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Really Living

Reverend Philip Stringer

Matthew 16:21-28

LET US PRAY: Gracious Lord, Bread of Life, feed us with your Word, and speak to our hearts, that we may love and serve only you, now and forever. AMEN

Several years ago, I made a bunch of these nutcrackers. I gave them as Christmas gifts to my family and friends and co-workers. It’s a nutcracker. I was really proud of them. I packaged each of them up in a box with a bag of nuts and mailed them off.

On Christmas Day we had a video call with my sister and her family. They tried to be gracious — with a half-forced smile. I asked if they liked the nutcracker.

“Oh,” my sister exclaimed, “it’s a nutcracker!” She picked it up while I said, yes — that’s why I put the nuts in with it. They thought it was a percussion instrument. Then they put a nut in the bowl and tried to whack it with the end of the stick.

I put a lot of work and love into the gift. I had sent them all of the pieces they needed to make it work. But what I HADN’T done was include any explanation or instructions. And without those, they were lost.

Jesus didn’t want that to happen with his disciples. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are following Jesus. They go with him to the villages. They are with him when he is teaching, when he is performing miracles, when he is healing. The people around Jesus are celebrating his presence…. but they don’t understand why he is there. So, Jesus tells them.

When Peter rebukes Jesus — when he tells him that he should NOT go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day be raised— When Peter rebukes Jesus, he doesn’t realize that it is already happening! It had always been happening. The road was laid out for Jesus, even before Peter became a disciple. When Jesus was born — in a manger on a quiet night in a stable — what nobody understood — and what we often forget ourselves — is that he was born to die.

All of the pieces are there. It is foretold by the prophets. It is proclaimed by angels. It is pointed to by John. Jesus’ own words lay it all out. Jesus is on his way to the cross. And all of this stuff — the teaching, the miracles, the healings — they all show that the way of Jesus is the way of self-giving love. What Jesus is modeling for his disciples is the way of loving one’s enemies. He is calling them to this way — He is calling them to a life of love.

Jesus is calling you and me to a life of love, too. It’s all right there to see. The instructions are written right there in both his words and actions.

Sometimes, though, I think that we forget to read them.

Our scripture texts today turn our attention back to the purpose that underlies our religion. What lies beneath it all is love. Without it, all of this (church) is for nothing. When all is said and done, it’s all about love. It has always been only about love. That’s all. Only love.

What must it have been like for Jesus to be surrounded by people who said that they loved him, but who didn’t really know him?

Peter loved Jesus. But when he pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him for saying that he must go to Jerusalem to die, he showed that he did not truly understand Jesus.

I think that that must have been a lonely moment for Jesus. I suppose it was probably a lonely moment for Peter, too. There was a space between them — an empty place. A lack of understanding.

We all know what that is like, too. We know what it is like to not be understood. To not be known. There is much, in fact, that separates us, and much we do not understand about each other. We each have had unique experiences. We have differing opinions, beliefs and priorities regarding an endless range of life’s topics.

But there is one thing beyond all other things that unites us here in our worship. We are baptized. We are the recipients of God’s grace, and we are gathered by our faith in the power of that grace.

We are here because of the love of God-- a love that gathers us from all walks of life.

In Jesus’ rebuttal of Peter and his words to the others, we can hear Jesus’ call for us to focus our attention so that -- above all other concerns, experiences and beliefs of this life -- we may live by faith in the grace of God. Jesus calls us to focus our vision on him so that we may live knowing that, although our human limitations prevent us from knowing God fully -- God knows each of us fully -- and loves each of us fully.

That cheerful message may come as something of a surprise, given Jesus’ statement that “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But we need to understand that his invitation in following him is not to die, but to live -- REALLY live. Underlying Jesus’ journey to the cross is the reason for that journey. Jesus loves us.

A weened fawn in our yard this morning -- alone, on his way somewhere — I don’t think even it knew where. Just alone and trying to figure that out. His goal is to eat, survive and reproduce. And you know that is the way of living things in this world. The experience of withdrawing from each other when we are hurt is a natural reaction for survival.

But Jesus calls us to something more than just going through the motions of eating and breathing. He calls us to live as God lives -- that is what God created us to do in the first place, and what sin prevents us from doing. Jesus invites us to love. And more than this, Jesus empowers us to love with his own love.

When Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him, Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. He is on his way to give up his life in order to save yours.

Jesus is going to Jerusalem because he loves you.

Jesus did what he did because love directed his life.

“Follow me,” he says. Let your love for God and your love for each other be what motivates you.

That is a message for you and me regarding the way each of us views and treats others -- in your homes, at school or work, in public places and private gatherings.

I think about the great divide in our country. We are the “United States,” but in some ways we have never been united. The racial divide is so engrained in our history and culture that I think many Americans don’t even see it as a wound — they think it’s just the way it is.

I think of the political divide and the animosity Americans have against Americans, and how so many people who are filling church pews across the country this morning, are celebrating — even gleeful — over every failure of the other party’s leadership. Ugly, hateful — even violent rhetoric from the very people singing songs about their love of Jesus.

I think that we are always forgetting the instructions.

Jesus’ rebuttal of Peter is a warning to the church to not lose our way.

It is a message to us as we are gathered in this room around the body and blood of Jesus. What we do as Saint Michael Lutheran Church should not be done to preserve ourselves or serve ourselves. We are gathered by love so that we may pour out that love upon the world. Consider how wonderful that is! We are gathered by love so that we may pour out that love upon the world.

Soren Kierkegaard was a famous Christian philosopher in the 1800’s. He was frustrated by the complacency of Christians in his country, Denmark. He told a parable about a certain rich man who bought a team of outstanding horses. But the rich man’s coachman was inept and undisciplined, and before long, you could hardly recognize the once proud horses. They were dull and drowsy; their pace was inconsistent; their stamina gone. They developed strange quirks and bad habits.

In frustration, the rich man called for help from the King’s coachman, who knew horses very well. The King’s coachman worked with the horses for a short while, and when they became familiar with his voice, they were totally responsive to his commands. They held their heads high, their eyes were bright, and their pace once again became exquisitely beautiful. The potential was there all along. It all depended upon whose voice they heard directing their lives.

Jesus calls to us: “Take up your cross and follow me.” Dedicate yourselves to a life of love.

Remember that you are loved.

Have confidence in the power of that love to preserve you and hold you safe and fill you with life.

And then pour it out upon the world.

Celebrate and be glad: Jesus has drawn you into his life of love and is calling you to share it with the world.

And in those moments when you lose your way — in those times when you are misunderstood by others — when you are tempted to return ugliness for ugliness — vitriol for vitriol — hate for hate. When you are treated unfairly — remember Jesus. He is the instruction manual.

Focus your attention on Jesus -- for the one who calls you will also show you the way.


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