Christ’s Church is not so much made up of saints or sinners as it is made up of saintly sinners and sinning saints. The Church is at the same time both beautiful and ugly, holy, and wicked, full of faith and full of fear. The Body of Christ is the place of spiritual sensitivity as well as a den of depravity. So, anyone searching for a squeaky-clean church on a nice upward path of success with everything done to perfection and where no one ever gets hurt or unhappy… it does not exist; and, it never did.
Jesus stands alongside his imperfect people, despite their faults and egotism. Jesus intimately knows our damaged emotions and our open putrid spiritual abscesses. Yet, he treats us with mercy because he never tires of rehabilitating and reforming his Church.
Christ’s disciple, Peter, is the poster child for all the mixed motives and imperfect following of God we experience. For example, Peter stepped out of the boat in great faith and walked on the water, only to begin sinking because of his great fear. It was Peter who made a bold and right confession of faith, and then turned around here in our story for today and bought into Satan’s agenda. And Jesus was right there next to Peter all the way. Christ both rebukes and loves, all the while never abandoning us, but always working in and through us to accomplish his kingdom purposes.
Here is what we need to know or be reminded of today: Following Jesus involves pain and sacrifice because we live in a broken mixed-up world, and, on top of it, Christ’s Church is still imperfect and in the process of becoming holy. If we will admit it, we are all like Peter – a little devil who needs to get in line behind Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-28)
We all, at times, get frustrated and/or disgusted with the whole church thing. We can whine and complain and even avoid it. Or, we can commit to taking up our cross, and give our lives for Jesus Christ. We can choose to put love into the church where love is not, even when we do not feel loved. Priest and professor, Ron Rollheiser, once gave the following analogy about staying together around Jesus:
Imagine that the family is home for Christmas, but your spouse is sulking, you are fighting being tired and angry, your seventeen year old son is restless and doesn’t want to be there, your aging mother isn’t well and you are anxious about her, your uncle Charlie is batty as an owl… and everyone is too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner. You are ready to celebrate but your family is anything but a Hallmark card. All their hurts and hang-ups are not far from the surface, but you are celebrating Christmas and, underneath it all, there is joy present. A human version of the messianic banquet is taking place and a human family is meeting around Christ’s birth….
In the same way, here we are, the community of the redeemed. We gather in our imperfect way, a crazy mix of sinner and saint. But we gather in and around Jesus – and that makes all the difference. There is a reason we are here on this earth, a reason much bigger than all our dysfunctional ways and dyspeptic attitudes. Jesus Christ is building-up the people of God and he will keep doing it until the end of the age. In other words, Jesus is not quite finished with us yet; we still have some things to learn about the need for sacrifice.
The need for sacrifice by Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-23)
Jesus stated openly and in detail what must happen. It was necessary for Christ to suffer deeply and die a cruel death; it was God’s will and plan. Yet, good ol’ Peter was not down for this plan, at all. He took Jesus aside and rebuked him, believing him to be off his rocker for even suggesting such a terrible scenario. Jesus, however, turned the tables on Peter and rebuked him right back. Essentially, what Jesus said is that being Christ-centered without being cross-centered is satanic.
The error of Peter was that he presumed to know what was best for Jesus. He believed the suffering of the cross would “never” happen. Peter’s perceptions were dim and limited; he did not clearly see how broken the world really is and how much it would take to heal it. Jesus needed to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire planet.
Sometimes, like Peter, we might think that the way I see and the way I perceive is the way things really are, or, at least, how they should be. Peter had been walking with Jesus for a few years, watching and enjoying his ministry of teaching, healing, and extending compassion. It was all good for Peter, and, therefore in his mind, it should not change. Peter wanted to hold this moment forever. After all, why try and fix something that is not broken? Oh, but broken the world is – so much so that it required the ultimate sacrifice.
Just because it was good for Peter did not mean it was good for everybody or should always be this way. If Peter were to have his way, we would all be in hell right now; it would not have been good for us. We, like Peter, are finite humans with limited understanding and perceptions. We can easily slip into a satanic mode of believing that because something is going fine for me that everyone else is doing okay, too. I like it, I want it, so what is the problem?
