Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sermon for August 28th: Matthew 16:21-28

Steer into the Skid

Looking around the congregation this morning I see that there are more than a few of you here who are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, although of course, there was no big drive train tunnel down the middle of the car, which made for a little more room, especially in the back. But somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?

There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car – do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you had lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a faster way to regain control of your car.

Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told. Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things that we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.

This is a problem that Christians have to face all the time. So often, in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of the Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?

This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was indeed the right answer and told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.

Remember that in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem, and he would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.

So if Jesus is the Messiah, then what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up a few supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as the King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him the victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we will have peace and justice forever. That’s how God’s kingdom will come.

But Jesus, it seems, has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:

‘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 the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).

This is ‘steering into the skid’, to be sure! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter, who as always is quite confident that he’s in the right, needs to set him straight. “God forbid, Lord!” But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “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” (vv.22-23).

What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh? I think it was because it was not the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. Of course, this wasn’t just about praying to the devil. No – we become like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing. And it was such a temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected that this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?

It would be wrong, because the Kingdom Jesus came to announce is not founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you are faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. “Trust me, people”, he was saying; “Steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.

This is the challenging thing, of course, for us as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,

“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?” (vv.24-26).

Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a poor man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans, because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he had never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond, as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them not by resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.

It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus says, “This is the way to really find life”. You think you find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You don’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid, even though it feels totally wrong to do so, and to your surprise, things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we are baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we are signing up for. Let’s make no mistake about that. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3). It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all that he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.

We don’t tend to talk about this much in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I think we do people a great disservice by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown, over and over again, that churches that are not afraid to challenge their members, to call them to commitment, to ask things of them, tend to be the ones that grow, especially amongst younger people.

Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say something like this: “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it is going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. He’s looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.

I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. That’s how a vaccination works, you know! You inject a tiny bit of the disease into your body – not enough to harm you, but enough to alert your body’s immune system. That way when the real disease comes along, your body is ready to combat it.

Some people take church like that. Yes, let’s go to church on Sunday once or twice a month, that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church. That should be enough for God, surely! Total commitment? Oh no – we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!

Jesus tells us in this gospel reading that following him will cost everything and give everything. Here’s what Tom Wright says:

There are no half measures on this journey. It’s going to be like learning to swim: if you keep your foot on the bottom of the pool you’ll never work out how to do it. You have to lose your life to find it. What’s the use of keeping your foot on the bottom when the water gets too deep? You have the choice: swim or drown. Apparent safety, walking on the bottom, isn’t an option any longer.

So, brothers and sisters, Jesus’ call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”, Jesus says. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what they say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you will find your life.

You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out, “Stop, you idiot!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let us take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. We know that God vindicated him, and he assures us that we too will find it to be the way of life and blessing. So let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.

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