Discipleship 101 Recording:
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2020
From that time on, 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “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?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Many people choose their words carefully to ensure the understanding and impact of the message being conveyed. Peter was not one of those people. He spoke the first thing that came to mind. He lacked a filter. In Matthew 16:13-20, we read Peter’s response that Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah. This is the first time in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus is called the Christ. It is doubtful Peter planned this response – he simply spoke impulsively – and honestly. Jesus blessed Peter for his truthfulness and promised that he would be the rock – the foundation stone – upon which the Church would be built. Indeed, Peter did become a foundation stone for the Early Church. He was a respected leader and his teaching was authoritative.
After this proclamation, Jesus tells the disciples that He must go to Jerusalem where He would suffer at the hands of the ”elders and chief priests and scribes.” These three groups comprised the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest court. In their opinion, Jesus had been found guilty before the trial. Cancel culture is a contemporary phrase. It means that you do not simply disagree with another, rather you want the individual to stop expressing his or her opinion altogether. It is the opposite of civil discourse, where you politely and respectfully exchange opinions and convictions. The Sanhedrin took the idea of cancel culture to the extreme. They not only wanted to silence Jesus, they wanted to kill Him. Jesus knew by going to Jerusalem, He would be fulfilling His mission as the Suffering Servant that was prophesied in Isaiah 55:13-15 and Isaiah 53:10-12. Peter and the other disciples were unaware of Jesus’ mission. Surprised by this news Peter, presumably speaking for the other disciples as well, takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him. The rebuke was not a stinging indictment as much as a frank word to the wise. To the first century Jew, the Messiah would liberate them from the shackles of Rome. The idea that the Messiah would die at the hands of Rome was blasphemous.
Jesus responds by calling Peter Satan. In the earlier proclamation, Jesus knew that Peter was delivering God’s message; in this statement, Jesus knows Peter is delivering Satan’s and does not mince words. In the first proclamation, Peter was called a rock. Now he is being called a stumbling block. The term stumbling block comes from William Tyndall, who translated the Bible so it could be understood by the “plow boy” and was rewarded for his efforts by being burned at the stake. The original term was “to stumble a block” or “stumble over a tree stump.” In doing so, you lose your balance and fall, possibly causing injury to your body and certainly causing injury to your pride. As it relates to Peter, instead of being a witness for Jesus, he had become a witness for Satan. He had fallen and caused injury by his words. According to Jesus, Peter had the wrong perspective on the mission of the Messiah. However, the Messiah’s mission would not end in death. The Messiah would be raised from the dead in three days.
The message Jesus is conveying is that we are not the masters of our lives. If we are to be His disciple, we must cede authority to Him. We must not only deny ourselves, we must also take up His cross and suffer as He did. The cross was a form of punishment reserved for outcasts. During His ministry, Jesus identified with the outcasts – the poor, the weak, the powerless, and the humble – those who were unable to help themselves. The identification was both moral and ethical. Jesus said He came to serve, not be served (Matthew 20:28). His identification continued to His death.
We live in a culture that values individuality. We are admonished to be ourselves and to do your own thing. “I did it my way” is the mantra of our age. By teaching us to deny ourselves, Jesus is teaching us to renounce individuality and to live life “God’s way.” Abraham Kuyper wrote:
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine! …
This is the breadth of our denial. It encompasses every square inch of our life. By ceding authority (denying ourselves), we are asking God to direct, not dictate, our lives. A wise and loving parent offers direction to a child in the hopes that the child will become a responsible adult and reflect well upon the parent and the community. So with God who wants us become responsible, loving members of His community.
Jesus had many followers but few disciples. The difference between these two groups can be reduced to denial. The follower is like the mercenary soldier or soldier of fortune. The battle is fought so long as the terms are favorable. The enlisted soldier fights for love of country – even when the terms are unfavorable.
Isaac Watts penned these words that illustrate the characteristics of the Christian soldier:
1 Am I a soldier of the cross,
a foll’wer of the Lamb,
and shall I fear to own his cause,
or blush to speak his name?
2 Must I be carried to the skies
on flow’ry beds of ease,
while others fought to win the prize,
and sailed thro’ bloody seas?
The soldier of Christ will fight many battles. For the “soldier of the cross,” though ultimate victory is assured, there will be times of struggle and possibly doubt. Yet, the reward for faithfulness is certain – and eternal.
