Preached at St. Columba’s Anglican Church, Waterloo, Ontario, The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost.
Readings: Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6,23-26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16: 21-28
Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24)
Pity the person who gets told by God to do something. Often in the Bible, when God gets ahold of someone and says “do this”, they don’t want to and maybe that’s because God’s plans often don’t sound like a lot of fun. Take Moses in our first reading. God says “I’ve got this great plan to get you and your people out of slavery in Egypt and settle you in this amazing place.” Moses says “Who, me?” and then “What if it doesn’t work?” In our gospel reading, Jesus tells Peter and his disciples about his plan to go to Jerusalem, and they don’t like it very much. Jesus says to Peter and company, and this is my rather loose translation, “I have to go to Jerusalem to die so that I can rise again, and you know what? That’s kind of like what you have to do to be my followers. “ Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples react to this, but they’re probably confused and alarmed. I suspect we are too, every time we hear this passage about taking up crosses, and denying ourselves, and dying so that we can live. It doesn’t sound like a good deal. It doesn’t seem like a great invitation to come and try the Christian faith. But today I want to suggest that these words are crucial to our life and our mission as God’s church.
First, let me tell you a small story about church advertising and biblical slogans.
Before the Canadian Forces sent me to Waterloo to go back to school, my last job was at an army base out west, where I ran the small base chapel. The chapel had a very old and outdated sign, and one day Base Engineering told me they were replacing it, and what did I want on the new sign?
My first thought was that I would like the sign to include a scripture verse, something welcoming and inspiring. I wanted something that would reach out to the many soldiers and families who normally avoided the chapel like the plague. I wanted something that would speak to soldiers who came to the base for training, fired and far from the homes and families.
What verse do you think I chose? I’ll give you a hint. It was from Matthew’s gospel, but it wasn’t anything from today’s reading. Today’s ideas of self-denial and taking up a cross to follow Jesus might mean something to believers who have a wider context of the Christian faith to put them in. Perhaps they might mean something. I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the idea of attracting the stranger with a church sign that said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? I don’t think so.
The verse I did chose was from Jesus words at the end Matthew 11:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)
Anglicans of a certain vintage will remember that this verse forms part of the so-called Comfortable Words, found in the old Prayer Book service of Holy Communion. These verses focus on the love and forgiveness of God and on the spiritual refreshment that we will find in the eucharist.
That verse seemed like an excellent invitation to come to chapel, so we went with it and in due course it appeared, in both official languages (this being the CF, after all) on the new sign. I don’t know if the sign made the difference, but every now and then, as the chapel was usually unlocked, I would find a soldier quietly sitting in a pew, lost in thought or prayer. These occasional visitors seemed to associate the chapel with a place of comfort and spiritual rest from their troubles, and I’m glad they did.
But here’s the paradox. Church should be a place of shelter and comfort and rest, but it has to be more than that. t should also be a place where we are made to feel uncomfortable. Not physically uncomfortable, but challenged, pushed out of our comfort sone and complacency. If we think of our faith as the solution to our troubles, as the refuge we seek when the world is too much to bear, then how do we accept the Jesus who seems to want to add to our troubles? How do we respond to the call of a Saviour who says “deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me” and how do we square that call with the same Saviour who we want to see as the solution to our problems?
Peter also seems to have that problem in our gospel reading. Why does he get so upset when Jesus says that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed? No no! he says. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you”. Peter sees that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour sent by God, but he doesn’t understand how Jesus can do any good as Saviour if he gets himself killed. Peter is probably still thinking of the Saviour as a conqueror who can free God’s people from Rome, just as Moses saved them from Egypt. He hears Jesus’ prediction, and I think it sounds to him like a prediction of defeat.
But here’s what Peter misses. Jesus not only predicts his death, but he also predicts his resurrection. Jesus says 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.” Now we are still relatively early in Matthew when Jesus says this, and the disciples really don’t get it until after the resurrection, but we, the church, we who understand Easter, we should get it.
What we as the church should understand is that Jesus has already gone to the worst place possible, to suffering and death, and come out the other side, and he did it for us. We may not understand how the cross and the empty tomb happened, exactly, but we know that through his death and resurrection Jesus has shown us that God responds to our suffering. So we know the end of the story, and it’s a happy ending. But that still leaves us to make sense of the “take up your cross and follow me” bit. How do we do that?
One thing I read on this subject that was helpful was the suggestion that Jesus is speaking to us as the church rather than as individuals. Think about who Jesus is speaking to … Peter. In last Sunday’s gospel, from Matthew 16, Jesus called Peter “the rock … on which I will build my church” (Mt 16:18), and he promises that the church will endure every assault: “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”. It’s not that the church will not be tested. Jesus never promises that church will escape hardship, but he does promise that the church will not be defeated, because the church is anchored in God’s promise and power, which we see in the resurrection.
So if Jesus is speaking to Peter as the church, which means that Jesus is speaking to us, he does have some things to say about the church’s role in the world. I want to suggest that Jesus challenges the church to take risks, to go beyond itself, to act for others rather than its own interests. It’s a challenge, but it’s also a promise, because Jesus says that in self-sacrificial giving, the church will find life. Let me give you two quick examples of what I mean.
First, if you read the latest Anglican Journal, you read about the hospital in Gaza that is supported by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem. This hospital has been providing medical care and shelter to the people of Gaza since the latest war with Israel began. I don’t think the staff there care if their patients are Anglican, or Christian, or Muslim. The hospital has been working through the bombs and explosions, it’s been damaged, and now it needs help. Working there isn’t a job got anyone. You’d need medical skills, and language skills, and extraordinary courage and compassion, to work there. But supporting the hospital, through the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, is something that every one of us can do as parishioners, as Anglicans, and as followers of Jesus. What would it be like if we worried about helping these sorts of partners in our communion as much as we worried about our own parish bills and projects?
My second example has to do with the recent stories in the local paper about churches in Kitchener and Waterloo that have regretfully stopped their long involvement with the Out of the Cold program. For various reasons, they are no longer able to contribute, but their announcements has sparked a new debate in KW about how our communities respond to needs around us. When I was in parish ministry in the Ilderton area, some of my people participated in a similar program in London. it was hard work, it took time and it took money, but I never saw anything else in my four years there do so much to give my parishioners purpose and meaning and a sense of being active followers of Jesus. Kay and I have only been with you for a year now, but our sense is that a similar spirit of caring and ministry is here at St. Columba’s, and as Julia said recently, this coming year may be a time when God shows us some new phase in our ministry.
So, we come back to taking up crosses and following Jesus. If we think of that call simply as personal hardship that we need to inflict on ourselves because, well, that’s what Christians do, we’re not supposed to have any fun, then it will be a terrible and unattractive idea. But, if we think of ourselves as the church, built on the rock of God’s promise to Peter, guaranteed its survival by the resurrection of Jesus through the limitless power of God the Father, then what burden do we have to fear? If we enter into the call today in the right spirit, we’ll find that the cross is an easy thing. We’ll trade the heavy burdens of our selfish cares for the cross and find rest and new life and purpose, and that’s a good message to put on any church sign.