24 August 2014

Living at Cross Purposes

Banias (Caesarea Philippi), the setting for Matthew 16: 13-28
Matthew 16: 13-28

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost/ 24th August 2014

What does it means for us to bear a cross? We know something of what it meant for Jesus.  What about us?  You’re probably thinking, aren’t people suffering enough these days? Why do we have to talk about crosses? After all, it’s not Lent! Nevertheless, the lectionary invites us to consider Matthew 16 and asks us to consider this timeless question: what does it mean to live a cross-shaped, cruciform life?[1]

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

But what does this really mean? First, let’s focus on what it doesn’t mean. The “cross” isn’t a synonym for every difficult task or demanding situation that we find ourselves in.  That’s how Billy Joel expresses it 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] Now, I love Billy Joel, but he’s not a theologian—unlike Bruce Springstein, who is. And it’s more than just a New York vs. New Jersey thing. (Springstein really is a good theologian, so is Bono.)  “Bearing one’s cross.” It’s become an idiom, an expression basically meaning we have all our difficulties, and challenges, so grin and bear yours. I once saw a cartoon: a manager is 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.  The manager says, “Oh come on, we all have our crosses to bear.” 

Referring to the cross in these ways belittles its meaning and cheapens Jesus’ journey to it. They also depoliticize Jesus’ death, which was done at the hands of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ cross is not our cross. Most of us here will not experience a death like his. There are some whose faithfulness to Christ and his call in their lives will lead to a cross, to death.  The more we learn about James Foley, the American journalist savagely murdered by the Islamic State in Iraq this past week, the more we see the depths of this man’s faith and the way his faith informed his life as an investigative journalist searching for the truth.  Jesus’ cross was uniquely his.  But there is something of Jesus’ cross that shapes the way we live when we’re walking with him.  James Foley’s experience was uniquely his. But the cross still shapes our lives.

But what does this really mean?  It’s complicated. In Matthew’s account there are at least two levels of meaning going on:  what actually happened in Jesus’ life and then Matthew’s take on what happened.  Matthew wrote his gospel in the 80s in order to provide a theological meaning of Jesus’ ministry. From our vantage, we tend to view the gospels as first-hand, historical accounts as they happened.  They’re not. We forget that the Gospel of Matthew, composed decades after Jesus’ life, was written with a pastoral responsibility for a community of believers trying to follow Jesus in an increasingly hostile world. Embedded in Matthew, in almost every chapter, is the Jewish-Gentile tension that was prevalent throughout the first century. Do Gentiles have to become Jews before they can worship Jesus and then be welcomed into the synagogue? Or can Gentiles be welcomed as Gentiles? And how does one worship Jesus as Lord within a larger society that demands that Caesar is divine? How does one serve God’s Kingdom, God’s Empire, as citizens or slaves in Caesar’s Empire? So, when we read Matthew 16 and hear Jesus talk about taking up a cross, it’s confusing. Is Jesus calling for treason against the state, because only the Roman state crucified people?

And how could verses 24-26 (above) have made any sense to the disciples prior to the crucifixion? What do you mean we have to be crucified? How is that useful? Peter’s resistance to the idea makes perfect sense; Jesus’ harsh critique seems inappropriate. These verses sound like the tongue of a preacher writing to his congregation decades after the resurrection. Matthew the preacher is basically saying that Jesus showed them something in and with his life and says to us: following Jesus 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 took the disciples to this alien place; he took them out of their comfort zones into a gross Gentile place, to a 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) and 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, built by Herod the Great to honor to the divinity of Caesar. It would have been a gross and offensive place from a Jewish perspective. During the Jewish Wars (66-70 AD)—so, after Jesus’ death but before the writing of this gospel— Caesarea Philippi was used as the staging area for the Roman troops that sacked Jerusalem and eventually destroyed the great temple to Yahweh in 70 AD. The author of Matthew would have known this. There’s also an enormous cave or grotto at the center of Caesarea Philippi that, according to tradition, is the birthplace of the god Pan. It’s called the Gate of Hades (not hell, there’s a difference); the cave is the entrance into the underworld, the home to an entire pantheon of Greek deities.

This is where Jesus took his friends (!) to test them, to this outrageous, shocking, offensive place, to hear what the people were saying about him and then to challenge them to answer, honestly: “Who do you say that I am?”   This is where Jesus wants his followers to make their confession—in Caesarea Philippi—to speak up for him, to acknowledge him Lord, there. Not in houses of worship. 

It costs us nothing, absolutely nothing, to say, “Jesus is Lord” here in this sanctuary. Jesus calls us to answer the question, not in safe places, but in inhospitable, out of the way, places on the edge. It’s here in Caesarea Philippi 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 it means for Jesus to be the Son of God—it means suffering and loss because people don’t welcome the Kingdom’s message. Jesus tells his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem, undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, be killed, and on the third day be raised.

