In the Name...
One day, the pastor's wife came home with an expensive dress in hand. When her husband asked her about it, she explained. "Well, I saw this amazing dress in the store and I was just trying it on when the Devil appeared and started tempting me to buy it." "Why didn't you just use scripture", the pastor said and say, 'Get thee behind me, Satan'?" The wife answered, "I did, but, the Devil said, 'It looks even better from back here!'"
Last Sunday, we began our Lenten season with the account of Jesus being tempted in the desert to turn his divine back on us petty humans. Well, Satan failed and Jesus set forth on his mission, preaching, teaching, and healing and that's where we are this morning.
It's been a long time since the desert. Jesus' fame has spread throughout the land. Great crowds gather wherever he appears. Important people seek him out. And having experienced the adoration and adulation, Jesus did what one might expect a celebrity to do - he took a vacation.
That's true. Today’s Gospel is set in Caesarea Philippi, a town we would call a travel and tourism destination, in the cool mountains north of Galilee in the Syrian Province of Ituria. The local population was mostly Gentile, not Jewish, so Jesus could avoid the paparazzi. Instead of the dry and dusty earth tones of Judea, the prevailing local colours are shades of green. And it was here in this restful atmosphere, far from the madding crowds' ignoble strife, that Jesus sat down with his disciples and began to prepare them for things to come.
He told them that he would be rejected by the rich and famous and be executed. Now, you and I read this account with 2,000 years of hindsight, but how would you feel if someone you deeply respected, even loved, someone who had changed your life, someone you'd given up your career to follow, what if that person told you that he or she was going to provoke an incident and get themselves killed?
Yes, the twelve were shocked at Jesus' words, but, imagine how he felt at their response. How he felt. Peter, on behalf of them all, takes Jesus aside and begins to “rebuke” him, it said, to set him straight, and we can imagine the sort of things he would have said. No, no, no, Jesus. You go to Jerusalem to be enthroned as the new King David, to restore the Covenant. You have the power. Take the glory. At your command, all the corruption and hypocrisy can be swept away and a whole new age of religious and social revival can be ushered in. People will turn to God as never before. Israel will become a great kingdom again. That's what Messiah-ship is all about.
This is truly one of Scripture's most dramatic moments. Jesus shouted at Peter loud enough to be heard by all. "Get behind me Satan." In Greek, it’s actually stronger than that. Suffice to say this isn't the way we imagine Jesus talking. But, he did, and it hurt him because Peter was Jesus' best friend and he was only trying to help. And Jesus knew that. What made him so mad was that it struck a nerve. As Peter spoke, Jesus felt that war within himself with which each of us deals on a daily basis. Peter was not Satan, he wasn't intentionally trying to lead Jesus astray, but, in that moment Jesus learned that temptation can come when we least expect it and from those we love most.
You see, Peter had a good point. There's nothing in the Scriptures that specifically says the Messiah has to die. Why not opt for the narrow interpretation? Look, if his own disciples couldn't understand what he was doing, why not just forget it and give them what they wanted? Stick to renewing the Old Covenant with Israel instead of introducing a New one for all peoples. Forget the whole Cross thing. Be good, not God. This is the real temptation of Christ. Not back in the desert, lonely and starving, but, here in the place of cool water, good food, and friends; well-meaning friends who didn't understand.
You and I are different from most of the people in this world. Not that we live on the Eastern Shore, but, because we call ourselves "Christians". What does that word mean? Literally, "Christian" means "little Christ" or "like Christ", but, it's important to realize that the Christians weren't the ones who first used it. They didn't say, "Look at us, we're like Christ." It was the other way round. In Acts, we read that the pagans of Antioch looked at the local followers of Jesus and decided that title described them.
Not because the first Christians were kind and helpful and compassionate and all those other good things, but, more than that, the pagans said, "These people are holy" because the Cross was part of their lives.
When Jesus says we're going to lose our lives if we follow him what he really means is that we're going to lose the way we often choose to live. Maybe we should recast that passage as, "If any would come after me, let them take up their cross-roads, their choices, and follow me. For whoever would make their choices for themselves will be lost, and whoever would make their choices for my sake and the sake of others will live. For what does it gain to choose prosperity, health, leisure and comfort and lose one's life."
I once saw a good illustration. In it, there were dozens of people walking along dragging big crosses over their shoulders. One of the people complains, "This cross is too heavy" and he saws a section off the bottom. A little later, he complains again, "This cross is still too heavy" and he saws another section off the bottom. The last scene shows all the people at the edge of a chasm using their crosses as bridges to get across and the fellow is standing there complaining, "This cross is too short".
The Cross is what gets us over the chasms we encounter in this life and, more importantly, when this life ends. If we are to be fairly labelled by the name of "Christian", then we cannot fall for the temptation to make the Cross into something more comfortable. If we do that, then whatever we've created will fail us at the end of the day.
As Jesus knew, there was more to being the Messiah than just being a king and there's more to being a Christian than just being good, but the temptation is always there to settle for that. And it may come from the closest of our family and friends, but, we have to recognize it for what it is - a temptation. Not to do evil, but, something far worse - to sell ourselves short, to be less than like-Christ.
One of the prayers at our Wednesday devotion of Stations reads, "grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” That's not a contradiction, for when we do walk in that way, we experience the life and peace of Christ, we see his hand at work in us and through us, and we sense his power in ways we never thought possible. Indeed, with the Cross we learn how to truly live as we should and how to rise when we die.
Two thousand years ago, when God took up a Cross, He made a choice. He chose us over himself. He chose to save our eternal lives rather than just his mortal life. And, it is now our turn to choose how we respond to that.
In the Name...