Series A, Series B
Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross
15A Matthew 16:21-28
15B Mark 8:27-38
Simon Peter. There are many stories about Simon Peter in the Bible. There are ninety-three references to Simon Peter in the New Testament and he is referred to much more than any of the other disciples. As we read the numerous stories about Simon Peter, we realize that he is a flawed disciple. His imperfections run right down the middle of the core of his personality. Most of us like the stories about Simon Peter because he seems to make such a fool of himself. Peter often says the wrong thing at the right time. Peter seems to have “foot in mouth” disease. He seems to get himself in trouble quite often because of his mouth. He denies Jesus; he doesn’t follow through; he pretends that he is going to be a hotshot disciple and he then flops. We all take comfort in Simon Peter because he can be used as a bad example so often.
In the gospel story for today, we heard the second half of an important story about Peter. Last Sunday, we heard the first half of the story and today we hear the second half of the story. But it is not a story that can be easily separated in two as it is in our lectionary. So today I need to tell you the whole story. The whole story ties together so nicely.
Jesus and his disciples had gone up north to Caesarea Philippi. At Caesarea Philippi, there was a temple that was dedicated to the god, Pan, from which we get the word, pantheism. Jesus was alone with his disciples. Jesus asked his disciples, “What are other people saying about me? How am I being rated? What do other people think of me?” “Who do you say that I am?” His disciple answered, “Some people think that you are John the Baptist raised from the dead. Other people say that you are Elijah, the prophet, who never died. Elijah got into a firey chariot and went straight up to heaven without dying. Jesus, many people think that you are Elijah. Elijah is to return before the Messiah comes, and many people think that you are Elijah.” “And still other people say that you are a great prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Amos.” Jesus then asked a pointed question: “Well, then, who do YOU say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “I have the right answer. You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus said, “Good answer. Good response. I will give you a gold star. I will call you, The Rock, and on this rock I will build my church. Peter, I will give you the keys of the kingdom, and the gates of hell will not prevail against the church which is built on The Rock. Great answer, Peter.”
Jesus liked his answer.
The story then continues in the very next scene with these words, “From that time forward, Jesus began to teach his disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, must be rejected and killed and on the third day, rise from the dead.” Peter responded, “O no Jesus. Nobody is going to lay a hand on you. You are not going to suffer. Not at all.” Jesus said to Simon, “Get behind me Satan. You are not on the side of God but of men.”
One minute ago, Peter was The Rock. One minute ago, Peter had the keys of the kingdom. One minute ago, Peter was The Rock on which the church was going to be built. But one minute later, Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. You are not on the side of God but of man.” Peter had been a hero and then in a moment, he was a hindrance. Peter had been a rock and then in a flash he was a stumbling block. He had been a superciple and then in the blink of an eye he was Satan. Peter was declared to the be the foundation of the church and then was a flip-flop. The foundation to a flip-flop in a matter of moments.
Jesus continued, “Whoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Whoever will save his life will lose it. Whoever will lose his life for my sake (for others and for God) will find it. What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.”
Simon Peter had the right answers but he didn’t understand. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” but he did not understand about the way of the cross. Peter had the right theological answer; that is, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but he didn’t understand what the cross meant for his life.
You see, Simon Peter had half of the story right. Part of being a Christian is to confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But there is another half of the story, and that is to experience the cross. There are two parts of Christianity. The first part is to confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the second part of Christianity is to experience the cross. To experience the cross is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ. It is to lose your life for Christ’s sake.
That is what we want to talk about today. We want to talk about this experience of the cross. The question is: What does it mean for us to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Christ? What does that mean?
In a book, the author by the name of C. M. Clowe makes the distinction between burdens, thorns and crosses. He wrote a book entitled, THE CROSS IN CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE, and I find his book to be a helpful elaboration of the text for today.
All human beings have burdens. You cannot be born and not go through all the burdens in life. Life begins in pain. Every person here went through the pain of childbirth. To begin this life was not easy either for the mother or the child. Life began in pain. You go through all the painful experiences of childhood. All the diapers and all the diseases. You grow up and become a teenager and you go through all the trauma of the terrible teens. Time goes by and you have to pay all your taxes. Time goes by and you find yourself caring for aging parents. Times go by and your own body starts to fall apart. You have accidents that hurt your body and cripple you up. You have these illnesses that you were not expecting. Life begins and ends in pain. Pain is the very essence of life. You cannot escape it. When you are a human being, you carry the plain old burdens of life.
