Wandering Heart: I’m Fixed Upon It

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

A minister colleague in another church was leading a faith formation gathering with young children when one boy in the group produced a bag of crackers and proceeded munching.  When the minister realized that the boy had no intention of sharing his crackers with any of the other children, she said something to him.  At first, being a sharp little guy in every sense of the word, he ignored her.  Then sensing a teachable moment, she engaged him biblically: “Remember Jesus and the little boy who shared his loves and fish?” she inquired.  “When he did that, lots of people were able to eat.  Jesus came to teach us to share and be kind to others.”  The little boy’s response was both quick and decisive: “No he didn’t.  He came for our salvation.”[1]

That young boy was not the first would-be disciple who wants to put his own spin on Jesus’ message to make it easier to accept and less demanding to follow, and he surely will not be the last.  Consider Peter’s encounter with Jesus here in Matthew 16.

Last week we heard Peter ace the teacher’s question in the preceding passage in Matthew 16.  When Jesus asked the disciples “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  This week, in this passage, however, Peter gets it all wrong.  Peter may recognize that Jesus is the Messiah; he just doesn’t want to hear Jesus tell him what kind of Messiah Jesus is.

It all goes wrong for Peter when Jesus begins to explain that the Messiah “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed…”  Peter immediately takes Jesus aside and begins rebuking him.  Remember: last week Peter was calling Jesus the Son of God.  This week, Peter is talking to Jesus like a parent might talk to a child.

No surprise, Jesus is not happy with Peter.  He speaks even more sharply to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!”  Jesus rebukes Peter not because Peter dares to question him.  Jesus rebukes Peter with those words because Peter is doing the same thing Satan tried to with Jesus in the wilderness back in Matthew 4.  Then Satan suggested that since Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t really need to obey God.  Instead, he can take an easier path that doesn’t involve either suffering or dying.  Jesus rebuked Satan then as he rebukes Peter now.

It is one thing to believe that Jesus is the Messiah; it is another thing to understand what kind of Messiah he is.  That is why Jesus gave that puzzling instruction at the end of last week’s passage: “Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Peter is not alone in disbelieving what Jesus is saying about his future.  Archaeologists and Biblical scholars tell us that “contemporary Jewish thought found no reference to a suffering Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures….The Messiah was expected to inflict suffering and death on Israel’s enemies and on the wicked within Israel, not to experience it himself.”[2]  Peter is fixed upon a human understanding of the Messiah, one who is strong and conquering all, not one who suffers or dies. 

Are we any different?  Don’t we also want a fierce God who can crush all obstacles in our path, defeat and punish our enemies, right all wrongs, and put us back on top of things? But that is not the kind of Messiah Jesus is, because that is not how God operates.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Messiah, reveals a God who is strong and powerful, but whose strength and power looks very different from the way the world measures power or strength.

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciple that he must go to Jerusalem [and suffer and die],” Matthew tells us.  Why must?  Because God is cruel?  No, it is mortals who are cruel as we will be reminded at the cross.  Why must?  Because the suffering and dying of the Messiah is a divine requirement – a box to check off – before human sin can be forgiven?  No God is not an accountant who needs to balance the books.  Jesus must suffer and be killed…because he loves.  He loves as God loves.

As someone has written, “when someone loves as God loves, he suffers, he becomes vulnerable, he risks losing his life in the world.  When someone loves as God loves, he does not run from trouble, he runs towards it, to rescue and save – like firefighters on 9-11, he runs up the stairs while others are running down.  When someone loves as God loves, things get shaken up, trouble gets stirred up, for Divine Love cannot stand by doing nothing as dark forces prey upon the beloved.  The rich and powerful of this realm are used to getting their way, and when someone stands in the way, some will do everything they can to get rid of the obstacle….  Divine love denies itself, empties itself…This is what divine love does willingly, not because it is required, but because it is necessary.”[3]  

Here in Matthew 16, Jesus is turning towards Jerusalem and he is preparing the disciples for what lies ahead.  You might say, he is moving from Discipleship 101 to graduate level instruction.  And the hard teaching does not end with what it looks like to be the Messiah.  After Jesus and Peter have their one-on-one encounter, Jesus continues his instructions for Peter and the rest of the disciples: “If any want to become my followers,” he tells them, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch Gospel, had a radical idea about the Bible in the 1940s: that it called for whites to treat blacks as brothers and sisters – even in the segregated South.  He founded the interracial Koinonia Community in Americus Georgia at a time and in a place where people thought such intermixing was dangerous and should be opposed by every force imaginable, including violence, including intimidation by the authorities.

Jordan suffered and was persecuted for his discipleship.  Once, when facing bogus, but serious, legal charges, he asked his lawyer brother for help.  Having political aspirations, the brother refused.  Jordan suggested that his brother should go back to the rural church where they had both walked the aisle to give their life to Christ and explain something.  “Tell them,” Jordan said, “what you really meant to say was that you admire Jesus, not that you want to follow him.”[4]

Followers – not admirers – that is what Jesus wants.  Followers – not merely admirers – that is what it means to be a disciple, to be a “little Christ,” which is what the word, “Christian” literally means.  Admirers watch Jesus walk the path and cheer him on from a distance.  Followers join the path of Jesus Christ and walk with him.  Then and now, Jesus gives his disciple a word to hear and a path to follow that is very different from what the world tells us.

