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Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 31, 2014

I worked in the theater from the time I was in high school through graduate school. I was usually a stage manager. The stage manager is responsible for giving the actors, musicians, lighting crew and sound technicians their cues to come in and do their thing, whether it be saying lines, breaking into song, turning on spotlights or playing the tape with the thunder crashing on it. Stage managers hold the play together.

Today’s play opens with Peter and Jesus in the spotlights. Peter has just confessed Jesus as Messiah, Son of the living God, and Jesus has commended him for receiving this revelation from God. He has told him he is the rock on which he will build the church. Peter’s spotlight gets brighter and his expression more happy and proud. Jesus’ spotlight is shining with such intensity that it makes him look like God in human form instead of just a man. The curtain goes down on Act I.

Peter has studied his lines for Act II. He and Jesus and the other disciples are going to continue to do great things – heal and exorcise, preach and teach about the kingdom of heaven. They are going to continue to annoy the Pharisees, which Peter is secretly glad about. When the time is right Jesus will go into Jerusalem in triumph and take back the city for Israel. Peter’s people will be free, and he will have played a major part in it. So Peter’s lines are full of phrases such as “Look at Jesus and see what he is doing for you” or a short laugh when Jesus tests the Pharisees or maybe even lines that he himself will say when Jesus gives them power to follow his example.

The curtain goes up for Act II, and there is vast confusion on stage. It seems that Jesus has not studied the same script as Peter has studied. The same God who has revealed to Peter that Jesus is the Messiah has revealed to Jesus that he will not be a Messiah who is strong and victorious and invulnerable, but a Messiah who will suffer and die and be raised on the third day. Lines are dropped, people on stage look at each other in consternation and everyone wonders what this means, including Jesus, who has said it. The stage manager, who is reading from Peter’s script, does not know whom to cue to say what. The spotlight on Jesus wavers as the lighting technician wonders whether to darken the stage and have everyone start over again from the top. The sound technician does not know whether to play the triumphant processional music or quickly find a more subdued piece to use for this shocking announcement.

Peter is desperate to get the play back on the track of his script, so he invents a line that is not in the book. He rebukes Jesus, which he would never do under ordinary circumstances. “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter’s natural instinct, as it would be for any of us, is to protect Jesus in whatever way possible so that he can accomplish his mission to save Israel, which is God’s promise. He also wants to protect himself because as the master goes so do the disciples. Peter is so traumatized by Jesus’ announcement that he has not heard the words about the resurrection, or if he has, he is incapable of wrapping his mind around them.

But Jesus is having none of that. He is the Master, and his script takes precedence. He is probably saying lines right from the page because he knows how Peter and the rest will react.

All of a sudden Peter goes from being a rock to a stumbling block. He goes from being an encourager to Satan the tempter, because Jesus is not in favor of the proposed course of action either. He has acceded to it because it is God’s plan, but he would so rather it be the way Peter wants it to be. Peter has his mind on human things not divine things. And why wouldn’t he?

Peter is human, he is Jewish and has been raised on his concept of the Messiah, and he doesn’t want to suffer and die. No human being wants that. But Jesus has access to the divine will, and it is different – so different. God is planning to sacrifice the Son to reconcile Godself to the world, not to raise the Jews to power. A spiritual answer instead of a physical one.

Peter’s script was supposed to end with Act II, which is headed “The Triumph of Jesus”, but Jesus’ play has three acts. Act II is also the triumph of Jesus, but in a very different way. Act III is titled “The Call to Discipleship”. The spotlight has finally settled on Jesus and it is clear he is in charge of the play now. Jesus issues an invitation that requires an RSVP, but his invitation is not to an easy life as the followers of a miracle worker and a king. His invitation is a call to do as Jesus will do, to pick up the cross and follow – to go where Jesus does, to face the persecution he faces, to die for the gospel if need be. He promises life for those who accept death, and death for those who try to gain their lives living by the world’s values. The immediate response of all the disciples – and I venture to say, all of us – would be, No thanks Jesus. That is not what I am looking for. Even though Jesus promises reward at the final judgment for those who have done well in their following, that seems a long time off with a lot of vulnerability and shame and rejection in between. Peter and the disciples don’t know if they can do that or not. Peter is not sure he can be the rock Jesus wants. Act III ends with a resigned expression on Jesus’ face and the disciples shaking their heads.

We wear crosses around our necks and hang them from our rearview mirrors. They may hang in our houses or be on a bumper sticker. But what does that cross really mean for us? Why is it the central point of our faith? Wouldn’t it be easier to concentrate on Jesus’ good moral teaching, skip Good Friday and go directly to Easter (which is what a lot of us do liturgically). I hope we wear and display crosses because we are acknowledging that without the cross we have no salvation. Without Jesus dying for our sins, we are not reconciled to God. Without the reality of the cross, there is no Christianity because we follow a crucified Lord, who shared our messy lives and messy deaths and wrapped it all in God’s love for us.

Our following Jesus is relatively easy physically. We are not likely to be persecuted or tortured or killed. But it is not so for others. In Christian Century magazine, there is an article by Titus Presler, who is a Church of Pakistan college principal. He was intimidated and beaten in a Pakistani province known for its religious extremism. All Saints Church in Peshewar was bombed in 2013, killing 128 Christians and wounding 170. Decades of discrimination have left many of the nation’s 3.5 million Christians in menial jobs, but the church has continued to contribute to the country through clinics, hospitals, schools and colleges. That is picking up the cross and following Jesus.

What picking up that cross for us usually means is turning our will and our lives over to God and praying as Jesus did in the garden for God’s will to be done instead of ours, then asking for God to show us the way. We are losing our lives when we work for social justice issues that are unpopular. We are losing our lives when we stand up for the oppressed, the hungry and the poor. We are losing our lives when we give sacrificially to the church for its mission work. We are becoming vulnerable by giving up our worldly security for eternal life in the reign of God.

Act III of Jesus’ play is often hard for us to swallow. An instrument of death as the central focus of our faith means sacrifice and possible death for us as Jesus’ followers. At the very least, it means giving up what we want to do in favor of what God has in mind. How often during the day do you ask for God’s will to be done in your life and listen for an answer? Are you aware of any dying you are doing to save your life? If we want to be disciples, we have to confront Jesus’ paradox and make a choice about our living every day. Jesus’ way, not Peter’s way, will bring pain and suffering for the sake of the gospel, but Jesus’ way, not Peter’s way, is how God wants us to live in the world. God help us to be rocks and not stumbling blocks for the building of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Titus Presler, “Persecuted in Pakistan”, Christian Century, September 3, 2014, page 10.