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Following Jesus

Matthew 16:21-28
Andrew Scales
September 3, 2017

In the midst of a tumultuous week, hearing of storms and of stress in our country, an image from the ancient Church has been returning to my mind while preparing this sermon. It’s the depiction of the Church as a boat, filled with people and animals, as crowded as Noah’s Ark, tossed by waves and winds. And in the middle of that boat stands a mast with no sail. No, it’s not a mast as much as it is a cross. Biblical scholar Eugene Boring describes how early Christians represented themselves on murals as sailing through storm-tossed waters, facing the trials of life huddled together in the boat, that is, the Church. The cross is the sign of their trials, and it is at the same time the sign of their hope in God’s power to save.[1]

That image helps explain why we sometimes call our sanctuaries the nave, it’s from the Latin and Greek words for ship. And if you take a look around you from side to side for a second, here we are, seated in our pews, oriented not unlike rowers stationed at oars in a boat, voyaging with Jesus through the storms and the calm seasons of this life. But no matter where the Christians go, however rough the seas or wild the winds become, we go with the cross—with Jesus crucified and raised—at the center of our life together. We belong together, helping one another, encouraging each other, and discovering that in our love for God and one another, Jesus is alive in our midst.

The Christian life is not a promise that we will avoid struggles or trials. Instead, we trust that, wherever Jesus goes, he brings God’s powerful and transforming love. He can take something even so horrible and hopeless as the cross, and out of it usher in God’s promises of Good News: life and wholeness for all people. Taking up the cross as a disciple of Jesus means not running from the ugliness of the world, but facing it in hope that God is at work in ways we may not be able to discern. As Jesus says, when we lose ourselves in following him, we find that we and the world have been loved and redeemed by the living God.

In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that his ministry will end in Jerusalem at the cross. Peter must have wondered if Jesus was telling a cruel joke: Jesus had preached a message of hope in God’s Kingdom. The Romans crucified people in order to put an end to their lives and the things they stood for. There was no message of hope in the cross and its brutal finality.

When Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him, he’s afraid and angry. Afraid because he knew what the cross meant: it mean the end of Jesus’ life, of the Kingdom he had talked about so much, of the hope people placed in him. Peter loved Jesus. He had followed him since that day in Galilee when Jesus called him and his brother Andrew to leave their nets and fish for people instead. Peter had listened to Jesus tell Kingdom stories about tiny mustard seeds growing into mighty shrubs, and God’s concern for the sparrows.

He had seen Jesus heal people; and calm mighty storms; and out-argue every scribe, Pharisee, and priest between Jerusalem and Caesarea Philippi. The cross—if that was the end of Jesus’ ministry- it meant the loss, the death, of all that Jesus said, and did, and stood for.

But Jesus tells Peter that he’s misunderstood what he’s talking about. Because when Jesus goes to Jerusalem and carries that cross to Calvary, he does so to demonstrate the steadfast love God has for the world. Jesus will not turn away from the violence and injustice we inflict upon one another; he will take it up and carry it as a fellow human being, and as the living God.

The theologian Karl Barth once described Jesus in his commentary on Romans as the “crisis” of this world and of human history.[2] It is a crisis because Jesus in his death and resurrection reveals truth about ourselves and about God. In the death of Jesus, we see the cruelty we inflict on one another.

We understand, in the cross, how ugly we are to one another, how we mistreat and extinguish life in one another.

We see, in the cross, the steadfast love of God revealed in Jesus. When we think of the cross and see Jesus there, we see it is God’s great “No!” to to our indifference to the suffering of others, “no” to our cycles of violence and oppression, “no” to death being the end of our stories.

But the cross is even more so God’s great “Yes!” more even than it is God’s “No”: “yes” to God’s faithfulness with us and for us in Jesus Christ, “yes” to transforming humanity through self-giving love, “yes” to the life of the world. Jesus, the person God promised would heal and redeem this world, enters fully into human suffering.

In rising from the dead, Jesus gathers us into life with God and the Kingdom he promised.

This Jesus, who was crucified by human beings and raised by God, speaks to us today just as he did to Peter and the disciples. He speaks to me, and to each one of you and says, “Take up your cross and follow me. Lose your life for my sake, and you will find it.”

