August 28, 2011

Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

As I told the children this morning, today’s text from the Gospel of Matthew reminded me of the difficult reality that our faith in God and in Jesus Christ our Lord calls us not only to good things, but to hard things.

When Christian churches are reaching out, inviting new people into the family of God, that isn’t normally a big part of the message. We’ve all seen the messages that churches try to put out there in the community at large – on our church signs, on our websites, on the flyers that are dropped in mail boxes. They say, “Everyone is welcome!” They say, “Come and experience new life in Christ!” They say, “Come and worship with friendly Presbyterians.”

I’ve absolutely never seen any church advertising that said: “You’re most welcome to come and suffer with us!” I’m sure that I would have remembered a message like that. And I might have wondered if they were talking about suffering through the Sunday sermons! No, when we tell others about our church, when we tell others about our faith, we tend to focus on the positives – on the good things that we have experienced in the community of faith and on the journey with Jesus.

We talk about the encouragement and hope that we gain from the scriptures and from the spiritual songs and hymns that we sing. We talk about the support that we experience from our sisters and brothers in the church community, and the sense of meaning and purpose that we have in offering our time, talents, and gifts in serving one another and the world. Perhaps we talk about the freedom that comes from the assurance of God’s forgiveness when we fail in doing what is right, or even the gift of the Spirit in our lives that empowers us to do better and to love more and more each day.

If we consider not just the last day, or the last week, or the summer that is almost over… but if we consider our whole journey of faith, there may be many good things that we could remember and name as good things – good things that we have experienced as a result of our decision to follow the way of Jesus.

But we know that’s not the whole story. We can’t put the whole story on the sign outside the church or squeeze it onto a card small enough to put through somebody’s mail slot. Some might challenge that it’s a kind of “bait and switch” that we’re doing – telling about the good things, and neglecting to mention the hard things that come right along with them.

Jesus did something similar, of course. I’m not suggesting that he tricked the fishermen and the tax collectors and the women into following him throughout the countryside. But he didn’t exactly reveal all the details about what the journey was going to entail. Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Jesus taught them about God’s blessing, and he taught them about how to live and love in God’s ways. He taught them to pray, and encouraged them not to worry. He taught them the Golden Rule (do to others as you would have them do to you) and he explained that hearing his teachings wasn’t good enough – they had to become “doers of the Word” – living out their faith in action.

Jesus was not all talk, either. He put his words into action as he cleansed a leper, healed a Centurion’s servant, and then cured Peter’s mother-in-law who was suffering from a fever. That’s when the crowds really started to come. The people were hearing about all the good things that happened when Jesus was around, and they wanted to be a part of that joy and gladness and hope. And that’s when we hear the first hint from Jesus that living his way is not going to be all sunshine and rainbows.

Well, to be honest, those who listened carefully to his sermon on the mount might have caught the references to loving our enemies and doing good to those who harm us. But by the end of the sermons and after the healings, most would have gone home remembering the blessings, and the restoration, and the promise of Jesus: “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

But at the middle of Matthew 8, Jesus is starting to tell a little more about what following him will involve. A scribe approaches him and says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus says to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And from that point on, Jesus begins to open up more and more about the hard things that the disciples are choosing as they choose to continue on his way.

This journey is going to be hard work, he tells them – “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few” – and he sends them out to proclaim his message and to do his work. He warns them about persecutions that will undoubtedly come, and explains that many people will reject them and the message they bring. Jesus himself is rejected in his home town, and soon after John the Baptist is killed. Jesus continues to astound the people with miracles and healings, but not everyone appreciates his perspectives and the religious leaders are beginning to plot against him.

Peter is a rock through all of this, of course. Early in chapter 16, Jesus has a private chat with his closest friends. He asks them what people are saying about him. He’s sort of checking in to see how things are going in his ministry. And while the general public seems to have a wide variety of ideas about Jesus being some kind of prophet, Peter, at least, is ready to profess his faith: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” he says.

And “from that time on,” this morning’s text begins, “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.”

Perhaps Jesus thought that after such a confident declaration of faith from Peter that maybe the disciples were ready to start learning about the really hard things. Peter’s rebuke makes us wonder if Jesus may have started a little too soon. But maybe it doesn’t really matter when the hard things rear their ugly heads – they’re always going to be difficult to face, and to accept.

