Sunday Worship 30th August
Opening words: Matthew 16:24-25
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Lord, the disciples gathered around you,
trying so hard to answer your questions,
and to cope with difficult news.
We come before you now and ask your blessing,
as we seek to understand more of your story –
your tough and challenging,
but so good story!
Thank you, Lord, that you do not call us to anything without also giving us the resources to cope. You do not ask us to go anywhere you haven’t been. You call us to take up our cross, and we come to you with fear and trembling, but knowing that ultimately your way is the best. Be with us, Lord, and help us to understand.
God calls us to worship in spirit and in truth, with both deep sadness and indescribable hope, as we reflect on all that Jesus went through for us, and praise God who goes beyond all expectations. Amen.
Jeremiah 15.15-21 Psalm 26.1-8 Romans 12.9-21 Matthew 16.21-28
Comments on Bible Readings:
This passage from Matthew is the second half of the narrative in Caesarea Philippi that we looked at last week, here Jesus is unpacking what the titles Messiah and Son of God will mean: He will undergo great suffering and rejection. He will die and then be raised on the third day. Sometimes we read this and move on, but this is extraordinary, Jesus knows He will die and be raised. Such certainty of what will happen to Him. It is a statement of truth spoken by the Son of God. Peter’s response is understandable, but it echoes the temptation narrative, when the devil offers Jesus great power if he abandons Gods way. Peter and no doubt the other disciples try to find ways to keep Jesus safe and with them forever. In a few verses, Peter has gone from getting something spectacularly right to getting something spectacularly wrong! But it is a human emotion, we don’t want to lose those we love.
Peter, like most Jews was looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, he probably had a picture of a new king David – someone to slay Goliath at the very least, and probably drive out the Romans as Judas Maccabaeus had overcome the Greeks. In last week’s reading, Jesus told his disciples not to say who he was, because they would get the wrong idea. Now, Jesus begins to reveal his true nature, His mission, His future. Peter is scandalised. (The Pharisees were scandalised in Matthew 15.12.) So Peter, like the Pharisees, is not only a scandal, a stumbling block to Jesus, he is unable to appreciate what Jesus is saying. How can one man go from Son of God to this in a few minutes, the one who would lead the church was telling Jesus this was not and could not be the way forward. It is all so understandable from Peter’s side, He did not want Jesus to die, but Jesus kept His eyes firmly on the reason for His mission, to seek and save those who were lost and that could only ever be achieved by His death on the cross and His resurrection three days later.
The ‘Son of Man’ has not come to build a more powerful tyrannical empire like that of Babylon or Rome. Jesus has to spell out what his coming does mean. ‘Taking up a cross’ means literally accepting the most degrading punishment that the empire had to wield. To Matthew’s audience, this is a literal threat, not a figurative one as we so often treat it today.
After Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, the devil departed ‘until an opportune time’. And this moment, just after Peter’s confession, might be that time – the point at which the devil feels that Jesus, in a moment of weakness, might succumb to the temptation to have the kingdoms of the earth. Against this Jesus says, ‘What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?’ It is very much addressed to the Church under persecution, as Jesus knew the early church would be greatly persecuted. Today in regimes like China, Russia, and North Korea to name but a few, Christians are persecuted for their faith, they are imprisoned and tortured, yet the church in these places is stronger than in the UK in particular.
The phrase ‘will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ sounds apocalyptic. But, reading to the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 28), it is perfectly clear that seeing the risen and ascended Christ is quite consistent with this saying. It is also consistent with John 1.14, ‘we have seen his glory’; and the transfiguration, the very next event in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 17), is surely a foretaste experienced by Peter. If Peter is unsure, surely after the transfiguration he will not be. Seeing Jesus changed before his eyes and being glorified by Elijah, Moses and God, Peter now realises that he can do nothing to stop Jesus from fulfilling His ministry, he just has to follow and take all he can while Jesus is with them.
All our readings today point to the righteous being persecuted and not seeing the enemies being defeated. But at the end of each of the passages we see that God assures the psalmist and Jeremiah that God is in charge and He will restore all at the end of time. Jeremiah, in the Old Testament reading, preached against Israel and suffered the consequences. The promise to Jeremiah about the prophet’s enemies not prevailing has echoes of the promise to Peter: ‘the gates of Hades will not prevail’ (Matthew 16.18). God is ultimately trustworthy. Jeremiah’s unwelcome yet genuine message from God did survive and he was vindicated.
If Jesus himself will have to suffer, then He tells His followers that they too must be prepared for suffering. Jesus highlights the downside of owning his story: there is sacrifice involved. Anyone who wants to step into this story must be prepared to deny themselves and carry their cross – meaning, prepared to give up their life. But, again, there is a promise of liberation: anyone prepared to give up their life for the kingdom of God will find the life they were always looking for.
Let’s be honest, the invitation to take up our cross does not sound great. As marketing goes, it is lacking in appeal. As a recruitment drive it fails to reach the parts that more glamorous ‘management opportunities’ target. As a lifetime ambition, it offers little in the way of success. What’s more, we know where the story line is going.
There are twin themes that link the passages this week and lead back to the story of the burning bush (Exodus 3) a personal vocation and sacrificial leadership. Jeremiah is called to offer a devastating critique of the cultural norms in his time– and also to the painful realisation that he is complicit. His vocation is hugely painful. The passage from Romans challenges us to join this costly community. Peter is called to see the true nature of the leadership of Jesus and the cost of it. There is a clue to a very real response to the cost of hearing a call from God in the story of the burning bush, where God speaks miraculously out of a fire that is not consumed, and calls Moses to speak out for the freedom of God’s people. Moses does not actually say ‘yes’, rather he gives five excuses: who am I? Who are you? They won’t believe me. I am not a good speaker. Here am I Lord…please send someone else! We all want someone else to step up when Jesus calls us. But God did not give up and Moses did work for Him as did Jeremiah once again reluctantly.
The passage from Jeremiah is not comfortable reading. Jeremiah has a moment where he questions the entire basis of his vocation: You asked me to speak to the people. I spoke. Look where it has got me. Can I believe you or not? His message, seen as gloomy by many, was resulting in pain, loneliness and threats (Jeremiah 15.17-18). He begins to realise that his words to the people needed to be ‘precious’ – not words that would entertain or grab attention or even ‘meet the people where they are’, but instead words that call them out and into new life. How will we speak out if we are too bothered about the reaction we will get? Moses, even confronted with a burning bush, still doubts the message and the calling. Do we dilute the message to make it more appealing to others? What if we told people the Christian way of life was to ‘take up your cross and follow Jesus?’ Would we get less or more people inside the church, less or more people becoming Christians if we told the stark truth? We have to become like Jesus if we are to follow Him.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: ‘If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer and he is afraid his home will get bombed, or he is afraid that he will get shot…he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. Man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’
Jesus says, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’. Following the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God will you follow Him, and take up your cross. Romans 12:9-12 tells us how to live- read those words again (below) and try and live this week by those words.
Love in Action
9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[b] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[c]
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.