When I was a pastor in Davidson, North Carolina, I led a trip to El Salvador with two fellow campus chaplains and ten college students. We went there because we had heard that, during their terrible civil war years ago, many Christians had been faithful followers of Jesus. We wanted to learn from them what it meant to be a disciple. One of the people we visited was Sister Peggy O’Neill, an American nun who ran a school for young children in a tiny town called Suchitoto. The village of Suchitoto is a beautiful place, its name in Nahuatl means “land of birds and flowers.”

But a generation ago, it was the site of some of the most violent fighting and bombing of the war. Sister Peggy had lived there in El Salvador during the worst of it, and now she ran this elementary school where children could learn about peace through artistic expression.

So we sat in a classroom filled with children’s bright paintings, with the sounds of kids playing soccer outside, and we listened to Sister Peggy’s stories of how ordinary Salvadorans followed Jesus in those frightening times. She told us about a time when she was looking out from her window into the street, and there was no food in Suchitoto, but she saw a little boy with a banana walk past an old man who was hungry, sitting on the curb in the street. The boy walks out of sight, and then, after a minute, the boy came back, peeled the banana, gave the man the fruit, and walked away eating the peel.

There was another time when soldiers stopped a bus Sister Peggy was riding, and they accused everyone of being Communist sympathizers. The war had become so out of control that these soldiers looked and saw the enemy everywhere, even in the faces of innocent farmers, villagers, nuns, and priests. Sister Peggy and two other women fled out the back door of the bus and ran into the corn fields in the dark of the night. One woman was pregnant, but she took out three tortillas—the last food in the bag she was carrying—to share with them. Sister Peggy said to her, “You’re pregnant. You need to eat to keep up your strength.” But the woman said to her, “Tonight we share the tortillas; tomorrow we share our hunger.” She talked about people who had died in the faith—refusing to give up their friends to interrogators—about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated during Mass the day after he told soldiers to disobey unjust orders.

At one point, a student asked, “How come the people kept the faith at a time when so many were dying because of it?” Sister Peggy said, “In El Salvador, when someone you love dies, you take up their struggle, their lucha. You stand for the things they stood for. You keep their memory by carrying on their work, you say ‘this person did not die in vain.’” And then Sister Peggy paused and looked around the room at each of us before she asked, “What do you think the disciples meant when they said, ‘Jesus did not die in vain’?”

My friends, Jesus, who died on a cross, is alive, and he calls us to be his disciples today, to carry on his struggle, his lucha. And God knows the world needs people who will not shy away from the crosses that still stand in our world. When we hear of DACA students, of parents, of children who are facing deportation in our country, of policies that would tear families apart, we cannot simply say, “Oh, no, that does not concern me; that’s not something I can get involved in.” Because we believe that Jesus, who died for us, says, “I am also here. I am with these neighbors. I love them as much as I love you. Follow me.”

When we see in the news people of faith and goodwill standing up arm-in-arm in nonviolence to white supremacy, and racist violence, and armed militias, we hear the voice of Jesus say, “I am here, alive in this place. Come and follow me.”

This week on the news, we’ve seen the waters rise and the rains fall in Houston and on the Gulf Coast, we know that Hurricane Harvey has brought terrible suffering to ordinary people. Many have lost homes and possessions their recovery will be long and arduous, and what comes to mind for me is that image with which we began, of the Church as a ship on storm-tossed waters. When trials come, we do not desert one another, we gather around Jesus, around the cross, as the symbol of the power of God’s self-giving love.

We trust that Jesus is there in Texas and the Gulf Coast, with immigrants and refugees, with protesters against white supremacy, both in the presence of his Holy Spirit, and through the hands and feet of those who help people evacuate, and commit to rebuilding, and calling out for justice in our time. When we give, as you can do, even on our website, to organizations like Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, we give because we have been loved by God; the best response we can offer to God for Christ’s grace is to love others in return. Because of Christ, we belong to each other, just as each one of us belongs to God.

We will face these trials, these times, these storms together, because we trust that Jesus is alive, his Kingdom will surely come. He calls us today: “Follow me.” Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

[1] Eugene Boring, The New Testament Library: Mark, A Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 145.

[2] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed., trans. by Edwyn C. Hoskins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) 91, 97.

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