August 30, 2020 – Pentecost + 13A
Note: this is the final sermon in the “Identity Crisis” series. The previous two weeks were preached by others, while I spent time with my family at my mother’s deathbed. Watch this sermon on Vimeo.
We’ve been exploring the idea of an identity crisis in Matthew’s gospel these past few weeks. We’ve learned that the crisis isn’t just about how we identify ourselves as followers of Jesus. The crisis also stems from how we identify Christ at work in our lives and in the world. Sometimes it isn’t so easy to recognize Jesus, even when he stands right in front of us. Sometimes we doubt who he is, as Peter did when he tried to walk on water. But when we can name Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God – also as Peter did – we find our own identity as well.
Today’s passage from Matthew marks a turning point in the story. It’s a pivotal moment in Christ’s ministry. The disciples have acknowledged Christ’s divinity, his Lordship. They have some expectations about what that means. They’ve witnessed miracles that are more than miracles – they are signs that point to God. But those signs aren’t aiming in the direction the disciples thought they would. Jesus isn’t turning out to be the kind of messiah they’d thought he would be. And this is distressing, to say the least.
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.” (Matthew 16:21-28)
It seems counterintuitive to relinquish your identity in order to claim it, to lose your life so you can find life. In a culture that elevates the self, it seems crazy to give up the very thing we are supposed to value the most.
And here is Jesus, telling us not only that he is going to die, but that we also need to give up our lives if we are going to call ourselves his followers. No wonder Peter jumps in to ‘correct’ Jesus. Just a few verses after Jesus has asked, “But who do you say that I am?” (16:15) and Peter has answered with that great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” (v. 16) Peter is in trouble again.
Jesus goes from calling Peter the rock on which Christ will build his church (v. 18) to calling him “Satan!” and “a stumbling block” (v. 23). And what is getting in Peter’s way? It’s a basic fear we all have. When Jesus tells Peter he is concerned with ‘human things’ (v. 23) he isn’t talking about earthly wealth or fame. He isn’t talking about recognition or political power. The very ‘human thing’ that has Peter talking back to Jesus is the fear of death.
Death is the problem we all eventually face and sometimes fear. Whether it’s death from disease (COVID), death from age (not only our parents’ generation but as we get older, our own), or death of our church through attrition and conflict, we all have to face death at some point. But we don’t like doing that. Like Peter, we’d rather focus on the bright side and downplay the darkness we associate with dying.
And like Peter, too often we miss the point Jesus is making here. We have to die in order to live. Giving up our lives is the only way we can gain the life to which Christ calls us.
Like Peter, we think we have a good idea of what following Jesus should look like, but it’s grounded in the things of this world, not the things of God’s kingdom. Our limited view prevents us from seeing the bigger picture of God’s grace extended to all people, not just the ones we approve. And here’s the tension – we don’t always see how our actions and words, based on that limited view, impact others. We can’t see the hurt we cause or the doors we close. We can’t see how not bearing our own cross makes another’s cross heavier.
But bearing our cross is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. And we aren’t talking about those little inconveniences we jokingly call our ‘cross to bear.’ Christ calls us to a complete sacrifice of our very selves, to full surrender, whatever may come as a result of claiming our identity in Christ alone.
The paradox is that in full surrender, we find complete freedom. By giving ourselves wholly to Christ, we are set free to be the holy people God created us to be.
When I was young, I thought that truth was a two sided coin: right and wrong, black and white. Everything was clear cut, either/or. And then in my early 20s, I began to realize that my view of truth might be too limited.
Sometimes there were shades of gray in between black and white. my image of ‘truth’ grew from just two sides of a single coin, into an image of those sides being next-door neighbors on the great disco ball of truth – it was the 70s, after all.
Eventually, I realized that even this broader image of God’s truth was too limiting. I discovered that God often reveals truth to us not as an either/or proposition, or a multi-faceted mirror ball, but as a paradox. A paradox is that sweet spot where two ideas that seem to contradict each other are held in tension, balancing one another.
Following Jesus often looks like a paradox. Peter’s discipleship is a perfect example for us. We might give him a hard time, but Peter demonstrates honest discipleship by first proclaiming Christ’s ultimate divinity as the son of God, and then in the next paragraph getting called ‘satan’ for thinking only of earthly things.
Stretching between heavenly things and human things is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. We have to have both stories, to see the truth of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Sometimes we do get stuck in our earthly way of thinking, and sometimes we get those flashes of insight where we can see clearly who God is and how Jesus reveals God to us.
Sometimes it feels like we are bouncing back and forth between extremes. But once in a while, we find ourselves perfectly balanced at the center of the paradox. And that is exactly the point where we surrender. Our lives are no longer our own, but God’s. Our concern with death evaporates in the joy of eternal life.
When we engage in the struggle with our own identity crisis, we may find that sometimes it isn’t so clear cut, black and white, two sides of the same coin. Most of the time it’s a paradox, with two things that seem to be diametrically opposed to one another pulling on each other. But if we are willing to lay down our own assumptions and expectations, if we can set aside our own preferences and dependence on earthly understanding, we might just find Christ in the middle of the paradox, pulling together our disparate views, while stretching us to become more than we had any idea we could become. Jesus invites us into the paradox of giving up our lives so we can gain Christ’s life.
It is living into this tension of giving up our lives to find them where Jesus meets us and calls us into new life. For some of us, that call is a call to repentance – to turn away from following our own preferences and ideas, the ‘things of this world’ that skew our thinking and speaking and acting – so that we can turn toward the way of following Jesus. For some of us, it is a call to step out in faith in a new direction, not knowing the path or where it will lead us, but trusting fully in God’s care and provision as we put one foot in front of the other.
Here’s the thing: The cultural pressure to put ourselves first – as appealing as it sounds – doesn’t really satisfy our hunger for meaning. Deep down, we know we aren’t enough. We often feel inadequate. And that is exactly when God says, “Good, now I can get to work through you!”
Mitchell Reddish writes that the call to take up our cross is really “a specific demand placed upon those who would be the followers of Jesus. They must be willing to surrender their own self-centered ambitions, goals, and lifestyles for the way demonstrated by Jesus.”
Or, as JD Walt puts it: “If we would know and do the will of God, as revealed to us by the Son of God, we must release our assumptions, let go of our preferences, renounce all rights to ourselves, become humble like powerless children, and follow Jesus to kingdom come—and all of this under the eternal banner of divine love.”
The identity crisis before us is twofold: recognize who Jesus is, and become who Christ invites us to be, fully surrendered followers of the crucified and risen Lord. Is it too much to ask?
Clayton Schmidt writes,
The problem is we are pretty poor at cross bearing … even to deny ourselves seems too much to ask. … Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text: If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus’ own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot.
… It is his burden we take upon our shoulders. It is his strength that bears the weight. We do nothing on our own, but he can do much through us. Without him, Peter was no rock, but a stumbling block. With him, Peter was the church. With him, we are not powerless to deny ourselves but able to bear all he may give us. Lloyd Ogilvie once put it this way: “We say, ‘But, Lord, I cannot.’ And God says, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that. Through you, I can.'”
This is your turning point now. This is your moment to decide. Will you take up your cross and follow him?
 Mitchell Reddish, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol, 4, 25.
 J.D. Walt, https://www.seedbed.com/why-the-why-of-jesus-matters-more-than-the-what-who-when-where-and-how/
 Clayton Schmidt, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=132