Sunday – August 31, 2014; Matthew 16:21-28
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 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. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
When Warren G. Harding ran for President in 1920 he called for a return to “Normalcy”, a call to bring the nation back to ‘normal’ after the trauma of the Great War and the epidemic of the Spanish Flu that followed closely behind it.
Today we are coming to the end of summer – a time that is often perceived as ‘easy going’, when life slows down a bit….
Often when the summer ends we can feel like we are returning to Normalcy ourselves…as school begins, vacation season is over for many of us, and we find ourselves getting busier as activities start up again, and we begin to prepare for the holidays and the long cold winter to come…
However, the truth is that returning to “Normalcy” may not always be possible…
This was also true when Warren G. Harding used this term as part of his campaign slogan…as how can we really return to “normal” after such dramatic changes as a world war and a devastating epidemic?
We could say the same thing today as we have gone through a summer of conflicts, as we have seen fighting in places like Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, and even on the streets of America.
There have also been plane crashes, natural disasters, and the growing epidemic of Ebola that is devastating West Africa…not to mention any personal challenges we may have faced in our lives: from financial to family issues.
The truth is that things can never return to ‘Normalcy’ because we are always being presented with a new normal…as our world and our lives are constantly in flux…and the road we travel is seldom easy…
And, it is in the face of this truth that we often seek out the easier, softer way in life.
A way that is not quite so hard for us…
The easier, softer way can tempt us away from doing the next right thing…which can often be a more difficult choice for us to follow.
For example, on a nice summer day would you rather be sitting on the beach with your toes in the sand or working in a soup kitchen next to a hot stove, preparing meals for the homeless and hungry?
We know what the right thing to do is, but that is not always the most attractive thing…
Quite often we can find ourselves faced with the temptation to take the easier softer way…some of these temptations are easy to avoid, while others are not…especially when they are be offered by a friend who means well…
Just as in today’s Gospel, when Peter tempts Jesus to say NO to God without even realizing the implication of what he is saying!
When Jesus tells Peter that he must undergo great suffering and then die only to be raised again, Peter tells Jesus:
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
This is a very natural reaction for a close friend to have…after all Peter and Jesus were as close as brothers and Peter did not want his friend to die…
Yet as understandable as Peter’s reaction may have been, Jesus still rebuked his friend strongly, saying: “Get behind me, Satan!”
However, I do not think Jesus was actually calling Peter ‘Satan’, but reacting to his own temptation…as when Peter told him “…this must never happen to you.” Jesus was reminded that he had a choice…that he could take the easier, softer way and just say NO to God!
In his movie The Last Temptation of Christ Martin Scorsese gives us a view of what such a temptation might have been like for Jesus.
In the film, we find Jesus already hanging on the cross, he is being taunted by the crowds and looking down on his mother and loved ones sobbing, which probably only increased his agony…
Then suddenly, everything stops/as time stands still; then coming through the frozen crowd Jesus sees a familiar looking man, a man with a friendly face.
He greets Jesus with compassion and warmth, showing genuine concern for him, asking: “How can a loving God allow you to suffer so…especially after all you have done for him?” Then he offered Jesus his hand and helped him down from the cross, saying: “Come, let me show you all you could gain by saying NO to this madness.”
Satan then proceeds to show Jesus what his life could be like if he chose the easier, softer way…
Yet he does not just show Jesus, he allows Jesus to experience this life first hand…
In this life, Jesus is not an important man, or a wealthy man, but a happy man!
In this vision Jesus is married and has a large family and he is surrounded by his friends, and lives a normal life filled with ups and downs…good and bad as he experiences joy and sorrow, the welcoming of new life and the grief of death, until he too dies as an old man in his bed.
Satan’s temptation is so powerful because Jesus knows that he is not being lied to…that this life would be his if he only said NO to God, choosing instead to take the easier, softer way.
Yet in the end, Jesus turns his back on Satan and his promises and he returns to the cross, and as he climbs back onto it time begins to move forward again and Jesus breathes his last, giving up his life in the faith that God will keep the promise to raise him on the third day, bringing us the new normal of a world filled with God’s salvation and grace.
Often we too may find ourselves tempted by the easier, softer way…rather than to heed the call to follow Jesus in his ministry and mission in the world…as Jesus did not always travel an easy path, but rather one that was fraught with sacrifice and pain…
This is why the Gospel calls upon us to take up our own cross and follow him…
As following Jesus is certainly not choosing to take the easier, softer way.
Following Christ means to follow his example of self-sacrifice, compassion and love…even love for those who we do not always get along with or agree with…even for those who do not always love us, and instead may seek to do us harm!
Following Christ can be difficult, but there is good news for us: that we do not travel this hard road alone…we follow Christ together, with other people of faith…even if we do not always agree on how to follow him, we are all called to support and care for each other as we make this journey, and to learn from each other’s differences.
We also travel with the Holy Spirit surrounding us…helping to strengthen our faith and guide us down a straight path on this stony road.
Now…before we go any further, we should also remember that the part about taking up our own cross (which was not really said by Jesus, but added many years after Jesus’ death and resurrection – as a way of giving support to Christians who were being oppressed by the Romans) really means that we are to follow Jesus’ example in life:
To live our lives as he did, not choosing the easier, softer way, but to live life with purpose by facing life on life’s terms…
This is not to say that Jesus’ life was all pain and struggle…so to truly follow him we are called to experience all of life…the good along with
For if we remember our Gospel stories/Jesus led a full life, and showed a real appreciation for friendship, love and celebration…after all he did his first miracle at a wedding…and would often gather with friends to enjoy meals and good times together. Joy was as much a part of Jesus’ life as was challenge and tribulation!
To follow Christ we are called to live our lives with integrity, courage, faith, and with joy…remembering that living in the light of God’s grace LIFE IS GOOD!
And that God loves us just as we are, and right where we are!
We can follow Christ by reaching out to others with the good news that we are all well-loved children of God, and by treating each other as family members…as we are all part of God’s family!
Once we can accept each other as fellow children of God, we can show compassion and forgiveness to each other…which will enable us to accept that we all want to do what is right…
(Even if we do not always agree on what the next right thing may be…)
We can begin to work together to help those in need: offering comfort to those who mourn, support to the poor and the poor in spirit, feed the hungry and give hope to those who are struggling with injury, illness, violence or addiction, and their families…letting them know that healing is possible, and that they are not struggling alone.
As followers of Christ we can stand up for social justice in our world, to speak out against abuse or oppression wherever it is found…
As followers of Christ we can rejoice together for the great gift of love given to us in the resurrection, and we can share the light of Easter with a world that seems increasingly dark and foreboding…we can be the voice of reconciliation in a world where contention seems to be celebrated…and instead we can call for unity in the face of division…
For it is when we share the good news of God’s healing love with each other that our journey in life gets a bit easier…and the easier, softer way becomes less tempting to us.
When we truly take up our cross and follow Christ together we have the ability to transform our world, as we welcome a new season of light filled with real hope and change…because when the message of God’s love is made known in our world the Kingdom of Heaven draws nearer to becoming a reality right here, where we are…and this kingdom will one day become our new normal!