The problem is that we too easily look at life through narrowly selfish lenses, and then cannot see other people’s needs; cannot perceive the lost world around us with any sense of reality; cannot see that Jesus has an agenda very different from our own. Our limited perceptions come out in saying things like, “Oh, she is just depressed because she is avoiding responsibility.” “People on government welfare are lazy.” “He’s addicted because he doesn’t want to help himself.” “They’re demonstrating on the streets because they are a bunch of malcontents.” These, and a legion of statements like it, betray a satanic worldview devoid of grace and a compulsive need to find blame, believing that if there is personal suffering there must be personal sin.
In truth, we are all part of one human family, and we are all in this together; one person’s joys are our joys; one person’s struggles are our struggles. We really are our brother’s keeper. The detachment we can have toward other human beings is completely foreign to the words of Jesus. The Christian life involves suffering, and Jesus invites us to follow him in his way of sacrifice.
The need for sacrifice by the followers of Jesus. (Matthew 16:24-28)
There is a way to reverse demonic thinking. Jesus issues an invitation to practice self-denial, to fall in line behind him, and walk with him in his suffering. Self-denial is not so much doing something like giving up sweets for Lent as it is giving up on ourselves as our own masters. It is the decision to make the words and ways of Jesus the guiding direction for our lives. It is the choice to quit holding onto the way I think things ought to be, and to take the time to listen to Jesus.
The logic of Jesus is relentless. Life comes through death, so, we must give up our lives to find them. It does us no good to adulterate our lives by serving the gods of success and perfectionism. Jesus invites us to quit our moonlighting job with the world and go all in with him. Only in this way will we truly find life.
Jesus was saying more than just submitting to suffering – we are to embrace it. In doing so, we will find reward and joy. For those familiar with this path, they can tell you that suffering is a blessing because they have found the true purpose and meaning of life.
Few people have suffered as much as the nineteenth-century missionary medical doctor to Africa, David Livingstone. He was a pioneer explorer who opened the interior of Africa to the outside world. He had two reasons for doing so: To be able to take the good news of Christ’s suffering to the African people; and, to open Africa to legitimate trade so that the illicit slave trade would end.
Dr. Livingstone’s hand was once bitten and maimed by a lion; his wife died while on the mission field; he was most often alone on his travels; the one house he built was destroyed in a fire; he was typically wracked with dysentery and fever, or some other illness in the jungle. Someone once commented to him that he had sacrificed a lot for going in the way of Jesus. Livingstone’s response was, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.” When asked what helped him get through so much hardship, he said that the words of Jesus to take up his cross were always ringing in his ears.
We may believe we must watch out for ourselves; that we need to push for our personal preferences; that if I accept this invitation to follow Jesus in the way of self-denial I will be miserable and people will walk all over me. Such thoughts are demonic whispers in our ears.
There are two ways of thinking and approaching the Christian life: There is the way which believes success, perfection, and a pain-free life is the evidence of God’s working; while the other way believes that suffering is right and necessary to connect with God and to be in solidarity with those who suffer.
Suffering, rejection, and execution did not fit into Peter’s church growth plan or factor into his view of Messiah. So, I will say it plainly: We do not exist only for ourselves. We do not exist to be a spiritual country club. We do exist to follow Jesus in his path of sacrifice and suffering for a world of people who desperately need to know the grace of forgiveness and the mercy of Christ. Jesus died. We are to die to ourselves. Christ lives; so, we are to live a new life. In God’s upside-down kingdom, joy comes through suffering. We are to follow Jesus as the mix of sinners and saints that we are.
Peter eventually learned his lesson from Jesus. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Peter caught fire with courage and boldness – which landed him in hot water with the Jewish ruling council. As a result, he was severely whipped and flogged and told to keep in line. Peter’s response demonstrates how far he had come. He left the experience rejoicing that he had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 5:41)
May dear old Peter’s spiritual tribe increase.