I am of the view that perhaps the most effective way to deny ourselves is through life’s disappointments. Be assured, they are a cruel teacher. We are disappointed that God waits to answer our prayer. We are disappointed that life is not going according to our plan and our schedule. These disappointments teach us to accept life on God’s terms and not our own. Many times I have made plans that have failed to materialize in the way I envisioned. As I reflect on these plans, I see how many failures were lessons in denial. They were lessons in ceding authority and a reminder that God’s ways are superior to our own. Whatever disappointments or suffering we experience, they are temporary. Nothing in this life is eternal.
Jesus sums up this “lesson” by emphasizing the perspective on life that Peter was lacking. He told the disciples: “… what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul.” In a literal sense, the person who pursues selfish gain without any consideration of God’s gift of salvation will find himself an outsider from God’s presence. In an allegorical sense, the person who pursues selfish gain without denying himself will lose the richness of life that is the believer’s.
C.S.Lewis offers this perspective:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.
If our reading in Matthew is Discipleship 101, our reading in Romans is Discipleship 102. Love is complicated and is not for the faint of heart. In seminary, one of my professors suggested that couples engage in post-marital counseling as opposed to pre-marital counseling. He said that before the wedding, couples have stars in their eyes and are unable to see the faults of their spouse – much less their own. Somehow the scales magically fall off their eyes after the wedding when they realize the spouse squeezes the tube of toothpaste incorrectly. Love and scales are incompatible.
In this passage from Romans, Paul outlines the criteria for love – it is to be genuine, hate what is evil, maintain what is good, and seek to honor the other person. Paul’s criteria for love echos Jesus’ criteria for discipleship – namely love is denial of self. Jesus denied Himself the power and glory that were His in heaven to destroy the works of the Devil. His love was not abstract but concrete as He identified in life and death with the outsiders. Though He hated sin, He loved the sinner and sought to maintain what is good.
One way we hate what is evil is to support the various ministries that seek to serve the outcasts of our community. We can also seek to overcome the evil in countries that persecute Christians simply because they are not willing to say “Caesar is Lord.” We live in a divisive and disrespectful age. One way to show the love of God is honoring others in the church and in the community. When you are being served, whether it be the grocery store, the restaurant, the retail establishment, or the call center, do you take a minute to honor the associates who are serving you by asking how they are doing? These are thankless jobs for which encouragement is scarce. This manner of honor is a relatively inexpensive investment that pays dividends. They may not know you are a Christian but they will know you care and that is a form of Christian witness.
G.K. Chesterton wrote:
The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.
Another way to honor others is with our hospitality – something for which this congregation has a well earned reputation of practicing. In Acts 2 we read that the Early Church met daily for worship. After meeting for worship, they did not simply go home and close the door until the next day. They shared their goods among those in need and opened their homes to friends and strangers. Until relatively recently, the home was the center of hospitality as travelers often lodged with friends and strangers and partook of their hospitality (lodging and meals). Today we prefer hotels and restaurants, however, we should still be hospitable.
Vengeance can be both sweet and bitter. We plot how we will be righting the wrong and how we will have the “last word.” However sweet this may seem, it can lead to the bitterness of the soul and when we enact vengeance it can be disappointing. We often seek vengeance without a full understanding of the facts. We act impulsively and seek to embrace ourselves. In the last verses of our reading from Matthew, Jesus promises to return as the judge. At that time all injustices will be exposed and punished. We can trust God to keep the promise.
One example from the annals of Church History speaks volumes on the subject of honouring others; it is the story of John Wesley and George Whitefield.
Almost three hundred years ago, Wesley and Whitefield were popular and gifted Anglican clergy who sought to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. The two men traveled in England and in the American colonies preaching to thousands. They were criticized because they often preached outdoors and bypassed the church buildings and establishment. They were men of conviction and not easily swayed by what might be considered false doctrine. What might seem petty to some is principled to another. Trust me, when you attend a school with students representing over sixty denominations, you quickly realize the differences in opinion and the differences are all principled. No one wants to cede one iota in a doctrinal debate. It was no different for Wesley and Whitefield. They had doctrinal difference and it became apparent a compromise could not be reached; so they each went their own way.
Though they no longer worked together, their friendship endured and the two men continued to correspond. One day a young associate informed Wesley of Whitefield’s death. The associate then inferred that because of their dispute, Wesley would not see Whitefield in heaven. Wesley replied that, indeed, he would not see Whitefield in heaven for Whitefield would be so close to the throne of God and Wesley would be so far away that he would be unable to see him. Though their doctrinal differences had caused their separation it did not cause the loss of respect and love for one another.
Our readings from Matthew and Romans combine to remind us that love involves denial of self and carrying the cross of Christ. It involves both doctrine and practice. It is the way we cede the authority of our lives to God whose love is evidenced in the mission of Christ. May God give us grace to deny ourselves, take up the cross of Christ, and honor others. Amen.