According to this author, there is a second experience in life that we call thorns. The Apostle Paul said that he had a thorn in his flesh that he had to learn to live with. Many students of the Bible believe that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was epilepsy, and Paul had to learn to live with epilepsy, epileptic seizures, epileptic spasms. Many people have thorns. President Roosevelt had polio and he learned to live with it. Some people get diabetes and become blind and they have to live with blindness. John Milton, the famous poet, was blind, and he had to live with his blindness when he wrote the classic poem, Paradise Lost. Others go to Vietnam or Iraq and come back as a quadriplegic. I think of the man who was the best man at Craig and Margareta Lenhardt’s wedding, and he is the only best man that I can distinctly remember throughout all these years. The best man was a paraplegic. This best man came up to the front. He very seldom walked, and that young man was going to make it down that center aisle, walking, no matter what. That young man walked down that center aisle and got up that first step and stood there erect. The best man had learned to live with his handicap, that he was a paraplegic.
Yes, many people in this life have thorns. Thorns are those basic handicaps and limitations of life. For some, it is a heart disease. For others, it is a back ache or spinal deformity. For still others, it may be a problem that they had developed in childhood.
Nobody chooses their burdens and nobody chooses their thorns. You don’t chose thorns. You do not chose burdens. That is just the way it is. These things just happen to you. A person learns to live in dignity with those burdens and those thorns.
There are burdens in life. There are thorns in life. And then there are crosses. You don’t choose to have burdens because they just come. You don’t choose to have thorns because they just come. But you choose to pick up the cross. Picking up the cross is quite different than picking up burdens or living with thorns. Picking up the cross is something that you choose to do. This author says that to pick up the cross is to choose to pick up the thorns and burdens of other people’s lives. When other people are in need, due to their burdens and disasters, you chose to go and love them and help them with their lives. To pick up the cross is to choose to serve the needs of others and thereby to serve God. It is to join in the struggle against evil.
A man by the name of Harold Luccock, a pastor and theologian, wrote the following words about this passage. I found his words illuminating. “Taking up the cross of Christ is a deliberate choice of something that could be evaded. To take up a burden that we are under no compulsion to take up except for the love of Christ living inside of us. It makes the choice of taking upon ourselves the burdens of other people’s lives. Of putting ourselves, without reservation, at the service of Christ and the world. Of putting ourselves into locked struggle with evil, whatever the cost.”
So these two authors were very clear. To pick up the cross of Christ is to pick up the burdens, thorns and pain of other people.
Peter’s problem was this: Peter believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the Living God, but he didn’t understand the way of the cross. Peter heard that the “Son of man must suffer, die and rejected,” and he heard that but he did not understand what it meant for his own life. Peter did not understand when Jesus said, “If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, pick up the cross and follow me. For whoever will find his life will lose it and whoever loses his life will find it.” Peter didn’t understand. Peter got his gold star for theology but he failed the primary test about the cross.
What does it mean to pick up the cross? To pick up the cross does not simply mean to carry one’s own burdens or to live with one’s own thorns.
If you read a Gallop poll recently, you discovered that 80% of the people in the United States believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. That is incredible. 98% of Americans believe in God. 80% believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. But in that same poll, only 40% thought that religion was very important. The polls reported that the vast majority of people believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, but they did not understand the way of the cross.
In America today, for many people, religion is a middle class club. The church is people getting together to look at one another as nice people, getting together to go and do nice things together, and the way of the cross has been lost.
For many people, the way of the cross is thinking positively. Now, I should not pick on Dr. Robert Schuller of the Hour of Power. He is a wonderful preacher. My mother in law listens to him faithfully. But for Dr. Schuller, the way of the cross is to think positively. For example, during Lent, which focuses on the cross, the crucifixion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, Dr. Schuller preached a sermon about Lent. For Dr. Schuller, Lent was an acronym L.E.N.T which meant, “Let’s eliminate negative thinking.” That’s what the cross mean: let’s eliminate negative thinking.
The point is, I know all kinds of sour-puss people, who are not positive and do not have a wonderful smile on their face and are rather grumpy in their disposition, but yet know the way of the cross. I know particular people who are part of my family. I know people from this congregation. These people are a bit grumpy in their personalities. They are not people that smile, smile, smile. They are not these happy charmers and positive people. But I do not know of people who take better care of the sick and aging people around them. These people are not the positive type but they know the way of the cross.
