perspective of the self. “Bearing one’s cross,” is more than just a figure of speech. It means a change of perspective is required, a paradigm shift. It means giving up one way of being in order to yield to something new. Peter has to relinquish his perspective, his assumptions, his life, in order to receive a new perspective, in order to receive a new life.

Peter is not willing to do that (not yet, anyway). Jesus is tempted by Peter to throw it all away, to go the easy route, to give up on the vision, to set his sights on what is reasonable and practical, go after something that has some guarantee of success, not failure. Peter has other plans. But those plans are not Jesus’ plans, not God’s plans. What do we discover here? If our cross is the consequence, the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling, our identity as individuals and identity as the church of Jesus Christ, then don’t be surprised if we’re faced with the temptation to run from our identity and our task, to take the easy route, to take the less-painful, less risky, less faithful course.

Is this your temptation? Our temptation? Is this the kind of temptation you struggle with? If you answer, Yes, then you’re in good company. If you answer, No. Then, why not?

This leads to a series of question we probably don’t want to answer. I’m not sure I really want to ask them. Since it’s my job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, let me end with these sobering Lenten questions. And, of course, I implicate myself in these questions. They’re direct at me as much as anyone:
• Are we more susceptible to temptation when we are being faithful to our calling?
• When we’re paying some kind of price for being faithful to our calling?
• When there is a cost?
• When there is cross-bearing occurring around us or within?
• Maybe we’re not tempted because following isn’t costing us anything.
• Has being a Christian really cost us anything?
• When has being a follower of Christ really cost us much of anything?
• Does it cost us anything at all in our age?
• Has there been a cost for you? Perhaps for some.
• For this congregation? Perhaps.
• For the church in North America and Europe? We’re too occupied with survival, with saving membership and our institutions that we don’t want to lose anything, yet in doing so lose touch with what really matters. In trying to save our lives we love, but in losing them we find them.

But some do know cost and some churches do know the cost. For those of us who know the cost, whether individually or together as a church, my guess is we’ve also received a glimpse—if only a glimpse—of the grace and beauty of God’s Kingdom. Maybe we’re willing to make the cost, when we know something of its value.

Image: The Gates of Hades, Caesarea Philippi, Israel.

1. “Cruciform” and “cruciformity” are terms used by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
2. Billy Joel, “Cross to Bear,” My Lives, released 2005.
3. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Murder in the Cathedral.
4. Quotation from bulletin: “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” e. e. cummings (1894-1962), "A Poet’s Advice to Students."

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