In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, in last week’s episode of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we heard Peter proclaim – to his own delight no doubt – that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah of God. Least big-mouthed Peter get too big-headed, however, Jesus had to inform Peter that though this proclamation, this confession – that Jesus is the Christ – though this is to be the very foundation stone of the Church, Peter did not arrive at this confession by his own reason or strength. Which brings us to this week’s episode in which we hear Jesus tell the disciples what it will mean for Jesus to be that Christ, that Messiah: “It is imperative,” says Jesus, “that the Messiah undergo great suffering at the hand of the religious authorities, be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This, however, is most certainly NOT what Peter has in mind for the Messiah-ship of Jesus. Doubtless Peter was thinking more along the lines of how Messiah should come and rally the troops to overthrow both the current religious regime and the Roman occupation forces and then establish a new world order – a new order wherein Peter, the boys, and all the rest of the truly devoted would have prestige, power, and all those other things people are continually yearning for. “Peter,” says Jesus, “you’re thinking like a real human being. You’re a stumbling stone, a tool of the tempter, and a real blockhead. God has a different plan than you do.” How inconvenient of God . . . .
And then Jesus lays down the law. “Listen if you’re going to be my followers, you too must empty yourselves of all your dreams of getting even with the Romans and the religious authorities. Deny yourselves, pick up your cross and follow me. You must lose your very selves for the sake of me if you truly wish to have life.”
Well, if that’s the case, Peter is well-cooked. Of course, Peter doesn’t know that yet. He’s cock-sure he’s up to whatever Jesus wants of him. So later on when Jesus will tell Peter that in spite of all his bravado, rather than even thinking of denying himself, he, Peter, will end up denying Jesus – not once, not twice, but three times, Peter, highly-miffed macho-man will protest with vehemence: “God forbid, Lord! Heavens no.” Yes, Peter – dagger drawn in the garden – says he’s going to stand with Jesus through thick and thin. But before he even knows what he’s doing Peter on the night before Jesus is executed will lie through his teeth and state most emphatically that he has no clue who this Jesus of Nazareth is – why, he’s “never been seen with him, doesn’t even know what he looks like, has never had anything to do with . . . what did you say his name is?. . . hmm, I think we maybe once had a gardener by that name . . . . only he pronounced it differently, and he wasn’t from Nazareth – it was Mexico I think.” No, and Peter isn’t anywhere going to be named as one of those standing beneath the cross on Mt. Calvary. A mere slip-up? An inadvertent omission by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Oh, I think not. No, when the going gets tough Peter will get busy saving his own broad backside.
We cannot deny ourselves, pick up the cross and follow. We cannot lose our lives for Christ’s sake, though in some moments of pious fantasy, now and again, we imagine we might.
Peter is – as many of you know – a stand-in of sorts for all of us so-called faithful – down throughout the ages. Oh sure, we’ve heard stories about some of the faithful who were martyrs – but they weren’t all that plentiful and heaven only knows how many of those legendary figures were ginned up by church bureaucrats in order to get the little people to do what they themselves would never, ever dream of. No, this whole business of taking up the cross and following Jesus to Calvary – it’s beyond us. To be like Jesus and passively let the enemy take hold of us? to endure ridicule and shame and not lift a hand? to turn the other cheek though it mean sure and certain death? No – not our cup of tea, thank you very much. And not to retaliate? not to seek vengeance against the enemy? Why, our nation’s life and treasure have been devoted to the rightness of revenge and retaliation these past 13 years. (Plenty of denial there – but not exactly of the self.)
But let’s not dwell on such unpleasantness. Let’s celebrate the fact that we ARE willing to make sacrifices . . . now and again . . . as long as we don’t have to alter our lifestyles . . . too much. And as long as we have control over how our gifts and resources are used. Besides, Jesus didn’t mean any of this self-denying, cross-bearing stuff literally, right? What would happen if we all gave up all those things that make us what we are – our cars, homes, and prize possessions; our books (well, my books), our travels, and our successes; our good names, pet peeves, and grand projects; our 401k’s, our dreams, and our grudges; our sense of entitlement, our self-righteous outrage, and our hurt feelings; our need to be right, our need to be in control, and our need to complain; our citizenship, our self-esteem, and our wide-screen HD TVs; and our iPhones, iPads, iPods, iMacs and PCs . . . . Well, it’s like the poet, W.H. Auden says, “how squalid existence would be, / tethered for life to some hut village, / afraid of the local snake / or the local ford demon, / speaking the local patois / of some three hundred words”. Indeed, what would happen if we denied ourselves for just one day and gave up all our getting and having, those hallowed actions upon which capitalism and the so-called free market depend?
No. We cannot deny ourselves, pick up the cross and follow. We cannot lose our lives for Christ’s sake, though in some moments of pious fantasy, now and again, we imagine we might. A good work here and there; a few hours each week volunteering for this and that; devotion to some worthy cause so people will know how much we care; donating our ratty, out-of-season-out-of-style clothes to Goodwill, ARC or some other worthy group; belonging to the correct political party and voting and holding membership in the ACLU, HRC, SPLC, DNC, RNC, TIA, or even the NRA – all of these things we can do – as long as there’s not too much inconvenience and we can go home at night to some good wine, a good dinner, and a good bed. But that all falls far short of the cross now, doesn’t it?
Anyone uncomfortable . . . besides me? Oh, but wait, there’s more. “For the Son of Humanity is to come with the angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what she or he has done,” says Jesus. Sounds like an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and tit for tat after all now, doesn’t it? If so, then Peter’s cooked, along with popes, bishops, priests, pastors, deacons, Martin Luther, the Reformers, and all the rest of us sinners, big and petty and everything in between.
BUT what if . . . what if the cross is nothing if not the sign of humanity’s complete and utter incapacity to do anything truly God-pleasing? What if . . . the cross is all about the death of our every face-saving illusion about ourselves, what we do and what or whom we don’t do? What if . . . to take up the cross is finally, with Peter, the cock having thrice crowed, to submit to the reality of our lying, self-saving selves and our inability to escape our own precious needs? What if . . . to take up the cross has nothing to do with our human works but rather with embracing their ultimate futility? What if . . . to take up the cross is to be STOPPED! Stopped . . . finally . . . of trying with our every act to justify our selves . . . Stopped in our tracks in order that God may finally act, may finally repay us – repay our every sin with nothing but mercy and love?
What if – losing our lives for Christ’s sake means: coming to the feast with nothing to offer, robbed of our every sin by the One who was a far greater thief than any in his midst, stealing all our sins into his five, open, bloody wounds? And then through the working of the Holy Spirit to have placed in our empty hands and upon our waiting lips the very righteousness and blessedness of Christ – with nothing of our own to do but to receive it . . . an act done not of our own free-will or choosing but done merely because receiving food and drink is simply what thirsty . . . starving . . . beings . . . do.
In the Holy Name of Jesus.