The way of the cross is not simply to be a positive person. The way of the cross means to pick up the burdens and cares of people around you. I guarantee you that the two people I mentioned know how to do this.
Jesus said, “Whoever would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. Whoever will save his life will lose it. Whoever will lose his life for my sake (for others and for God) will find it. What does it profit a person if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.”
This teaching of Jesus is absolutely true. It is not just some pulpit platitude. It is not just some pious talk. This teaching is as sure as day follows night and night follows day. It is as sure as two plus two equals four. If you go and live your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for other people and their needs, you will find it. Jesus’ teaching is absolutely true.
Jesus said, “If any one would be my disciple, let that person deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” What does it mean to deny one’s self?
Jesus says that you are to deny yourself. By that, Jesus is saying that we are to die to selfishness. We are to surrender our selfishness to God. We are to surrender our selfishness to Jesus Christ. Rather than serving our selfish needs, we are to serve God and other people. That is what the people in my adult Bible class said: it is to surrender our selfishness to God.
The great religious geniuses of the world have understood that. St. Francis of Assisi wrote: “For it is in giving that we receive, and it is in dying to self, that we are born again to a living hope.”
Mother Theresa, celebrating her eightieth birthday, preached and talked about surrendering our selfishness to Jesus Christ. The most important thing that can happen to peoples’ lives is to surrender themselves to Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul said in the epistle lesson for today, “Present your whole self as a living sacrifice to God.” Not just your money. You offer your whole self to God: your eyes, your ears, your legs, your feelings, your thoughts. You offer everything to God. You surrender your whole self to God as a living sacrifice.
A friend of mine by the name of Gerhardt Frost, a professor from long ago, wrote the following words: “It is in living by loving and dying by giving that we finally find happiness.”
Do you remember the musical, STOP THE WORLD I WANT TO GET OFF? It was a story about Little Pip. Little Pip was a guy who was living for himself and was climbing the corporate ladder and he forgot about his wife and his family. Little Pip was living just for himself. He had driving ambitions to be on top, to be on top of his world. He wanted his name to be on the social register, on Dun and Bradstreet, and he wanted to climb the ladder of success. Pretty soon, Little Pip involved himself with other women, as he was climbing his social ladder. Pretty soon, Little Pip died inside as he was becoming hollow and empty. He was a driven man and he started to realize what was happening to himself. As soon as he would realize how selfish he was, he would shout, “Stop the world, I want to get off.” He would walk off to the side of the stage and tell a joke, to distract everyone from realizing how selfish he was becoming. Everyone would laugh. You would laugh. He would laugh. Everyone would laugh. And for a moment, you would forget and he would forget how selfish and hallow and empty he was inside. Little Pip had lived life for himself and he had nothing. He no longer knew what it meant to love. Stop the world, I want to get off. You come to the end of the play and his good wife who had been faithful, his good wife who had been nothing but a “plain Jane,” his good wife died, at the end of the play. His wife died prematurely and Little Pip finally had to come to grips with himself. He then sings that song: “What kind of fool am I? What do I know of love? I am the only one that I have been thinking of. What kind of man is this? An empty shell? An empty shell in which no heart does dwell.” Little Pip was an empty shell. Hollow. Struggling. Struggling to surrender his selfishness. Struggling to discover what it means to pick up the cross, to pick up the burdens and cares of people around him. Struggling to walk the way of the cross.
Little Pip is you. Little Pip is me.
All of us struggle with surrendering our selfishness to God. This whole process of surrendering our selfishness to God and then gradually picking up the burdens and struggles of other people can be illustrated by stories.
I would like to tell you four stories, four stories which illustrate what it means to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow Christ.
The first story occurred about two weeks ago. I was with a Thursday morning group of Lutheran pastors who discuss the coming Biblical texts and sermons. We were discussing this text of denying yourself, picking up the cross and following Christ. We pastors shared several stories and so did a pastor by the name of Al. His wife has schizophrenia and she has had this mental disorder for twenty-two years. For twenty-two years now, he has been giving his wife medication. This has been a very difficult situation, both for Al and his wife. Al told us that as long as he keeps his wife on these two pills, his wife does OK. Al is extremely tired. I supposed that you could have dumped his wife, got a divorce, could have gotten rid of her. In the passage for today, the passage says that we MUST carry the cross. The MUST does not mean that we must automatically obey Jesus who commands that we carry the cross. The HAVE TO in the text has to do with themes of compassion. It is the compulsion of compassion. Al knows what it means to deny himself, pick up his cross daily, and follow Christ.