The world tells us to look out for number one.  Jesus calls us to love our neighbor – and then expands the circle of people we are supposed to care about ever wider, to include strangers near and far.

The world measures success by how much we have and how much treasure we can accumulate here on earth.  But Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures on earth, and that we will have more joy in giving than in receiving.

The world tells us an “eye for an eye” and return force with more force.  Jesus tells us to forgive our debtors and pray for our enemies.

The world tells us to play it safe and to be self-sufficient.  Jesus tells us that those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who give their live away for the sake of the gospel will save it.

The way of Christ, the way of the cross, is not a call to suffer for the sake of suffering.  No, asceticism by itself can lead to self-righteousness, and forms of self-flagellation can lead us to focus more, not less, on ourselves.  Neither does the way of the cross mean that we are to passively accept abuse, discrimination, or oppression.  No, we are subject to God but equal to others as children of God.

Instead, the way of Christ, the way of the cross, is a call to love.  Not just those we want to love.  Not just those we find easy to love.  But all, as Christ loves all. 

Sometimes that love is writ large, as with the Christian doctor Dr. Martin Salia who courageously kept treating patients with the deadly Ebola disease in Sierra Leone before succumbing to the disease itself.  Or the young man from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, Glen Lapp, a nurse who served in Afghanistan with the Mennonite Central Committee providing medical services to poor villagers before he was killed by Taliban forces a decade ago.  Or Franz Jungerstatter, the Austrian Catholic man, who did not believe that he could take up arms to fight for the Nazis because of his faith and was consequently imprisoned and executed.

But more often the way of the cross, the way of love, is lived out in smaller ways, smaller acts of quiet self-sacrifice, compassion, and attentiveness to the needs of others.

The husband who was always the traditional breadwinner and did little around the house, becoming the full-time caregiver for his wife of 50-plus years suffering from dementia.  Now, he does everything around the house.

The daughter who is willing to respond cautiously to the request of the father who abandoned the family when the daughter was young, to try to rebuild a relationship now, not just for herself but for his grandchildren.

The boy at school who reaches out to another boy he doesn’t even know that well because the other boy is being cyber-bullied and needs support.

The woman who shows up to welcome the new neighbor with a homemade cherry pie and gently shares why the new neighbor’s Confederate flag feels hurtful to her as an African American woman.

Loving in the way of Christ makes life harder and more complicated.  Love means taking risks and making commitments, a willingness to sacrifice and bear others’ suffering.  But there is one more thing that Jesus has to say here: “those who love their life for my sake will save it.”  The way of the cross, the way of denial, sacrifice, and love is not dark and cheerless.  In fact, it is a path dappled with light and joy.  Because bearing the cross of service, suffering, and love “is the only way for a human being to be fully alive.”[5]

I recall a dark and very cold night in Pottstown not too many years ago.  It was a Thursday night, which was the night that First Presbyterian Church in Pottstown provided dinner for our neighbors in need.  We were one of five churches who provided a hot lunch or dinner each weekday, 52 weeks a year. 

That Thursday night it was particularly cold – a Code Blue night.  There was a small shelter for the homeless in Pottstown then but it opened two hours after we finished serving the dinner.  So rather than send our guests into the rain and cold with nowhere to go for a couple of hours, we had a list of Jesus’ disciples in the church who were “on call” to come and stay with the shelter guests to bridge the gap.

On that Thursday, we had one such guest.  One of those church disciples texted Kerry and said, “are we on for tonight?”  The other, however, had gotten her nights mixed up, and when Kerry called her Kerry could tell that she was in the car.  They were in route to a special celebratory dinner.  So Kerry stayed to be sure there was coverage. 

It wasn’t long before the other church member showed up.  Her husband and her traded a special dinner in a fine restaurant for Wendy’s drive-thru, because that is what Jesus’ disciples do.

For a couple of hours, the four women hung out, partially watching a documentary the woman had selected from the church library.  But mostly, they just chatted about their lives.  Around 8:30, I was driving back from a meeting so I swung by the church to give the woman a ride to the shelter.  As she was getting out of the car at the shelter, she paused and said to me, “I hope your night has as much light shine on it as you have shined on me tonight.”  After a moment, she added, “Those women made me feel like a real person.”  And her eyes shone as she spoke.

This is the way it works when we follow the path of Jesus.  To be sure, it will require that we walk a different road, an often harder road.  But there will be a light and joy that we can only find by walking that path.  And that is what Jesus wants Peter, what he wants all his disciples, to know.   

[1] Brian Blount, Presbyterian Outlook, Sept. 14, 2015, 20.

[2] Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 194.

[3] From a sermon by Rev. Kerry Pidcock-Lester, “The Itinerary of Love.”

[4] Quoted by C. Douglas Weaver, A Cloud of Witnesses (Macon, Ga: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc. 1993), 157.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 191.