Often times when we hear the Gospel reading, we sometimes hear something that comes from the middle of a story or conversation. That is a bit like what is happening today. The first thing we hear is “then he began to teach them…” and so we might ask “what was Jesus doing before this?” So, I want to give you a bit of background to tuck away as we talk about today’s Gospel. Our reading today comes on the heels of Jesus asking his disciples “Who do people say that I am?” And the disciples offer all kinds of responses only for Jesus to then ask them “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds with “You are the Messiah.” That’s where we pick up our reading for today.
When we confess that Jesus is the Messiah what does that mean? So often we use these “church” words like Messiah and then when we’re pushed to define further what we mean or what we’re talking about we struggle. It’s like when people say “describe the color blue” and we say “well, you know, it’s the color of the sky….it’s blue…” and we take for granted that everyone knows what we’re talking about. So when we confess that Jesus is Lord or that Jesus is Messiah we can’t assume that everyone knows what we are talking about. We can’t assume that we know what we’re talking about.
I have said before that I believe that core to our faith is the command to leave this place and be Christ’s hands and feet to the world. It is our calling as Christians to spread the Gospel, to spread the good news. But the problem often comes in that we sometimes don’t have the language to do that. So if you were to approach someone and tell them “Jesus is the Messiah” and they were to respond with “that’s great—what does it mean?” Would you have any idea what to say? And I’m not pointing fingers just at you, friends, because I struggle with this myself. I use a lot of “churchy” words that don’t get translated very well to people who aren’t familiar with church (and honestly, sometimes they don’t get translated very well to people who are familiar with church).
When we think about what it means to say that “Jesus is the Messiah” or that “Jesus is Lord”, even that “Jesus is King,” the connotation is that this is a position of power. Jesus is ruler, head of all, all knowing, all seeing, in all places at all times. We even sing about it. There’s a hymn that proclaims “Jesus shall reign wherever the sun does its successive journeys run; his kingdom stretch from shore to shore, till moons shall wax and wane no more.” That about covers it, right? Jesus is Lord means that Jesus will have dominion over all the earth. What is wrong shall be made right. What is unjust will be made just. The poor will have riches, the hungry will be fed, the naked will be clothed, the sick will be healed…it all sounds really really good.
And then all of the sudden it’s like Jesus becomes his own infomercial where they say “but wait…there’s more.” Except Jesus says “But wait….there’s a catch.” And Jesus proceeds to tell them how he, the son of Man, must undergo “great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” That doesn’t sound majestic or regal at all. That sounds terrible and nothing like what someone who has been called “the Messiah” should have to endure. Maybe, just maybe Christ’s job, Christ’s task is to challenge all of those around him, the disciples and us alike, to rethink how we know the world. Christ challenges us to examine what we claim to be “normal” or the “status quo” because Christ is anything but normal or the status quo.
Christ then challenges his disciples by saying “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Now, I don’t know how you hear this, but the way I hear it, Jesus is really horrible at invitations. This invitation to follow Christ is not appealing at all! And as if this invitation couldn’t get any more awkward, Jesus then says “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Where do I sign up, Jesus? This kind of life sounds fantastic!! Where can I sign up to deny myself and lose my life?
I think the challenge for us today is to examine what it would mean to deny ourselves and to lose our life for Christ’s sake. We can sometimes hear “take up your cross” in a few ways that are not helpful for our conversation. I’ve heard it used when talking about/to abuse victims when they have been told that enduring the abuse was their cross to bear. I’ve also heard it used in blase ways like “I have to go to work today. I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” No. No it’s not. Neither one of these things are helpful in thinking about what Christ did for us. Being abused is never anyone’s cross to bear.
To deny ourselves doesn’t mean that we lose our identity, it doesn’t mean that we become a doormat for others to step on and take advantage of. I think to deny ourselves means that we are willing to admit that we are helpless without Christ. To deny ourselves means coming face to face with our shortcomings and sins. To give up our life in order that it may be saved means that we trust we cannot go through life alone. It means that we understand, know, and claim that Christ is Lord and that we are most definitely not. To give up our lives means that when we wake every morning, we thank God that we are given breath to fill our lungs, that we thank God for a roof over our heads, enough food for the day, and clean water to drink. And to give up our lives means that we advocate on behalf of those who live without such daily essentials. To give up our lives means that instead of pointing to ourselves as the ones who make things happen, we point to the one who actually does make things happen. When you allow yourself to die in order that you may have life, it’s not about literally dying, it’s about your character. It’s about letting the sinful, selfish you die so that a grateful, forgiven you may rise. And this happens every single day.
This life is difficult, friends. We may think that being a disciple is easy but it’s anything but that. We hear today what is required of us and it’s almost enough to turn away and say “this Christian life thing, this Christian living thing–it just isn’t for me.” Almost. We know that the risk is worth the reward. And when we fail or when we need support, when we need help, we are able to lean on one another, the body of Christ, and more importantly on Christ himself. Christ, who provides everything we need when we need it, will provide when our battles get to be intense and when we are unsure if we are fit or strong enough to continue giving up our lives. Christ is the one taking up the cross. Christ is the one giving up his life and dying so that we may have life. And Christ will be the one who rises three days later proclaiming that death is never the final word.
To proclaim Christ is the Messiah may mean regality but we are shown that it certainly doesn’t come to mean that. Because a king, a messiah would have never been crucified. A messiah certainly would have never stooped so low as to give up his own life for his friends and followers. But our messiah did. It’s not the kind of Christ we think we want. But, it certainly is the kind of Christ we need.