No Getting Around It
First United Presbyterian Church
“No Getting Around It”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 3, 2017
Listen to sermon audio
Listen to sermon audio
O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
Your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
Therefore, thus says the Lord:
If you turn back, I will take you back,
and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless,
you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you,
not you who will turn to them.
And I will make you to this people
a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you,
but they shall not prevail over you,
for I am with you
to save you and deliver you,
says the Lord.
I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked,
and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
You may have started to realize that some of our scripture readings require a few disclaimers or background information. Today, there are a few things in the text that I just want to clarify before we get started.
The first is that you’ll hear this scripture talking about Satan. Every time this comes up for me, I just hear the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live saying, “Could it be…Satan?” Satan appears throughout scripture, and in Hebrew it literally means “the adversary.” In the New Testament, Satan is “the tempter” who converses with Jesus in the wilderness. Satan is the personification of that which is opposed to the will of God. Satan never wins, is never more powerful than God, but it is an active force in the world. So whether you picture Satan as a red guy with a pointy tail and a pitch fork or as a mysterious, invisible force, let’s just agree for today’s purposes that Satan’s work is to separate us from God and from one another, to turn us away from loving God and neighbor.
The second thing this scripture brings up is the theology of Atonement. This is a big, fancy word that I will NOT use in my sermon. But I will be talking about the work that God accomplishes in the world when Jesus dies on the cross. And that’s basically what Atonement means. Now, there are a number of different theories of Atonement that have been proposed over the last 2,000 years. I think all of them are problematic in some way. But ultimately they all affirm the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross to destroy the power of sin and evil in the world. How and why it had to be this way is up for debate, and I don’t solve that debate in this sermon. Sorry. Perhaps another time.
Finally, the end of the text talks about Jesus’ ultimate return in glory, known in theological terms as the Paraousia. I’m not going to address this directly in today’s sermon, but I just wanted to give you a heads-up on that. The church of the first century expected Jesus to return quickly, in their lifetime, and to raise the dead, hold the last judgement, and finally establish the kingdom of God on earth. Those of us still waiting for this event 2,000 years later will obviously have a different perspective. Perhaps I can elaborate on this is a future sermon, but for now let’s hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, the 16th chapter, verses 21-28.
From that time on, 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
‘For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’
I would have done anything to get out of it.
The Confirmation class was scheduled to spend the weekend in Chicago during what was predicted to be some of the coldest days on record. I had already booked our lodgings, made arrangements to visit the seminary and work in a soup kitchen. We were going to drive the church bus six hours through a snow storm, and walk and take public transportation all over the city in sub-zero temperatures and high winds.
As the sheer misery of the situation began to form up in my mind, I plotted all kinds of ways to avoid making this trip. Maybe we could reschedule for sometime in the spring. Maybe we could cancel our travels around the city and just hunker down in the church where we were staying for the weekend. Maybe I could get the stomach flu and have to send another leader in my place.
I hate the cold, and I did not want to go on this trip.
And then I thought about the folks we would be serving at the soup kitchen. Folks I’d seen sleeping under bridges and in doorways on previous visits to the city. Folks wearing layers of clothes for warmth. How would they be faring in this weekend’s weather?
And I knew there was no getting around it. I was going to have to brace myself for the miserable cold and go through with this trip. It was my cross to bear, you might say. But with just a fleeting thought of the crosses others bore, the suffering they endured on a daily basis, it suddenly didn’t feel like I was sacrificing a great deal for the kingdom of God.
In our text today, Jesus comes down hard on Peter for demanding a way around Jesus’ suffering and death. Jesus deems Peter’s avoidance tactics as Satanic, worldly. Peter, “the Rock,” is dubbed a “stumbling block.” He’s tripping Jesus up in his mission to do the will of God.
I suppose it shouldn’t be of any surprise that the church built upon Peter, the rock turned stumbling block, suffers from this same tendency to look for a way around suffering, a way to avoid the cross.
The Gospel of Prosperity that is preached by many Christian televangelists would have us believe that what Jesus wants for his disciples is health, wealth and happiness, not to take up a cross and lose our lives to save them. God just wants to have faith, send money, and pray hard enough. Then you’ll find healing, hope, and joy.
But when the cancer spreads - no matter how much faith you have, no matter how hard you pray, no matter how much you give – you find there’s no way around it. When the bank forecloses on your home, when your son’s addiction only gets worse, when we are faced with life’s inevitable tragedy, you know there’s no way around it. Jesus’ suffering and death is a promise that God is with us in our suffering and death. And a gospel that denies that is no gospel at all.
But we in the more progressive vein of Christianity should be careful about pointing fingers at our brothers and sisters in Christ who worship in former basketball arenas. We do a fine job ourselves of finding ways around the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.