Now, when Jesus talked about hard things – when he talked about suffering – he wasn’t talking about the suffering caused by a hemorrhage that had plagued one woman he met for 12 years. He wasn’t talking about the suffering of two blind men who had to sit and beg in the street because they had no way of earning a living. Jesus had compassion for those who suffered from illness or injury or poverty or social rejection.

But when he spoke about the suffering that he himself would experience, and when he spoke about the suffering that his followers would share, it was a kind of suffering that was a direct result of their ministry. It was a kind of suffering that they were going to choose. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Someone commented on Christians wearing crosses or crucifixes on necklaces, asking “Why would you want to hang a cross around your neck? It was an instrument of torture and death! It’s like hanging a little electric chair on a chain!”

Christians, at times, may have a tendency to forget that a cross is more than a pretty piece of jewellery. We may lose sight of the fact that a cross was a cruel and torturous way to have a person executed. And Jesus tells us that being one of his followers means “taking up our cross.” It means making a conscious choice to accept the hard things that will come our way as a result of our faith and ministry.

Though many of Jesus’ first disciples would indeed end up hanging on crosses, or suffering some other form of execution, most disciples today will be spared such persecution. But the way of Jesus will undoubtedly lead us into many hard things.

We’ll have to struggle with Jesus’ teachings and what his life and death means for our lives. We’ll have to figure out what to believe, and sometimes learn to be content not knowing all the answers.

We’ll have to learn to live together – growing in love for our neighbours, learning to welcome the strangers, forgiving one another, and staying faithful even when we have different ideas or priorities or perspectives.

We’ll be challenged to give of ourselves – to give our time, to give our effort, to give our gifts. We’ll be challenged to give until it hurts, and then to give a little more.

And perhaps the hardest thing of all… Jesus will call us to lose our lives for his sake.

Maybe we’ll begin by giving up half an hour to make sandwiches for people who are hungry. And then we’ll set aside one day a month, or even one day a week to volunteer at the Native Ministry.

Perhaps we’ll begin by making a small offering to the church on those weeks when we make it to worship. And then we’ll make it more regular, and add gifts for special appeals, and maybe even start to consider giving a percentage of our income.

Maybe we’ll begin by knitting a prayer shawl or making a friendly visit to a person who is lonely or sick or grieving. And then we’ll knit some more, and remember to pray more often. We’ll start noticing when someone nearby has a need, and we’ll visit some more and learn how to listen and to show care more and more – making it a part of our daily lives.

Perhaps we’ll begin by listening carefully to a sermon or two, or by cracking the spine on an old copy of the Bible. We’ll start taking every opportunity to learn more – attending studies, taking courses, reading books. And then we’ll become teachers or preachers or prophets. We’ll start talking about our faith, and taking greater and greater risks.

And as we begin to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake, as we embrace the risks and the hard things that Jesus has called us to embrace, it is then that we will find the new life that God has prepared for us.

When churches decide what to put on our signs or our websites or our brochures, we don’t put things like “Come and suffer with us” – not because hardship and suffering are not a part of the journey with Jesus, but because we know the end of the story. We know that Jesus’ way of goodness and love led to his suffering and death. But we also know that in the end, Jesus was raised to new life beyond death. And we have the promise that God’s goodness and love will win out for us in the end as well.

Many of you probably watched the funeral for NDP Leader, Jack Layton, yesterday. And you may have read the letter that he wrote to Canadians just a few days before his death. When I read Jack’s final words, they sounded very familiar – very similar to some other words that I knew very well. Layton wrote: “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” Those are wonderful words, and I have no doubt that they will encourage and inspire many Canadians to greater civility, inclusivity, and generosity.

But the words they reminded me of came from the song that we learned this morning – a song by John Bell of the Iona Community, based on the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, victory is ours through him who loved us.
Victory is ours, victory is ours through him who loved us.

As a Canadian, and as a person of good will, I will do my best to be loving, hopeful, and optimistic, as Jack suggests. But as a Christian (in the midst of all the good things and the hard things that come with following Jesus) I will trust in the good news that I have heard, and seen, and believed in Jesus Christ who suffered, died, and was raised by the power of God. In the end, we will see that goodness, love, light, and life are not only better, but they are stronger than evil, hate, darkness, and death. And victory is ours through Jesus Christ who loved us. Amen.