:: Sunday, January 09, 2005 ::
Sermon 9 January 2005
As a part of the pastoral job search process, I delivered a sermon today at a sister church in Akron, OH. This was a "neutral pulpit" situation: it was nearby to the church I was interviewing with, and the committee wanted to hear me preach in person, but not before their entire congregation.
The following is the text of the sermon I delivered. This is the "as intended" form, not the "as delivered" form.
Text: Matthew 16:21 - 28.
In the movie “The Matrix,” the protagonist, Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) discovers that “reality” isn’t what it seemed to be. Through a series of adventures, Neo’s world is turned upside-down and inside-out, all for the purpose of living a real, full life.
Neo is a computer programmer working for a large corporation in a large city. He runs into a secret society which promises him a way out of “the matrix,” which as their leader, Morpheus, says is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. That you, like everyone else, was born into bondage … kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch.”
Morpheus holds out two pills, a red one and a blue one. The blue one will take him right back to where he was, no questions asked. The red one will show him the truth – but he will have to give up reality, as he knows it, to discover it fully. It is up to him whether it will be worthwhile. Neo takes the Red Pill and continues into an action-packed adventure.
In many ways, Jesus is asking us to take the Red Pill in this passage from Matthew’s Gospel we just read. He is inviting us to an entirely different way of life – an eternal way of life – but we have to give up “life as we know it” to find that life.
Let’s look into this passage a bit more closely. There are three angles here on “the Red Pill” that I’d like to look at today.
Let’s start with the conversation between Jesus and Peter. This is the second of three conversations between the two of them. In the preceding section to the passage we are hearing today, Peter makes his famous statement, “You are the Messiah, the Christ of God.” And Jesus responds, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.” The third is on the Transfiguration Mountain when Peter starts babbling on and on about shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus – silenced by the Father saying “listen to my son!”
At the end of the previous conversation (about Jesus’ status as Messiah), Jesus says “now, don’t tell anyone!”
Well, why not? It seems that Jesus knew what Peter didn’t realize: Peter didn’t get it yet. And this conversation forces him to. Imagine if we skipped from the conversation, “You are the Christ” to the Transfiguration. Peter would still misunderstand the cross. And this is proven by our text today. As soon as Jesus starts talking about suffering and death, Peter says, “you’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. Come on, don’t talk like that, it’s not that bad!”
And Jesus drops his head, nods, and say, “yes, of course Peter… you’re right. I’m just under a lot of stress right now…” NO!
Jesus turns on heel and faces Peter: “You’re out of line! Quit tempting me! You don’t get it! You have more to learn, follow me!”
Then he explains. If we want to be his disciples, then we have to deny our own agendas and take up our cross and follow. We cannot lead Jesus. Peter’s agenda for Jesus did not involve a cross, suffering and all the rest. What it was, exactly, we’re not sure. If he was like most Jews of his time, he expected the Messiah, the Christ, to come in, kick out the secular Roman domination and then rule Israel as king – making everyone followers of the Messiah – or to use a Greek term rather than a Hebrew one, followers of the Christ, or “Christians” and making everyone live lives according to Scriptural principles. A noble notion.
But this was not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus was clear: The cross was before him. THAT was how the world would be transformed. So Peter had to give up his ideas about what Jesus is there to do, and get out of the way! Jesus encouraged Peter to learn what being the Messiah was really about by experiencing Jesus’ life with him: taking “The Red Pill” to give up his notions of “Messiah” for the reality of the Christ.
And the same goes for us. When we first encounter Jesus, we immediately have an agenda for him. We have a certain notion of how Jesus is to interact with the world. We have an idea of what his ministry should look like. We have a list of things we want him to do – oftentimes healing a long list of people. Most of the time, we want him to change just about everyone around us!
But if we really want to be believers in Jesus, we are his disciples – his followers – not his bosses or his managers. (Imagine this: “Ok, Jesus, you have a 10:00 with RuthAnn, to fix her son’s broken arm; you have a 11:30 with Michael, to make sure his boss doesn’t pull the same stunt today that he did last week; you’ve got a working lunch with Lisa… you get the point.)
