Matt. 16:21-28 Readings:
Ex. 3:1-15 – Moses meets God at the burning bush.
Rom. 12:9-21 – Christian characteristics.
Matt. 16:21-28 – Jesus begins to speak of the end, and tells his disciples they must take up their crosses in order to follow him:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.  And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”  But he turned and said to Peter, “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.”  Then Jesus told his disciples, “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?  “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.  Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Christian paradoxes – losing your life gives you life
It was while we were in a calm, relaxed, happy period in our lives, when everything was flowing really smoothly, that one member of our family was hit by serious illness. Instantly everything changed. The relaxed family happiness was replaced by intense anxiety and sleepless nights, and it felt like nothing would ever be the same again.
Our priorities instantly changed. Suddenly there was only one thing that mattered, that sick person in our family. Everything else, from financial considerations to relationships and everything inbetween, became utterly unimportant. The whole of our lives, our thoughts, our emotions, our prayers, were concentrated on that one person. And so it remained until he was out of danger and rapidly returning to health.
Strange how often trouble comes out of the blue. One moment life is swimming along very nicely and everyone is feeling warm and content, the next moment life is in pieces. And those coping with it are very often reduced to jelly-like wrecks.
Of course, it isn’t only serious illness that causes the terror in the pit of the stomach. All life-changing events seem to come out of the blue, such as redundancy just before Christmas, or the sudden bewildering breakdown of a marriage, or the abrupt revelation that the children are on drugs, or whatever.
Life for Peter must have been very good on that occasion at Ceasarea Philippi when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter instantly responded with, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus told Peter that response could only have been revealed to him by God himself. What a spiritual high that would produce within Peter.
Yet with bewildering speed, Peter is reduced to jelly. When Jesus tells his disciples that his life will end very soon in misery and in agony, Peter naturally remonstrates with Jesus. Just as we so often refuse to allow people to voice any negativity, bracing them up with all sorts of cheery and encouraging suggestions, so Peter refused to acknowledge Jesus’ negative point of view, and urges Jesus to be positive. “Never, Lord!” he says, “this shall never happen to you! Come on, don’t talk like that. You don’t know what’s going to happen in future, why think of such a depressing scenario? It may never happen. Think positive.”
But Jesus drops on him like a ton of bricks. The man he has just praised for being the only one to recognise his divinity, he now calls a devil, Satan. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says. “You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
And poor Peter is probably knocked backwards by the force of Jesus’ anger and the unexpected onslaught. What has Peter done to deserve such a humiliating response? Why is Jesus so unkind to him that his unkindness borders on cruelty?
Jesus never spares people’s feelings. He never pretended for the sake of being “nice”. Jesus was always totally himself, with no pretence or facade. His love was a very tough love. It wasn’t sentimental or even particularly polite, but single-minded, unflinching, selfless. And it was a love which rushed headlong to the gallows.
No wonder the Church authorities of the day hated him. He was far too honest for them. He challenged their authority, their spirituality, their learning, their whole way of life.
But he couldn’t stop himself. He was so much in tune with the God within, that nothing else mattered. He had to follow his own integrity. He had to do what he thought was right, no matter what the consequences. No matter that other people might get hurt along the way. No matter that he was certain to die a terrible, agonising, shameful death. No matter that it was such a needless waste of life. No matter that it spelt the end of his mission, of all he had worked for, of all his dreams.
Despite all that, Jesus walked forward into that darkness, that pain, that despair, and there he found himself deserted even by God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried from the cross. There he was, at the very worst point of his life, utterly alone.
But because he saw it through to the end, because he followed his own integrity wherever it led him, even when it led to the cross, he discovered a glorious and unexpected resurrection.
And he said that we must do the same. We must take up our crosses, whatever they might be, and follow him.
Those crosses, that crucifixion, almost always arises out of the blue. One moment life is sunny and happy and swinging along beautifully, the next moment the clouds have gathered and are hugely dark and threatening, and it often seems like God himself is absent. But these moments of crucifixion are also an opportunity to grow, to hold fast to our own integrity and to hold fast to God. And the result of crucifixion faced with courage and integrity, is a glorious resurrection more fantastic than anything we could have imagined.
To experience that resurrection we must get in touch with the God within, the Holy Spirit. We must take risks in our lives, no matter what the consequences. We must take the risk of following our own instincts, hoping, trusting, but probably never knowing whether or not we’ve got it right, whether or not we are actually doing what God wants us to do. We must take the risk of sometimes failing, of sometimes getting it wrong. We must take the risk of being ourselves, of saying what we really think and feel, of being really honest, no matter what the consequences.
And when that leads straight to the gallows, as it inevitably will in some way, when out of the blue things in our lives are black and painful and we are in despair and God has vanished, and we’re utterly alone, when we’re experiencing crucifixion, we must still follow our own integrity. And if we do, we too will discover a glorious and unexpected resurrection. However bad life is for us at any particular moment, if we see it through, God will redeem it for us. He will bring good out of it, over and above anything we could ever expect.
For Jesus is the way. The way that leads to pain and suffering and crucifixion, but also to resurrection and new, vibrant life. The way that leads to God. For although darkness descends out of the blue, God is in the darkness, and so the end result of that darkness is resurrection – if we allow it to be so.
God of the whole of life,
It’s difficult to be grateful for bad times. Mostly I want to rage and rail against them. But I’ve discovered you’re with me in the bad times, even though I often can’t feel your presence at the time.
God of the whole of life, enable me to offer the bad times to you, so that you can redeem them for me and bring good out of evil. Help me to maintain my own integrity and to hold onto you, so that you can use those dark times to help me grow. May I remember that life is a pattern of highs and lows, and that you use the whole of life for my benefit.
Through the one who suffered it all with integrity and love, Jesus Christ our Lord.