September 3, 2023

"The Flip-side of Love”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21

When I was a kid, my mom had a woodcarving knick-knack that used to sit right in front of the television set in our living-room. When you looked at it one way, is simply appeared to be random assortment of blocks. But when looked at another way it clearly spelled out the name of Jesus. Mom thought it was the coolest thing. I thought it was a little hooky. She was so proud to point it out to folks who would visit and asked them “what do you see?” Some got it right away. For others, it took a while. Then she always ended her little game kind of smugly by saying, “Some of us can see Jesus in everything.” 

I’ve included a reprint of that woodcarving on your bulletin cover today so you can try it for yourself. It is an optical illusion indeed. It reminds us that our perspective makes all the difference in how we view things. Today’s story in Matthew’s gospel is a case in point. 

When Jesus questioned Peter directly regarding who HE believed he was, Peter proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Jesus subsequently proclaimed that “Peter was the rock, and it was upon him that he would build his church.” In fact, his Greek name Petros comes from the Greek word petra meaning rock. It was upon this rock – the ministry of Peter – that Jesus was planning to build his church. And not even the gates of hell would prevail against it. 

Jesus continued, “Peter, I give you ‘the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ and the power to bind and to set free the presence of God – to forgive and to save.” 

But for some mysterious reason Jesus ordered him and the other disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Perhaps it was because Jesus was about to shatter their image of what this Messiah was sent to do. Or as a former parishioner and homiletics professor Richard Ward has proposed, “What Jesus began in this scene was a complete deconstruction of the disciples’ “Messianic Expectations.” 

What lay ahead was not a throne but a cross and this was too much for Peter. Ward continues, “his first act as the “leader-in-waiting” was to say ‘NO to Jesus. A word, Richard Ward contends, has become a habit for the church. Too often when Jesus says cross the church says crown – a tension that continues to impede our ability to follow Jesus. We have become the church of NO – following all too well Peter’s initial resistance. 

Peter should have seen this coming. The formative experience where Jesus’ ministry was shaped occurred immediately after he was baptized. You remember, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by whom? Satan. 

Satan offered him the things that any human king would want. All the kingdoms of this world and all their splendor and all their power were his for the taking (Matthew 4:8) IF Jesus would just bow down and worship — not God, but Satan. 

In today’s story we have Peter pulling Jesus aside to “counsel” him. Jesus must have thought to himself, “I’ve been down this road before!” When Peter warned Jesus not to speak in defeatist terms, Jesus responded with such force that Peter has to step back. He actually called Peter, “Satan”!  

Praise and affirmation for proclaiming Jesus as Messiah quickly turned into criticism and condemnation for his inability to see the flip-side of love as Jesus explained his fate AND his expectation that they would ALSO need to become cross-bearers if they truly desired to follow him. And cross-bearing is not as easy as wearing that symbolic piece of jewelry around one’s neck. It involves self-denial and self-sacrifice – which most of us are not really all that good at, neither do we know exactly how it’s best done. 

So, what does self-denial really mean? Frankly, the text from Matthew is pretty vague. Left as an abstraction, it becomes wide open to misinterpretation. What it certainly does not mean, Richard Ward suggests, is to remain in an abusive situation and valorize it as one’s “cross to bear.” It does not mean hiding out from life’s joys and blessings and responsibilities, enclosing oneself in self-righteousness, and calling that “self-sacrifice.” It does not mean becoming one of life’s doormats and playing some victim card. 

What is does mean is better explained by Paul in the other lectionary passage offered today from the book of Romans where he begins, “Let your 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. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Do not repay evil for evil. Love your enemies. Provide for the poor. 

This is the lifestyle Jesus was calling for in his disciples. It’s not a life of personal gain. It’s not the way of status or self-importance. It’s not lifestyles of the rich and famous. Following Jesus means self-sacrifice. Giving away to meet human need. It is a new or renewed perspective. A flip-side of love where, as my mamma would say – we can see Jesus in everything and in everyone. 

Today we will participate, once again, in a simple meal that brings us face to face with this challenge of Jesus. This is not just a ritual where we go through the motions without thinking. It is powerful reminder from the one who gave his life as the supreme example of what it means to live sacrificially not counting the costs of love. 

As you receive those simple elements today, I invite you to think prayerfully of what this gift means in your life. If we really believe that “Jesus is here right now,” and that “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,” how does that change who we are and how we live? Does it motivate us to be “cross-bearers” willing to follow a Savior who would rather die than acquiesce to imperial power?

Let your love be genuine. How will that make a difference in your life today? 


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