A second story. It was ten days ago and we were on the seventh grade retreat. One of the most wonderful thing about seventh graders is that they tell you everything. One thing about seventh graders is that they haven’t learned to cover up the bases, cover up the truth of their families. Seventh graders often tell too much and are too honest about their families from their parent’s points of view. I asked the seventh graders on that retreat: “Who are the people who really shaped your life? Who are the people who really shaped your life as a Christian?” Yes, the kids talked about their parents. But what I was surprised to hear mentioned so often was their grandpas and grandmas. I started to think of all the grandmas and grandpas who have had a significant impact on their children. In particular, I am thinking of a particular grandmother in our church who took in an eighth grade grandson. I mean, she didn’t have to, yet she had to. The kid had no place else to go. Now the young boy has become a young man and grandma has had this “boy become a man” now for about six years. It wasn’t very easy for this grandmother. She didn’t say, “I am looking for something to do. I think I will take in this eighth grader for the next five or six years. Grandma took in this boy and she did a real good job. As I look at that woman’s life, she is an example of what it means to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me. This grandma denied herself plenty. She took up the cross and carried the burden of her grandson who wasn’t a cross but a grandson. Today, as I look across our congregation, I see so many grandparents who are doing the same thing, especially in this single parent society in which we live.
A third story. We have parents in our congregation who have mongoloid children. The children have pretty several limitations from birth. I have seen the quality of love and care that these parents possess, these parents who have children who suffer from mongoloid disorders. I notice Wendy and Marlys, as parents, who care for their son, Cail. These parents have been carrying for Cail for thirty-two years and it has not been easy. You think of the sacrifices, the millions of little sacrifices, that were given to Cail during the past thirty-two years. Or, I am thinking of a set of parents who have been taking care of their disabled son for years and these parents came in because their disabled son had died. It was the Kraus family in our church. I think of this family carrying for their child and grandchild for all these years. I think that this was a family who knew what it meant to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow Christ. In the Bible, in this sentence, is the word, must. We must deny ourselves, pick up the cross and follow Christ. The “must”
is not simply a legalistic command but an invitation of compassion. It has a “compulsive compassion,” and I simply have to do this. I have to do the work, the job in life, that God has given me to do.
A fourth story. There is a man in our congregation by the name of Don Christiansen and Don is very sick with cancer. Don is married to Joyce and they live her in our community. The two of them have no family here. Don and Joyce do not have children and there is no family here in the Northwest; their families are back in North Dakota. So, you inevitably feel more “out on the limb” when there is no family around. Joyce, Don’s wife, has a large family back there in the Midwest and there was a big family reunion back in North Dakota. But Joyce’s sister, Ruth, needed to be out here in Seattle to take care of Don who is dying of cancer. She had to! Ruth came out to Seattle and stayed with her sister for a long time. The sister didn’t have to come out but she had to come out. Do you understand? That is what it means to deny yourself, take up the cross, and follow Christ.
All the examples that I have given have come from family stories. But it may be the crisis is with your neighbor next door. It may be the crisis is with your friend here in this church. It may be people in another country.
Have your ever been in that situation where you have had to help? You HAD to help. You just HAD to. The reason that you HAD to help is because God and Christ were living inside of you.
That is what it means to deny yourself and forget about yourself and focus on the people in need and you help.
Yesterday, I had a funeral for Joanne Copfer. A friend read her life history. I quote from yesterday’s life history: “Throughout her whole life, Joanne was a pillar of support to her family and friends. She was always ready to step up and do whatever was needed. Right up until her very last days, she remained unconcerned about herself, caring more for others and always wanting to do more for her loved ones and friends.” Her sister Judy said of her, “Only a heart like you could love so unselfishly.”
The cross. The way of the cross. Simon Peter didn’t understand it initially, but he gradually learned. A reliable tradition from church history is that Simon Peter was crucified on a cross upside down in Rome in about the year 65 CE. By the end of his life, Peter understood the way of the cross. Peter requested that he be crucified upside down because he didn’t want to be compared to Jesus and his death on the cross. So Peter was nailed to the wood and his cross planted into the ground upside down.
Yes, at the end of his life Peter finally understood that great teaching of Jesus. “If anyone would follow me, they must deny themselves and take up the cross. Whoever will find his life on this earth will lose it and whoever loses his life for others will find it. What does it profit anyone if they gain the whole world but lose their inner soul.”
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