For a moment Peter was on top of the world. After all of the time the disciples had to watch Jesus, to wonder what was going on in this man filled with grace, with power, in a way none of them had ever seen, Peter got it. As they moved into Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" He was getting the pulse of the crowd. "Hmmm…," they said, "John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets?" But Jesus was less concerned with everyone else. He leans in. But who do YOU say that I am? And he stood there for a moment, waiting….
And Peter is granted this glimpse of insight, and he gets it: You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And Jesus says, "Yes, Peter! Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!" Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock upon which he will build His church, and that Jesus will give to him and to the church great power to bear that hope to the world. For an instant, it all fell into place.
Until it didn’t. "From that time on," Matthew says, "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." The language at the beginning – "from that time on Jesus began" is the exact language Matthew uses in chapter 4, after Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. In chapter 4 Jesus began to proclaim the kingdom of God. Here in chapter 16 Jesus wants them to know this is going to be hard. Not hard like a really long week at work, not hard like not feeling well and getting caught in traffic, not hard like coworkers are frustrating or a friend is being petty, or any of the other silly things we tend to complain about. But that Jesus the Christ, the one who they had JUST really began to understand, who they had JUST named as Messiah and who had JUST commissioned them with power, was now saying that his essential mission was to die.
It is hard to step back and think about how shocking that would be, because we know the end of the story. We sing the pretty hymns of Advent, celebrate the baby’s birth. Soon enough Jesus is grown, baptized by John in the Jordan. Each year we move into Lent, we sing in a minor key as we walk with him into Jerusalem. Palms are waved, and then the conspiring begins that leads to his death. Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday School, you still have some sense of the outlines – that Jesus comes, that Jesus dies. But Peter wasn’t having any of it. Peter reacts like any of us react when we fear for someone we love, when a friend gets sick, when a child is hurt and we feel it in our guts, too: NO. God forbid it, Lord, Peter says. And I can’t say I blame him.
But Jesus looks poor Peter in the eye and crushes him, tells him to get behind him Satan, the tempter, the adversary. You, Peter, he says, are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things. Then Jesus turns out to them all: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." This is some of the more difficult stuff Jesus says, as far as I am concerned. Jesus is, I think, trying to get us to think as hard as we can about the difference between these ‘divine things’ as he names them, and ‘human things.’ That doesn’t mean that this entire world is bad – God creates it GOOD, in fact, but there are so many things, possessions, temptations that grab a hold of us and distract us from following as we must.
I wonder what some of those distractions are for you. Every year at this time, as the kids start school, Carrie and I can feel within us the temptation to see how our kids measure up, who is doing what, who is faster or smarter or being nice. We do slightly more subtle versions of this as adults, as we can’t help but compare to our neighbors – what they do, how they act, what they have that we don’t. Or what we have that they don’t. The world tells us, almost everywhere you look, that our job is to be the best, to work hard, be driven, knock others over if you have to. Don’t suffer, God forbid, Jesus, topple those Roman occupiers as conquering hero. Come with strength, with might. That’s how the world defines power, anyway, if you can beat someone else down. And the Middle East burns with anger and Ferguson riots and politicians posture. And people are hungry and marriages fall apart and someone we love gets cancer. And there is so much of the world that hurts, and our instinct is to rage – to push and fight, to bowl others down to get what we need. Because having enough – enough money enough connections enough stuff enough power- is the only way, we are convinced, to protect ourselves and those we love from the pain of the world. We hunker down, ready to fight.
But Jesus says that His followers are to engage the world – and its pain – differently. 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 – if they achieve everything, but forfeit their life? Is there, Jesus is asking, a different way entirely? One in which we open up our clenched fists, and understand that the way to live, the real and true way to live, is about listening more than speaking, about making space for others, particularly those whose voices we too seldom hear. That life is found in taking the hard road -not for yourself but for someone else. That life comes not when you get, not when you take, but when you give, when you open yourself up to someone else, or to whatever good or awful things may come, seeking the grace of God.
Steve Hayner is the President of Columbia Seminary in Atlanta, where I attended and where our own Sarah Wolf is a student now. Just after Easter Steve was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It got serious quickly, as they began a series of aggressive treatments at Emory. He was spending his days either receiving infusions or at home in bed, nauseous and exhausted. In mid-July the scans showed little progress and they decided to change the nature of their care. It seems, he wrote on an amazing Caringbridge page where he has reflected with such wisdom and tenderness, that "in all probability the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months." They gathered with their children and grandchildren, and talked and prayed and cried. In the weeks since, he met with Columbia’s board and they talked about a plan, and, with his blessing, approved an interim Presidential Search committee, knowing it won’t be long.
This past week, for the first time, his hair started falling out. Some of you have had this experience. First he was angry. Then, he wrote:
Every time that I find myself saying, "This is not the way that it’s supposed to be!" I have to respond by asking, "And why do I assume that it’s supposed to be this way?" Unmet or unfulfilled expectations can demand higher energy depletion than they are worth. The fact is, that our expectations are generally built on what is simply familiar to us or on our anticipations around our heart’s desires, and there are no guarantees in life that we can be assured about either. Circumstances change. Relationships change….
Times of both acute and chronic disease are times when lots of adjustments have to be made daily. We can either resist or we can surrender. The act of surrender doesn’t mean that we give up looking for the best, but rather that we let go of expending energy on trying to maintain that which is slipping or being ripped away. Instead, we "pray our good-byes" to what has been, we open our hearts to what is new, and we walk again toward the place of gratitude, attentiveness, and learning that…finally results in joy.
So, I’m losing my hair. It’s annoying. It’s messy. Maybe I’ll give myself the buzz cut of my childhood. But this time I’ll also remind myself that it’s just another broken expectation and that I have a choice about how I respond. Expectations only hurt us when they hold us captive. When we can let go, a whole world of possibilities can emerge.1
At the end of today’s text Jesus points the disciples to the kingdom, to God’s kin-dom of justice and peace. Live for THAT, he says. If it’s about here, only about us, sure, gather up all you can. But if the end goal is different, that reshapes our perspective in profound ways, as we discern carefully what we are to deny from ourselves, and what we are to grab a hold of for the world. That graces comes and, as we look and listen, a whole range of possibilities can emerge. More that we can possibly imagine.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. From Steve’s amazing Caringbridge site.