Pastor Michael Frye:
I remember as a child playing the game “Follow the Leader” in my neighborhood.
We would take turns being the leader, and all the other children would form a straight line behind the leader would take the line around trees, over walls, under benches, through culverts, the more difficult the better.
The challenge was that, with each person’s turn it became harder to find something different.
It is a miracle that no one ever got hurt playing that game.
Our Gospel story today comes immediately after Simon Peter has made the faith proclamation: “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God.”
Although Peter and the other disciples had by now grasped the fact that their leader was the Messiah, they had not grasped the real meaning behind that.
They were still thinking in Old Testament terms of a conquering Messiah, a warrior king who would rid Palestine of the Romans and restore Israel as a great power.
In fact, the main reason Jesus did not want his disciples to share this good news with others was his fear that such news would be misinterpreted and a rebellion started that would lead to tragic circumstances.
So, before sending his disciples into the world to proclaim him as Messiah, he first had to explain what his being Messiah actually meant.
It was at this point when Jesus spoke of his suffering and dying at the hand of the religious leaders that Peter became distraught and sought to silence Jesus:
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Now, one might surmise that Jesus would have become incensed at Peter and snapped back at him; but I don’t believe that was the case.
It is more likely that Peter’s words would have saddened Jesus as they took him back in time to his temptations by Satan in the wilderness prior to his beginning his ministry.
“Turn these stones into bread;
“I will give you all the kingdoms of the world, if you worship me;
“Throw yourself down from here… and his angels will bear you up…”
Do you remember what happened after Jesus rejected Satan’s three temptations?
Luke writes: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
Surely, these temptations came flooding back into Jesus’ mind as he heard Peter’s words.
Jesus was not calling Peter the devil; rather, he was hurt by the fact that Peter didn’t grasp the importance of what he had to do for the salvation of the world, and he was rebuffing the stumbling block that Satan was placing before him through Peter’s misguided concern.
Satan’s temptations come to humanity through any force that seeks to deflect us from following God’s will.
The hardest temptations of all are those that come from those whom we love and respect.
Jesus was reminding Peter and the rest of his disciples that they must follow his lead as he fulfilled his mission in the world.
This would mean that they must deny their own comforts and desires (say no to putting self first), and put God first in their lives.
Bearing one’s cross for Jesus means that the Christian life is one of sacrificial love and complete devotion to God.
Like the children’s game that I was telling you about earlier, following our leader, Jesus Christ, can present many challenges and barriers to overcome; but the Christian walks in the footsteps of Christ wherever they may lead.
Another difficult saying from Jesus in our gospel for today comes in verse 25: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
We know that most of the disciples who followed Jesus did lose their lives for Christ’s sake, and in many places in the world today others are suffering and dying for their Christian faith.
But what do these words mean for those of us who have little to fear as far as losing life and limb for the sake of the Gospel?
Theologian William Barclay reminds us that there is a difference between existing in this world and living.
“To exist is simply to have the lungs breathing and the heart beating; to live is to be alive in a world where everything is worthwhile, where there is peace in the soul, joy in the heart, and a thrill in every moment.”
He goes on to say that if a person goes through life in the constant search for safety, security, ease and comfort, and if every decision is taken from worldly-wise motives, much of what makes life worthwhile may be lost.
Having made us in his image, God expects us to reach beyond the safe confines of our own little worlds and take risks for his sake and for the sake of others.
Every decision we make in life reflects upon the kind of person that we are becoming.
What if we were to gain all the things that we have set our hearts on, only to awaken one day to find that we have held on so tightly to worldly things that we have little left to give to our Lord – our rock and our salvation?
The only valuable gift that we have to give to God and his church is ourselves: “Take my life, that I may be consecrated Lord, to thee; take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.”
So, how do we give our lives totally and completely to our Lord in this age where self-preservation and self-promotion seem to be so prevalent?
Paul had a lot to say about that in his letter to the Romans:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
“Do not lack in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.
“Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
None of this would be easy.
It would take a miraculous amount of stamina and courage to come even close to accomplishing this kind of life-style as a Christian.
More than that, it takes an unfaltering faith in our Lord and a willingness to follow him all the way to the cross, knowing that our only reward is based upon a promise that he has made:
“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.”
That promise should be enough for people of faith.
It should be; but we are also living in a world that is still confronted by temptations that are hard to resist.
We are caught between our desire to build our house of faith on the Rock that is Christ, and the stumbling blocks of pride and prejudice and hatred and fear and greed – and we could go on and on.
It is hard to remain faithful under the weight of such things.
And look at what has happened in Texas and Louisiana this week.
How does one lose everything in such a disastrous way and still come out of it believing in a good and gracious God?
I saw a family being interviewed yesterday on one of the news networks.
They were being flown out of Beaumont, Texas, to Dallas to start over with their lives.
They had no possessions except what they were wearing.
Before they boarded the plane, they thanked God for their lives and sang a gospel hymn (in harmony!)
I’m sure you all have seen such amazing acts of faith enacted over and over again this past week: perfect strangers risking their own lives to pull people out of flooded cars and homes; first responders and medical personnel traveling from cities all around the country to help; churches opening their doors for shelter and providing food and clothing; and so much more.
Not all of this is done in the name of religion or faith, but it is a sign that God is working through the acts of kindness and compassion by perfect strangers for the sake of people they have never met.
Yes, there are looters, and scammers, and price gougers, and others who are taking advantage of this disaster for their own personal gain.
They will answer for that one day.
Saint Paul said that even our enemies should be fed and cared for.
Then he said something that may seem a little strange.
By feeding and giving them drink, coals of fire shall be heaped upon their heads.
No, he isn’t talking about literal coals of fire. What he is saying is that it is possible that even a persecutor, when he is being treated with kindness rather than vengeance by his victim, can be moved to burning shame.
Booker T. Washington once remarked: “I will not allow any man to make me lower myself by hating him.
The only way to destroy an enemy is to make him your friend.”
What is important for us to remember are Paul’s closing words in his letter: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Let us pray:
Loving God, to turn away from you is to fall,
to turn toward you is to rise,
and to stand before you is to abide forever.
Grant us, dear God, in all our duties your help;
in all our uncertainties your guidance;
in all our dangers your protection;
and in all our sorrows, your peace.