A number of years ago, the National Study of Youth and Religion found that most Christian teenagers in mainline churches like ours believe that Christianity is about being a good person and asking God for help when you need it. They don’t know or care that much about Jesus, and there certainly isn’t any emphasis on his suffering and death. At the church in New York where I did my seminary internship, one of the Confirmation students confidently declared in her faith statement, “I don’t really know who Jesus is, and what I learned in Confirmation is that it really doesn’t matter.” I have to clarify that I did not teach that Confirmation class.
The study found that teens thought Christians should be pretty much like everybody else. Their faith fit in just fine with the status quo in society, maybe it even helped you get ahead because it made you a better person or you could pray to get into the right college.
This study was conducted in the early 2000’s. Those teens are todays 20- and 30-somethings. Not many of them are in our pews, or the pews of any other church.
And that’s partly because when the bumpers were removed from the bowling lanes of their lives, they ended up in the gutter. They wandered and got lost and made mistakes and failed miserably. And they had no concept of a faith, of a God, who could save them from themselves, redeem them from their enslavement to perfectionism. When their fairy godfather didn’t magically solve their problems, when they found out they couldn’t be such a good person all the time, Christianity was no longer profitable for them.
We thought we were protecting them from the violence of the cross, the shame of it. But what we’re finding out now is that there’s no way around it. A Christianity that looks like the status quo in any society that is anything short of the kingdom of God is not a Christianity that follows the Jesus found in scripture.
And it isn’t a Christianity that offers hope. Jesus’ suffering and death is a promise that we don’t have to fight sin alone, that there is a force stronger than our self-loathing. The cross tells us that when we find ourselves in the gutter, God is there with us and that even gutter balls have infinite worth in the eyes of God.
In the discussion after Centering Prayer this week, someone asked if we need the cross, if Jesus really had to die to accomplish God’s saving work in the world. It’s a good question. That’s all Peter was really asking. Okay, in typical hot-headed Peter style, he was forbidding it. But, it just seems like there should have been some way around it. A man shouldn’t have to suffer and die to work God’s purposes out. God is all-powerful, right? God could have just abra-cadabraed sin out of the world. Wouldn’t that have been easier? Better?
Let’s look back for a minute at what Jesus says when Peter proposes this idea. He says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, typically this is understood to mean Jesus is calling Peter Satan. And maybe that’s true. He does seem to enjoy giving Peter nicknames. But in every other instance where Jesus is addressing Satan in scripture, he’s talking directly to Satan. So I don’t think Jesus is talking to Peter here. In his divine power, he’s putting Satan – the tempter, the adversary, the one who tries to come between God and humanity – behind him. Jesus is putting himself between Satan and Peter.
Our reading today said, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering …and be killed.” This is how he shows them. Standing between the disciples and Satan, between them and all that would separate them from God and one another. That is why he must go and suffer and die. So that Satan has no way around him. So that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
That is what we remember, what we celebrate, when we come to the Lord’s Table. When we hear of Christ’s body, broken for us, of his blood, shed for our sins, we know there’s no way around it. Christ’s suffering and death are our peace and life. At this table, every time we come to it, Jesus stands between us and Satan.
And we are also reminded at this table that what stands on the other side of the cross is resurrection and hope. In our liturgy, we boldly proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ IS risen. And Christ will come again. There’s no way around it. You can’t get to resurrection by going around the cross.
And that is why Jesus invites his followers, and all of us, to take up our cross and follow him. Not because suffering is redemptive. Not because God desires our self-sacrifice. But because there is no way around it. People who follow Jesus will lose their life, because that’s the only way to save it. They will go to the cross to find resurrection.
Now, Matthew’s gospel was written in a time when Christians were actually being killed for following Jesus. So, to a certain degree, I think Matthew’s original audience saw this as a literal call to martyrdom, to die for their faith.
In 21st century America, this is not the situation we face, and I don’t for a moment believe God desires the suffering and death of any human being. But I do belive that following Jesus is still a matter of life and death. Because it requires us to ask ourselves “What wouldn’t you give to save your life?” If you’re life depended on it, would you not give up your car? Your house? Any of your stuff? If your life actually depended on it, would you not walk away from your career, friends and even your family? Jesus calls us to examine our commitments, define our priorities. In a time when people are more committed to their alma mater or their country club or their political party than they are to their faith in Jesus Christ, believing that Christ calls us to take up a cross, to give up our lives, is massively counter-cultural.
But there is no way around it. It is the way to salvation. Salvation from those “worldly” devils of achievement, accumulation, and appearance. Salvation from the grip of perfectionism and pride. Salvation from our failed attempts to save ourselves.
It’s become a sort of Christian cliché to refer to an irksome element in our lives as “our cross to bear.” A physical malady. A wayward child. A freezing cold weekend in Chicago.
But I’m going to challenge us to see the cross as the cross. As that thing that allows Jesus to stand between us and Satan. As that thing that forces us to examine our commitments and priorities. As that thing that helps us let go of a life lived in separation from God and one another. That is a cross I will gladly take up to follow Jesus. To whom be all glory forever and ever. Amen.