That’s when Peter interrupts Jesus and says, “Um…excuse me, Jesus, may I have a word with you,” as he whisks Jesus off to the side and says, “Jesus, I have a question for you. Are you on DRUGS? What are you smoking? 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!”

Jesus 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.

Why is Jesus so harsh toward Peter? What does Peter know about crosses? It seems cruel. To be called “Satan” by the Son of God…one doesn’t easily get over hearing something like that! These words cut deep. But 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, for the Church. 

Jesus was sent to proclaim God’s Kingdom, which means the undoing of every other kingdom that claims to serve God and God’s people. As God’s Son, this was Jesus’ calling, his purpose, his reason for being. The meaning of his life wasn’t found within his life, per se, but discovered when his life was placed in service to something, Someone larger than himself. And that’s why Peter becomes Satan, which means, literally, an “Adversary.”  

Peter’s vision for Jesus’ life would take Jesus away from the vision he knew he had to fulfill. Peter’s understanding of the Messiah was at odds with Jesus’ life-purpose. Peter’s hopes and dreams for Jesus were no more than Peter’s projections of his own hopes and dreams for himself upon the screen of Jesus’ life.  Projections are often similarly self-centered. That’s why it’s often destructive and disastrous for us to get caught up in and be defined by what others are projecting on to us, when we feel bound by the burden of their expectations for us.  Our own projections are often self-serving. Peter’s projection doesn’t support Jesus in Jesus’ vision. Instead, Peter’s projection blocks, preempts, and thwarts Jesus’s purpose and obstructs him in his mission.

Peter is tempting Jesus.  He’s tempting Jesus to be something other than himself, to pursue a different calling.  Jesus probably struggled with vocational issues every day. When we think about temptation, 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’re tempted or pulled away from being something or someone we’re not. There’s plenty in this world, whether in the past or in the present, trying to pull us away from the God-given purpose of our lives, from our callings. There’s plenty deep within the human heart and outside it that runs hell-bent away from the glorious vision God has for us and for the world. For the Holy Spirit, in love, is continually, incessantly, tenaciously struggling to draw us out of our tight, fearful, anxious selves to bring us into a larger, more expansive, generous life. But the nervous ego pulls back, prefers 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, which resists the struggle, which resists the fight, which resists the hard work of being faithful to our call. “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world,” e. e. cummings (1894-1962), said, “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.”[3]  There’s plenty within that prefers to conform to society, that seeks after happiness and comfort and security, as if these were kingdom values (and they’re not!), and so never tries, never risks anything that’s costs us, never risks anything of significance with our lives on behalf of God’s kingdom—significant from God’s perspective, not the world’s.  Listening to the voice and will of God means not listening to the weak, fearful, narrow-minded voice of our egos. It means to stop being lured away from your calling by the false and timid call of the ego or the tribe or community or the church or your past or your family your parents even one’s spouse or partner. All these voices can pull us away from our true calling.

Being faithful to our calling means, therefore, a change of mind, a change of perspective.  And so we see that it was Peter’s own self-understanding that needed to be “crucified,” his assumptions about God and the ways of God needed to be put to a cross.  In other words, they needed to die, they needed to be given up in order for him to take up something new, something far more profound and meaningful, something larger than the constricted perspective of his narrow-self.  “Bearing one’s cross,” living a cross-shaped life is a continuous process of dying and rising throughout our lives.  It means giving up one way of being in order for something new to emerge.  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 was not willing to do that (not then, anyway). Peter tempts Jesus to throw it all away, go the easy route, give up on the vision, set his sights on what is reasonable and practical, go after something that has some guarantee of success instead of failure. Peter has other plans for Jesus.  But they were Peter’s plans, not Jesus’ plans, not God’s plans.

What do we discover here about the cross?  What if the cross is the consequence, the result of, even the price we pay for being faithful to our God-given purpose, our work, our calling, our identity as individuals and as the Church Jesus Christ?  If so, 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.  The temptation to run is natural, for who wants to suffer?  Perhaps the temptation is greatest when we are being faithful to the call. 

There’s a little Peter is in us, some more than others.  But there’s a greater Jesus in us, too, who loves us deeply and calls us to follow and leads us into God’s Kingdom.  When we’re in love with our callings, when we’re in love with God—when we’re in love—we suffer with and for and through and because of, willingly.  That’s what love does.  When we catch a glimpse of the grace and beauty of God’s Kingdom and move toward it, we find ourselves willing to endure whatever it costs, because we have come to know something of its value. That’s what love does. Amen.

[1] “Cruciform” and “cruciformity” are terms often used by Michael J. Gorman, see Cruciformity: Paul’s NarrativeSpirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).
[2] Billy Joel, “Cross to Bear,” My Lives (Sony Records, 2005).
[3] e. e. cummings, "A Poet’s Advice to Students."