Sermon 30 August 2020 | Revd Brent Swann | Watch the service here
Today’s Gospel reading follows on from last Sunday – a kōrero between Jesus and His disciples while in Caesarea Philippi. I will focus on Matthew 16: 24-25. It reads, “Then Jesus told His disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.
How do we react and respond as Christians when we hear these words from Jesus. How might we interpret what Jesus is actually saying here, especially in the light of the cross and all the pain and suffering that individuals and communities experience. The suffering of sickness, job loss, poverty, exploding bombs, environmental destruction, loneliness, grief, discrimination and racism. Ae, so much suffering.
My thoughts on how to interpret these words is simply to recognize that suffering happens and whether you choose it, embrace it, or resist it, Christ is present with you in it. I think that sometimes we are so familiar with Jesus’ words of his impending suffering and death that we assume it was all part of some plan, God’s plan. But what if, instead, God’s plan was to send Jesus to bear a word of redemption and grace and love and the cross happened as a result? (See John 3:19.*)
God in Jesus came amongst us bearing a message of aroha and acceptance even though Jesus knew that humanity’s likely response would be to reject the message and kill the messenger. In this sense, the cross was not Jesus’ goal, but rather the outcome of Jesus’ faithfulness in the face of unfaithful people. He didn’t choose the cross but rather trusted God to work even through the extreme of the cross for the sake of the world God loves so much.
For us, the cross isn’t something we choose, but rather it is something that finds us. Sometimes what is redemptive in our suffering is obvious – the sacrifices we make for our children, our whanau and friends, the sacrifice we have made during this pandemic for the sake of community health, for us, the team of five million – and sometimes it’s hard to tell if there is anything good at all, let alone redemptive, in the suffering we see and experience in our own life and in the lives of others. And yet Christ identifies with all of our suffering; he took it all on himself in his suffering, and promises to meet us in ours.
So what does “take up your cross and deny yourself” look like? Perhaps it’s following Jesus’ lead and, to the best of our ability, to make decisions and act in a way that reflects God’s aroha for us and all people, God’s acceptance of us and all people, God’s desire for abundant life for us and all people. I think “Deny yourself” is not the same as “forget all about yourself” and certainly is not “demean yourself”. God is in it for everyone, not just us. Perhaps what denying yourself looks like is seeing that you and I, tātou katoa, are part of something far greater.
Suffering doesn’t need to be spiritualized. And it should not be justified. And it should regularly be resisted, particularly as we are moved to resist the actions and systems that increase the suffering of others. Believe me, suffering chosen and sacrificial, or unwanted, and at times even unholy – will find us. And Jesus will be there.
This is perhaps a time of biblical lament where, like Job and the psalmists, this is a chance to name where we are suffering, how we are suffering, and to share our suffering with God and with one another. Whether we are tired or hurting or fearful or insecure or grieving or anxious or in pain or distressed. To name these things honestly, to hear again God’s promise that Christ is in the suffering with us, and to lean into Christ’s presence and power to see us through. We literally cannot save our own lives, and our attempts to do so often take a toll on ourselves and others. But as we surrender that impulse and hear and trust God’s promise, we discover that those things which seek to take our lives are no match for the crucified and resurrected Christ.
In all this suffering know that God is holding us, lamenting with us, encouraging us, and promising us the strength to endure and, having endured, to flourish and, flourishing, to help others do the same.
* John 3:19 ‘And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’