Sermon for 14 Pentecost, Year A
Based on Matt. 16:24-26
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
The cross…Symbol of one of the cruelest methods of ancient torture. Used by the Romans to execute and publicly disgrace foreigners, slaves, and the lowest of the low criminals. A symbol of dread, hatred, suffering, violence and defeat. Regarded by the world and all who despise Christ and Christianity as a stumbling block, as foolishness and even madness. Yet, for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus, the cross is our most important symbol. Even more than that, the cross is a way of life.
Today's gospel affirms this truth when Jesus tells all would-be disciples that: "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?"
These words of Jesus are among the most sober and hardest words in the New Testament. A lot of the time, I think Christians have just as much trouble with these words as do non-Christians. For who among us find it easy and are willing to deny him or her self, take up their cross and follow Jesus?
After all, in our world, there are more than enough people ready and willing to put us down and take advantage of us whenever they can, without putting ourselves down by self-denial. Today's world, especially the advertising of our mass-media, has brain-washed many people into believing that we should not deny ourselves anything. In a world like ours, where we are supposed to possess and accumulate everything; what does it mean for us Christians to deny ourselves? Is it only a matter of no sweats during Lent? Is it no snacks between meals? Is it only one hour of T.V. or computer on school nights? Or, does self denial involve something more, something larger than this?
According to the dictionary, to deny can mean: to declare false or invalid; to refuse or withhold; to disown or renounce. When we look at that meaning of deny in light of what Christ is saying here ~ we are really looking at something quite radical! He is telling us to disown, to renounce ourselves! He's saying that the way in which we live out our lives may very well be false or invalid, as we measure them by his standards. That's a pretty tall and threatening order, isn't it? Why should we disown or renounce ourselves? Why should we admit that, by Christ's standards, the ways in which we live out our lives might be false or invalid?
Well, according to Jesus, left to ourselves, we become so full of ourselves that, there is no space, no room in our lives for God or for others. Jesus tells us that the paradoxical truth of being his followers involves emptying ourselves to be filled; gaining life by losing life; losing life by gaining life.
According to M. Scott Peck, in his book, The Different Drum: "By this Jesus did not mean that each and every one of us is called to be victim to bodily murder as he was. He did mean, however, that death of the psychological self (among other things) is required for salvation. This same sacrifice of self is required for emptiness. Such sacrifice does not mean actual physical death. But it always means some kind of death ~ the death of an idea or an ideology, or a traditionally held cultural view, or even at the very least simply an entrenched pattern of "black or white" or "either/or" thinking."
"Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the classic On Death and Dying, in which she (spoke of)five successive stages people go through as they face their impending death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance."
"The most exciting thing about Kubler-Ross's work is not merely what it tells us about the psychological process accompanying physical death; it is that we go through exactly these same stages, in the same order, whenever we make any significant spiritual change or step in our psychological growth. In other words, all change is a kind of death, and all growth requires that we go through depression."
To deny ourselves then, according to Jesus, means to learn how to die in order to learn how to live as he would have us live, namely: a life of emptying ourselves, a life of generous giving, sharing and caring. A life of reaching out in love to others ~ especially the stranger, the poor and the needy.
According to F. Gay: "Look at the lives of most really successful people and you will find they learned to take hard knocks and overcome great obstacles to achieve what they did."
"In one of his books, Laurens Van der Post, the famous author, sailor and explorer, tells how a Japanese friend once taught him judo. He likened the principles of the art to those of life, for "as in life, you have first to learn how to fall before you can learn how to rise; first master the law of losing properly before you can be worthy of winning."
The same is true for all who deny self, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. It is so often the case that in our difficulties and sufferings, we grow in our faith. Not that we go looking for suffering willingly ~ but, when it comes, as it does to everyone sooner or later, we gain a richer, more meaningful life by losing life. But, you may ask: "Why do we have to go through suffering in order to gain a richer, more meaningful life?" The answer to that question is that because we are by nature sinful; because we are by nature self-centred and think that we are Number One over and above everything and everyone ~ including God; the only way God can reach us and teach us is through the school of suffering. For it is in our suffering that we become more fully human and more fully alive to God and others.
In our suffering, we are united with the whole human race. Because others are going through the school of suffering too, barriers soon disappear, we come to see them as brothers and sisters. We learn to be more accepting, more patient, more understanding, more loving, more able to care for one another. In this process, we are drawn closer to others and closer to God.
This connects us to those words of Jesus: "follow me." Lately, I've come to a deeper appreciation of those two words of Jesus. When someone tells us to: "Follow me," that means they are going someplace and want us to go with them. If we take those words to heart and obey them, we shall have a clearer sense of direction ~ of where we are going personally in our lives; also, of where we are going together as a congregation.
As Ernest T. Campbell once professed: "These words strike us initially as unwelcome and intrusive. They threaten to dislocate us. (They threaten to take us places where we may not want to go.) But ponder them longer and find that part of their appeal lies in the fact that they promise to connect us with one who is going someplace. (Someplace special and worthwhile!)"
"Jesus has a plan, a work to do, a purpose to achieve in history and beyond. (A purpose to achieve in your life and mine; a purpose in the history and future of this congregation! Jesus wants to include and involve all of us in on that too.) The word that is translated follow in most instances in the gospel is rooted in the Greek word for road. To follow is to share the same road (as Jesus and other Christians. We are all walking on the same road together ~ we are not alone.)"
"Moreover, anyone who says "Follow me" is obviously more interested in the future than in the past ~ and we need a loyalty to (a commitment to, a trust in) the future. With Jesus it's not where you've been that matters, but where you're going; not whether you have fallen (we all do!), but whether you will get up (and follow Jesus on the road ahead.)"
As many of us are fond of saying, "our paths shall cross." Today, Jesus is turning that around as it were and saying in the strongest of ways that: "our crosses are paths or, more accurately, roads." Just as some believe that: "all roads lead to Rome," or of late, Calgary! So Jesus is telling us that all crosses are a road and all roads lead to a cross. All roads, all crosses lead to the heart of God, where we share our solidarity with those in greatest need ~ the ever increasing homeless, the poor, the oppressed, the hungry and naked, those who are denied mercy or justice, all of these and a host of others are the very presence of Christ himself in our midst.
So, as individuals, and as a congregation, how willing, how ready are we to: deny self, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? My hope and prayer for all of us is that we do not interpret these words of Jesus as a tyrannical demand, an oppressive law, or a recipe for failure and death. No! Rather, my hope and prayer is that all of us would interpret these words of Jesus as a word of grace; a word of challenge and invitation to an adventurous road of life; a word of encouragement for us individually and as a congregation. Words, with the Holy Spirit's help, which we shall take to heart that they may bear fruit in our lives.
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