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Following Jesus to the bottom… Matthew 16:21-28

September 15, 2014


Preached at St Martin’s, Bladon on 31st August 2014

Words can often cause problems. That is, people who speak the same language, often use words in different ways. Words of course can change over time, just think of the way the word ‘gay’ has changed its meaning in 50 years. But it can also happen amongst people in the same generation.Let me give you an example from my wife’s experience, who has a Southern girl lived in the North for a few years.

Natalie was working as a Lay Assistant, she had a contract for a year which she could extend to a second year if she wished. As the time approached for her to decide people in the church began to ask if Natalie would be extending to a second year. But, in the North we use the word ‘stopping’ as a synonym for ‘staying’. It would be very normal, for example when asking a Northerner what they are doing this evening, to hear the answer ‘I’m stopping in’, that is they are staying at home. I’m sure now you can see the slightly amusing conversation which developed. Natalie was asked by a parishioner if at the end of her first year she would be stopping. Natalie, who was very keen to stay on, having met a very handsome potential vicar, replied ‘no’, she would not be stopping. The parishioner was horrified, having rather hoped that Natalie would stay, or rather stop, for another year. Confusion reigned because of the different understanding of the meaning of the word ‘stopping’.

Something like that is happening in our Gospel reading today. In the verses before those read today, Peter has rightly identified Jesus as Messsiah. But in today’s reading, we find that Peter has a very different definition of what Messiah means, to Jesus’ definition of himself. Peter imagines that a Messiah – what we today we might call a king – was one who by his mighty strength, and war-like abilities, would defeat the occupying Romans, re-establishing the kingdom of Israel, and rule the kingdom under God. Jesus, however, has a very different understanding of his role.

But first, what do we imagine a king is? Or perhaps a more contemporary question, what do we imagine a successful leader looks like? Perhaps, the successful leader is the one who fights off the opposition candidate in the election, showing the world how ridiculous the opposition policies are, and how much stronger and more trustworthy they are? Perhaps, the successful leader is the military general, who takes her inferior force, and through her strategic nous, defeats the enemy in battle. Perhaps, the successful leader, is the one who in the downturn of the economy, successfully out flanks his competitors, dropping his prices so that his competitors can’t compete. If we conceive of the successful leader in this way, we are not alone, for this is what the disciples thought too. Peter, on hearing Jesus’ vision of what will happen to Him as Messiah, that is – He will suffer greatly and be killed – cries out

‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’

The Jewish people had come to expect that the Messiah would be such a warrior-king. As a result the Romans had to keep putting down revolutionary movements, by would-be Messiahs.

And yet too often, far too often, this is what we imagine God’s kingdom is like. A king which, for all that strangeness of the cross, will return to judge the world, with an army in tow, to trample down His enemies and set up a kingdom, just like the kingdoms we see all around us, just a little bit better!! But Jesus’ vision for His kingdom, His expectations, turn our world, and the world of his disciples upside down, or rather turn them the right way up. St Francis had caught the spirit of what Jesus meant, which is why he stood on his hands to witness to the world, through this adopting of this absurd position that that what was really absurd was our acceptance of a hierarchical and unjust society. So Jesus shows the disciples, and us how a true King lives, and it is the exact polar opposite of how we think a king should act. Jesus’ vision is of a world where kings are servants, where those who would lead lead by serving those around them, including the beggars on the street. In fact, His kingdom is one in which all are servants, where all serve all, in the name of their servant king Jesus.

We shouldn’t be so shocked by this, though if we are honest we are, for our human hearts, are just like any other human hearts. We are inclined to believe that the hero is the strong man, the one who defeats his enemies in combat, who is victorious in a Churchillian way. No wonder the stories we read, and watch, and hear, are those of the James Bonds, the John Waynes, or to bring it up-to-date, the Jack Bauers. These are the kings which we long to be, or the successful people which we long to be with. In contrast, Jesus gives us the King of Phil 2, who,

though he was in the form of God, 
did not regard equality with God
 as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness. 
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death…

For the king we are called to worship begins by washing his disciples feet, and climaxes in his dying on a cross. For in the ‘real’ world, that is Jesus’ world, the cross is not the shocking failure it is so often viewed as. Even Christians get the cross wrong, imagining it to be a tactical withdrawal, a necessary step – a Trojan Horse if you like – on the road to a more glorious victory. No Jesus is never more the king he really is, than when seated on the cross. The cross itself is the victory, not the preamble to the real victory. For Jesus secures victory, not by the blood of his enemies, but rather, by His blood shed on the cross.

No wonder then Jesus turns to Peter, who is trying to get Jesus to act as a worldly king, and exclaims:

Get behind me, Satan!
You are a stumbling-block to me;
for you are setting your mind NOT on divine things
but on human things.

Well if Jesus is a king unlike any other, then what does that mean for his disciples? Well quite simply Jesus calls on us to ‘follow him’, that is walk the way he is walking, live the life he lived. It may even mean dying the death he died, as the Iraqi Christians have bravely demonstrated. We too must serve as Jesus served, giving our all to those around us, putting aside the ‘rat race’ mentality which pits one against another, and instead give our lives away in service. For, as Jesus quite cryptically tells us,

those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Here a clear choice is offered, between self-preservation at all costs, and the risky business of following Jesus. What Jesus highlights for us here, is that the self which is protected by the so called ‘safe’ option of self-preservation, is a self which is not worth protecting. For before the disciple is dead, those who have chosen self-preservation, have long since died, even if their bodies continue to breathe. And whilst physical death may a very realistic possibility for the true disciple there remains for him or her, the fact of life beyond the grave. Life as we have never yet known it, a life of abudance in every way, a life which will put this earthly life to shame, and in which no disciple will ever find themselves wishing they had opted for self-preservation.

If this seems a bit like ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ where to get closer to something, you have to go in the opposite direction, then we only need to look at the world today, including the suicides of prominent celebrities and business executives, those who have reached the heights of self-preservation, to see that living this ‘normal’ way isn’t really getting us anywhere. Rather, we are called to live the risky life of servant discipleship, who by our words and actions testify to another king, the one unlike any king before or since, who shows us the true but dangerous way to live. As one man said:

All around you people will be tiptoeing through life,
just to arrive at death safely. But dear children,
do not tiptoe.
Run, hop, skip, or dance, just don’t tiptoe.

We must not seek to climb to the top, for Jesus is at the bottom. If we would follow him, if we would be where he is, it must be by kneeling to help the least, and in kneeling find there to our astonishment the kingdom of God. No wonder Jesus gave us the Eucharist as the way to remember Him. He knew we are naturally like Peter, and all too soon, revert to the topsy-turvy view of the world. Jesus knew that we needed to be reminded of his death, the point at which we  think He reached his lowest, to be reminded that in fact  it was there that He found victory. This is the God-given corrective, along with the stories of His life which we hear every week, which will only end when He returns. Then, we will see the folly of this world of those who scrabble to the top seeking their own comfort, status and self-preservation. Then we will see the wisdom of the holy fools, those who scrabble to the bottom, who stood on their hands to see the world the right way up, who gave their life for their King and are now given it back in abundance.

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