No, we don’t try to manage Jesus. We relieve him of the role of perpetual problem-solver. Moreover, we give up what we think Jesus looks like. He’s not the teacher, the philosopher, the revolutionary, the Republican, the Democrat, the rich man, the poor man, the monk or the punk we want him to be. He’s not even the pastor we want him to be. He will fill the roles we want him to fill on his terms, not ours. And really, this is a good thing. That way, he shows us how we fit into God’s understanding of the world, instead of how God fits into ours. And that turns out to be a more beneficial discovery.
If we desire to be disciples of Jesus, we give up our agendas for him. We give up our visions for his ministry. We give up trying to control Jesus. This is, in part, what it means to deny ourselves. We take Jesus on his terms. We take “The Red Pill” and give up who we think Jesus is for who he really is. We who believe, follow. No ifs, ands or buts.
This leads us to the second idea this passage addresses: taking up our cross. Jesus says to Peter (and the rest), “You are my followers. I am taking up a cross. To follow me means you must take one up, too.” Now realize what Jesus is asking them to do: he’s asking them to voluntarily pick up the means of their own humiliation and execution and follow him to the place where that humiliation and execution will be carried out. Then, they will be able to say with Paul: “I am crucified with Christ: it is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me!”
What he asks them to do is not easy. It is not without risk to life and limb. For Jesus, the cross shapes all of life: it determines the path he will take, decisions he will make, the things with which he will be concerned. And he asks his disciples to take on this cruciform existence. When he teaches, it is with the cross in mind. When he heals the sick, the cross is before him. When he casts out demons, the cross stands in stark relief.
Clearly, this goes far beyond “putting up with stuff” – beyond “living the moral life” and getting flack for it. The Pharisees and Scribes lived moral lives – and they missed the point entirely! For Jesus, morality was not the purpose of religious instruction but rather the expression and fruit of life lived for God – a cross-shaped life lived for God.
And he asks us to do the same. While this will vary for each of us, he asks us to live our lives with the cross before us. He asks us to base our priorities and decisions on walking with him to the cross. We would like it to be otherwise, but there is no other way. The Red Pill gives up life as we know it and takes up a cross – which one day will lead to Resurrection.
We have given up our agendas for Jesus and taken up his cross. And so the third thing that Jesus tells us is that there is no other way to find life. Jesus says that anything we hold out on could cost us dearly. We want to keep this or that agenda, this or that part of life. But Jesus says that in holding on to life, we will end up destroying our life. We’ve all seen people do this: hold on to something until they become obsessed with it and it dominates their life. So Jesus asks us to surrender even that which is valuable to us for the sake of eternal life. And here’s the hope: if we surrender something truly valuable, he will store it up as a “treasure in heaven” – where nothing can destroy it. Which, in the end, keeps it a lot safer than we could. The Red Pill life gives up everything we hold on to in hope of a fuller life.
So what? You may ask. This Christian life is so much gloom and doom – all this death and crosses and blood of Jesus and all that. But Paul tells us in Philippians 3 that the reason we join with Jesus on the cross is so we can share with him in his resurrection. By denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and giving up life, we can find resurrection life. And that resurrection life can begin in a very basic way even now. So I want to address three people right now:
Maybe you’ve been a believer in Jesus Christ for a long time – years, perhaps. But you’ve had your own agenda for Jesus. You’ve told him what you want. You’ve got things you want to hold on to. I invite you now to offer those things to Jesus: to go back behind Jesus and follow. As you do, I pray that others will join you and help you rediscover the life of a disciple together: lifting you up and supporting you in whatever way God calls them.
Or perhaps you’ve been carrying the cross for a long time. You’ve been living the cross-shaped life, following along behind Jesus. You’ve given up everything you know to give up. Life may still be hard for you. I want to encourage you and invite you to hope. The power of our Resurrected Lord is with you, to give you strength for living life. He hears your prayers and will return as he promised to set everything right. You are not running the race in vain. To you Jesus says, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
Or perhaps you have never chosen to become a disciple, a believer in Jesus Christ. I invite you to listen to Jesus’ invitation: follow me that you may have life. Take the Red Pill. See how far faith in Jesus Christ can take you. He promises life with a power and a joy hardly imaginable to all who follow him.
[Wrap up challenge]
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