Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, RCL
September 16, 2018
North Fork Ministries
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I’ve done a fair bit of premarital counseling over the years. And I discovered that engaged couples don’t really want to hear that their marriage is going to be difficult. “But we are in love!” they say and want to believe that everything between them will remain as beautiful as their planned wedding day. There is reluctance to imagine another stage to marriage - a time when we have to let go of the earlier impressions we have of our spouse. We can’t imagine that there will inevitably come a time when we have to give permission for those we love to change, to become something different.
And so it was with Peter, he and his band of merry disciples had been happily tripping about the Judean countryside, watching Jesus heal the sick, feed the hungry, restore sight to the blind, casting out demons and attracting ever larger crowds in the process. The disciples could joyfully share in the attention that Jesus was receiving.
And having witnessed the miracles that Jesus had performed, Peter didn’t have any problem answering Jesus’ question correctly and proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah. But Peter had a really difficult time imagining just what that actually meant.
It does seem that Jesus was rather hard on Peter. At one point Jesus is praising Peter for understanding that he was not simply John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets, but that he was the Messiah. Then Peter was corrected because, in answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” he got the job title right. Messiah! But not the job description.
Peter wanted to hold on to the notion that the Messiah would bring victory for the Jews over their oppressors. Not that they would face suffering and death and resurrection – and it’s often that resurrection part that is the most difficult – because resurrection requires that we change.
I think that happens to us as well. We are very quick to adopt the job title – Christian. It’s easy. It’s a socially accepted thing to be. It’s the job description we have trouble with. Suffering and death? Losing my own life for the sake of the gospel. It’s a lot easier just to show up at church on Sunday morning every once in awhile.
Remember "Lost" the television series just over a decade ago? Now there are many but "Lost" was among the first well-crafted television series of it's kind. It garnered the imagination of millions. The premise was something like this: A plane, in flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, loses communication, and crashes in the ocean near a beautifully idyllic and mystical deserted island. On board are all manner of people. A young doctor, haunted by his relationship with his father. A con man. An accused murderer. A likable, but morbidly obese guy, who calls everybody “Dude”. A wheelchair bound cardboard box salesman, who finds, that on the island, he can walk. A woman with cancer who is healed. A rock star, fighting his addiction to heroin. A troubled young woman, who gives birth on the island.
The common thread, and why I think so many found the program so captivating, is the opportunity that exists for all the survivors on the island to be transformed. They all bring their old lives with them, but on the island they have the chance to be something new. They all want to be saved. Everyone wants to be rescued, but if they really want to save their lives, they realize that along the way they have to be willing to give up who they were.
I like to think of Holy Trinity/Redeemer as a deserted island. As a place where we can land each Sunday morning with the same sense of hope and desperation the survivors of the Lost plane crash feel when they first make their way across the pure untrodden beach sand, experiencing the opportunity for new life. As the survivors on Lost discover, they can’t ignore who they were, but as long as they hold on to the baggage that they brought with them, they can’t be transformed either.
In fact if I had the extra time and money, this morning I would have arranged for a dump truck to drop a hundred loads of fine sand around the perimeter of the church, transforming the whole thing into a beach. I can imagine all of you pulling up in your cars and finding our church sitting on a sandy shore. Mystified, but deciding to take off your shoes and socks and rolling up your pants legs, so you can feel the clean, unblemished sand between your toes. Noticing how things seem different. Approaching the church building with a sense of expectation. Seeing this holy place floating in a sea of pure sand and watching your feet disappear below the white surface as you make your way toward the church entrance, not knowing quite what to expect, but with the clear sense that if you walk into the doors of this church, you will never be quite the same.
Like the survivors on “Lost”, we have the opportunity to discover who we are in a new type of kinship. In the midst of a gracious and forgiving Christian community, a community that respects and encourages one another, we can embark on our quest to be something new.
We can echo the words of one of the characters, early in the first season of Lost, “Last week most of us were strangers and god knows how long we're going to be here. But if we can't live together we're going to die alone.”
When we walk through these doors, we have the chance to let go of the old self, the false self, and retain that which is good and wholesome and true and allow it to flourish in an environment that was created to bring out the best that is within us.
The Christian life is paradoxical. If you want to save your life you must lose it. You can’t hold on to the old and be something new. Those who hang on to the old life, remain lost. Those who are willing to lose their old lives... find life anew.
As Bishop John Shelby Spong has written,” Imitate the Christ, then, we are told. That does not mean trying to be "little Jesuses" or seeking to become just like the Christ. That leads only to legalism, to life-killing, religious piety. To imitate Christ means rather that as Jesus became all that he was capable of being, so we -- touched by his life, called in his power -- seek to become all that we are capable of being. It involves daring to be free, to dream...We begin to live: accepting ourselves, loving ourselves, and being ourselves. We begin to know our depth and to realize that we are not alone, for the source of life, the ground of being, the holy God is with us. In his power we can live, love, rejoice, and care as we never dreamed possible before. Standing here we listen to Jesus anew, and begin to appreciate how it was that two thousand years ago men could not write of him without calling him the Christ of God.”
On this island, it doesn’t matter who you were. It matters who you are.