Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Romans 12. 9-21; Matthew 16. 21-28 (view all)
I wonder when you last experienced a truly anti-climatic event?
It might have been a sporting event that didn’t end the way you wanted. Or an ending to a film or TV series, that didn’t go down the way you were expecting it.
Or even the personal experience in your work or social life, of putting huge energy into planning an event which then, either because of COVID or for another reason, was cancelled or didn’t go down as well as you had hoped.
Over the years of Christian ministry, I can think of services I’ve prepared or sermons I’ve planned which I was really, really happy with, but then either hardly anyone has shown up, or the service just hasn’t been the moving experience that I’d hoped.
In today’s gospel reading, Simon Peter experiences an anti-climax. As we saw last Sunday, he has just had a divine Eureka! moment, confessing Jesus as the Messiah. But now, what Jesus says next leaves him cold and jarred.
So as we explore these words, which provoked such a negative reaction, I wonder what we might learn for our own lives? What might it mean to walk with Jesus today, to take up our cross and follow him?
As I described last week, this sixteenth chapter is the turning point in Matthew’s gospel. Hinging on Peter’s confession of faith, from this point forward Jesus immediately begins to prepare his disciples for his crucifixion. They have discovered that he is the Messiah, and now Jesus must prepare them for all that means, for the brutal way in which the story must end.
But for Peter, this is not what he wants to hear at all! In fact, from the perspective of Peter’s Jewish worldview, what Jesus is saying is a complete anticlimax. Nothing could have prepared him for this. In Peter’s mind, and the minds of many first century Jews, the Messiah was a triumphant figure, not a suffering, sacrificial one.
Peter doesn’t want to lose his friend, his teacher, his new master. In fact, he doesn’t want to lose — full stop.
And so, having rebuked Peter, Jesus goes on to paint a picture of the kind of followers he is looking to cultivate. The kind of people who will be able join him in what he is doing, reflecting his own divine calling.
You see, Jesus is painting a new picture of what God is like, and therefore what God’s people will look like. The triumphalism and violent domination of the past will be replaced by selfless service and un-controlling love. The Messiah, and therefore his followers, will not cut the figure of victory, but of sacrifice.
Paul, in our first reading from Romans, develops this picture further into something akin to a code of conduct for the early Church. ‘Let love be genuine,’ he writes, ‘outdo one another with showing honour.’ ‘Be patient in suffering,’ and ‘extend hospitality to strangers.’
In other words, to be a Christian is to be an extension of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In our words and actions, to pour out the same sacrificial, un-controlling love to others. Choosing to give, in the same way as Jesus, whether we feel people deserve it or not.
After all, this is what grace is. This is the way of the Cross.
Living gracefully means putting aside our egos, in order to truly love those in front of us, who we might otherwise be unable to see. It means putting aside our own plans in order to participate in God’s plans.
It means, for instance, that it doesn’t matter how many people show up to that special service that you’d spent all week preparing, or how many people nod along with your sermon. Because the handful of people who came, or the one person who might really need to hear it, is right in front of you.
I wonder how else, like Peter, we might need to get out of the way of ourselves, in order to allow Christ to minister through us?
The wonderful Christian author, C.S. Lewis, puts this same point across passionately when he writes:
Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it… Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin and decay.
But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p.175.
So, as Christ’s people today — may we be those who lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. Who put our own ego to the side, in order to more truly love others.
Who rather than judgement, choose grace. Who rather than power, choose service. And rather than self-preservation, choose sacrifice.