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Sermon on Matthew 16:13-27
One trend in American culture that I find a little baffling is the fascination with superheroes. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” notwithstanding, most summer movie blockbusters are based on Marvel comics and their line-up of super men and, occasionally, women. Hollywood screenwriters, who are on strike now, aren’t just fed up about their pay – they are also frustrated, according to one writer, with “the constricted imagination of TV executives,” who look only for yet another spinoff of a superhero thriller. I’ve heard 20-minute conversations among adults on NPR debating which superpower would be better to have, invisibility or the ability to fly.
Personally, I find it hard enough just to be a regular human being, so I like movies and TV shows that focus on that.
Jesus must have looked like the first-century version of a superhero to the recipients of his ministry, as well as to his own disciples. When Peter blurted out, in a moment of clarity, that Jesus was the Messiah, he may have been thinking mostly of Jesus’s own “superpowers.”
Peter’s confession is a pivotal moment in the Gospel narrative. Jesus has finished his public ministry in Galilee. He has made a name for himself through his teaching and his miracles. He’s a wonder-worker -- he heals souls and bodies, he calms winds and seas, he provides food for hungry crowds -- and what people see in him is power. It must have been exhilarating to the disciples to be close to so much power. It must have been gratifying just to be in his orbit, enjoying some of the overflow from the adulation of the fans. For now, though, the crowds are gone and Jesus is focusing on the twelve disciples. From now on, as he moves toward Jerusalem, he is moving toward opposition, struggle, and apparent defeat. All the wonder-working power he has demonstrated up till now isn’t going to help him once he gets to Jerusalem and finds himself in a confrontation with the political and religious authorities.
“The Messiah must suffer and die,” he tells his disciples. They could not have been expecting this – nothing in the Scriptures they knew suggested anything like this. Matthew’s Gospel has set us up for it, though. Matthew has given us warnings that Jesus was on a collision course with danger and death. The Gospel nativity story features King Herod’s murderous rampage against all the newborn baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, has run afoul of another King Herod and has been executed. Jesus has predicted to his disciples that he will be taken away from them. And now he is heading toward Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets.”
Peter, of course, the Rock that crumbles at any sign of trouble, refuses to believe that anything bad is going to happen to Jesus. The Messiah, after all, was supposed to be something of a superhero: God’s mightiest agent on earth. If anything, the Messiah was supposed to inflict suffering, meting out harsh punishment to Israel’s enemies and to the wicked people within Israel. A Messiah who is defeated, suffers, and dies is a contradiction in terms. All the disciples must have thought that way; it was the way everyone thought.
And if this prediction by Jesus about himself wasn’t hard enough to hear, he tells his disciples that something like this is what is in store for them, too. “If any want to follow me, let them deny themselves and take up the cross.” This is both an invitation and a warning. Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart. He is giving them a chance to turn back.
Identifying Jesus correctly, as Peter did in that flash of insight, is only part of the story; calling him Messiah means, at some level, identifying with him, sharing in his suffering. If we have missed this crucial aspect of the New Testament, it is not surprising. According to some of Christianity’s popular modern proponents, “accepting Jesus in our hearts,” confessing him as Lord and Messiah, will make our lives easier and more pleasant. God wants you to be happy, this argument goes, and if by happiness you mean two BMWs in the garage or a corner office at work, well then, God wants that for you, too. I’m exaggerating, of course, but not too much – the “prosperity gospel” is still alive and well in the United States. Even those “evangelists” who don’t go so far as to promise us material success if we’ll just believe in Jesus do suggest that being a Christian will make our lives easier. This is the kind of thing to which Jesus would only say, “Get behind me, Satan!”
This is not to say that God doesn’t want us to be happy. It’s just that when we think about happiness, we’d better consider God’s definition of it. Listen again to what Jesus says, not just to Peter, but to all the disciples and would-be disciples: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Take up your cross.” That has become something of a Christian cliché, hasn’t it? The expression has been used in some fairly harmful ways. At its worst, it has been used to tell abused and oppressed people – battered women, exploited workers, targets of racial discrimination – to just put up with their suffering while their abusers are not held to account for what they do. Perpetuating injustice by telling oppressed people to take up their cross so they can get their crown in heaven is not at all what Jesus had in mind. In its more benign form, the expression “take up your cross” is used humorously, maybe when we’re talking about the trials of putting up with an exasperating relative. But when Jesus says to us, “Take up your cross,” he’s saying, “Do something in your life analogous to what I am doing on my literal cross out of love for the world.”
In other words, do something that is risky and costly for the sake of someone else. That is what it means to “take up your cross.” That is what the prosperity-gospel people don’t talk about, because it doesn’t sell, and it never has. If I am honest, I have to say that is also what we rarely talk about in the mainline churches, because we’re afraid of losing members if we focus too much on the harder aspects of the gospel. We, too, like to set our minds on human things rather than divine things.
And yet ordinary people, many of whom are not Christians, make tremendous personal sacrifices all the time, for the sake of love. I think of the woman who puts her career on hold, passes up a promotion that would take her to a different city, in order to care for her elderly parents. I think of the couple who takes in foster children, rescuing them from dangerous, unhealthy environments – while their friends design their vacation homes, they make do with shabby furniture and out-of-style clothing to provide for the children. I think of the man who puts his job on the line by refusing to cover up the underhanded practices of his boss and colleagues. That is love, too – to protect people we don’t even know from being swindled or cheated is also a form of love. Most of us do not have to look too far to see examples of sacrificial, “cross-bearing” love.
Cross-bearing can also mean taking a situation that has been handed to you – a debilitating illness, a public defeat or humiliation – and bearing it with grace and fortitude, so that others may see what a Christian life looks like.
There is something in us that makes us want to give ourselves away gladly – for the sake of love, for the sake of truth, for the sake of the Lord. That is what can make cross-bearing a joy instead of an intolerable burden. Jesus knows this about us. “Those who lose their life will find it.”
God does want us to be happy, in the sense that God wants us to flourish as human beings, and to be able to give ourselves away where it counts, where such self-giving doesn’t diminish us as human beings, but makes us grow. Christian self-giving doesn’t distort or change who we are, but comes out of our deepest self. That is where we discover our own “superpowers.”
Lisa D. Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
August 20, 2023