Nothing like a light and fluffy gospel reading to get us started, together, huh? I was looking for a healing… maybe Jesus’ playing with children…perhaps a miraculous feeding….you know, the Bible’s version of “have a coke and a smile!” But oh no—we’ve got self-denial and suffering, crosses and death, and losing your life in order to save it! And If Peter’s Satan, well, then, I don’t have a prayer. But it is Lent, so, here we go!
Have you noticed that Peter is so right and so wrong at the same time? Two verses before our passage, Jesus asks the disciples, “who do YOU say that I am, and Peter makes his famous confession—"You are the Messiah, the Christ—You’re the savior we’ve been waiting for!” Peter got it right! But then in the next breath, he’s so wrong about what that means. Jesus says he must undergo great suffering, and be killed. Peter says, “no way, Lord. This can’t be the plan of salvation!”
“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus says. “You’ve got the right guy, but the wrong mission.” Peter thinks that Messiah will usher in a new age of political freedom and power for Israel. We understand Peter’s desire for a Messiah who will set things straight, for we spend our lives striving for the same things. We too, want peace and security, success and stability, family and faith —it’s our human nature to pursue a life that is prosperous and successful.
What can be wrong about that? If Peter is both right and wrong about Jesus, maybe we are, too. Jesus clearly says that we must deny ourselves, and take up our crosses in order to follow him—I’m kind of with Peter on this one--it doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? So what does Jesus really mean?
Perhaps it’s easier to start with what self-denial and suffering are not. To deny ourselves is not to demean ourselves, nor to be treated with humiliation, violence or abuse. In the church’s history women were told that staying with an abusive family member was their cross to bear, and this is an incorrect interpretation of the text. Jesus is not asking us to suffer just for the sake of suffering; Jesus asks us to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
There are places in the world, like North Korea, Somalia, and Afghanistan, where it is a crime to attend Christian worship and believers can suffer violence for the sake of their faith. We need to support and pray for those fellow believers, but that does not mean that we get off scot-free. So, how do we apply this passage to our life when we’re not being persecuted for our faith?
To deny oneself is to dis-own oneself, accepting that all of who we are and all of what we have belong to God. God is the Creator, and we are the creature. It’s a posture of humility, not humiliation. As much as we love the American narrative of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and rugged individualism, self-denial is living in the truth that we are not our own—God is the author and head of our life. This means that all that we have accomplished and accumulated have come to us by God’s grace—yes, we work hard and participate in it, but without God, we are and have nothing.
And we are intimately connected to one another and the whole creation. None of us got here this morning on our own—someone, somewhere, sewed my clothes, built my home and car, made roads so I could drive here. I do not stand before you as a self-made woman—I’m here because family loved me and raised me, teachers educated me, and congregations trained me. Self-denial is keeping our life and therefore all that we accomplish and own, in the proper perspective.
When we accept that all of who we are and all of what have belong to God, we freely give it away to save a life or to help another to know God’s love. We hold ourselves and all of the markers of our success—possessions, job, finances, time, traditions, church—with a light hand, so that it can be used by God for the life of the world. We hold what God has given us with the gratitude of an open heart, so that all the stuff of life does not displace God as the source of our identity, and the center of our life and meaning. This is what the Apostle Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Philippians:
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Any time we become freed from our attachments, whether it’s a house, or money, or control—we become more available for God to use us and our gifts to help others. We can give sacrificially and be willing to do without for the sake of another.
Martin Luther described this kind of humility toward our life and possessions this way: I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess. It’s the paradox, the irony of the kingdom of God.
• We have everything we need when we claim nothing as our own.
• We receive blessings, when we release possessiveness.
• We experience more life and love not by hoarding, but by sharing.
• We receive peace and security not by grasping in fear, but by opening our life to God.
• We receive success and stability, not by pushing harder, but by letting go and letting God’s power work through us.
• We are strongest when we are weak.
• We save our life, by losing it.
It sounds backwards to our rational mind, but we know from our own experience it’s true. How many of you have gone on a mission trip, built a habitat for humanity house, worked in a food pantry, helped someone in need —any kind of service at all—and in the process of giving away yourself—your time, your possessions or your energy, you felt that you received more than you gave?
Denying ourselves, picking up our cross, and following Jesus means using that principle, that experience in every area of our life. In taking up our cross, we choose to allow everything we have, to become an instrument for God’s purpose of reaching the most people with love.
The same is true for us as a congregation as it is for us as individuals. I read a study about Lutheran churches that were growing—they studied different contexts, styles and sizes of congregations. Every growing church held a common attitude: The church exists for those who are not its members. Every congregation that was growing was invested in giving themselves to those who had not yet come in the door. Those who save their life will lose it and those who lose it for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.
What does it mean for St. Luke’s to give away its life for the sake of the Gospel? How do we hold what God has given us with a light hand, so that we can be used as a vehicle for life and salvation for others? That’s a question I hope that we will wrestle with together in the coming months and years. Let me highlight three things that will be important as we seek to be faithful followers of Jesus.
First, we each need to deepen our own spirituality and relationship with God. This is partly why I was interested in St. Luke’s—because you are interested in spiritual growth and depth. I have been training to be a spiritual director, so I can develop skills at helping people deepen their daily walk with God. Peter in our Gospel lesson was engaged in his spiritual life—he was with Jesus, he was listening, wrestling, asking questions and trying to get it. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong, and the same will be true for us. What mattered was not that he made mistakes, but that he was in the relationship with Jesus.
A second thing we need to focus on is listening. It’s easy to assume we know what people need when we want to get them involved in church and what we’re doing before we really learn about them. While living in St. Louis, my husband, Dan and I worked in mission development and we went door to door excited to share about God’s love and this new opportunity. But we found it was important to listen to people first, so instead we asked people how we could pray for them and support them. We learned about a lot of pain and difficulty that people were in, including stories from people who had been judged, hurt or excluded from congregations—congregations across all denominations. It really is true that, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. People are hungry to tell their story and to have someone to really listen to them with love. Through your statement of welcome, that’s a gift St. Luke’s offers people.
A third thing we will do as we follow Jesus, we will depend on and watch for the Holy Spirit. God will keep surprising us! If you would have told me a year ago that I would be living in Texas I would have laughed in your face. I was happy in St. Louis and I spent the last two years telling God I wasn’t moving! I wasn’t holding my blessings with a light hand, and you can see how well that worked out! But now I live closer to some of my family and then, there’s this inclusive, spiritual church in Richardson, Texas! I’m not saying that it hasn’t been without pain and loss. We’re not going to pretend that change isn’t painful. I still don’t like being this far away from our two younger children who still live in Missouri. But God can always imagine something greater for us, our family and our church than we can imagine for ourselves! When we hold our life and possessions, our worship and traditions with a light hand, we open up avenues for God to use us in ways we couldn’t have imagined!
Jesus words this morning do not end with suffering, rejection and death! He promises that he will rise again! And Jesus made good on that promise! God is always moving toward, life—and not just eternal life—but abundant life here and now as we open ourselves, our lives, our church, and all that we have, for God’s mission.
For as we hold these blessings, all of God’s blessings with a light hand, we know that God firmly holds us, and this congregation, and this community, and indeed the whole world, in his hands.