Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16:24-28
Lectionary 22 13th Sunday after Pentecost
At the advanced age of four, an intelligent young man who has exceptional grandparents rode a Busch Gardens roller coaster for the first time. As the coaster climbed the hill to its crest, and then immediately plummeted, Jonathan screamed, “Help! Somebody save me!”
I imagine that’s how Jesus’ disciple Peter felt. It wasn’t that long ago that he and his brother Andrew were casting nets into the sea. Jesus walked by and “said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Peter, his brother and the other disciples followed Jesus, watching him as he made lepers clean, and made those who were not able to even wiggle their toes walk again. Peter and the others heard Jesus call those who mourn and those who are meek blessed. He heard Jesus teach about the law and the prophets, anger and adultery, treasures and judgment. On top of the mountain, Peter and the disciples experienced the feeding of thousands with only a few fish and some loaves of bread. With all this in mind, when Jesus asked, Peter said, “You are the Messiah!”
On this Labor Day weekend, it is good to remember that in Peter’s time and place, struggling farmers and fisherman and laborers paid more than half their income in taxes. Most people lived in poverty. Slavery was common. The oppressive government could make people like John the Baptizer could lose their heads. The people cried, “Help! Somebody save me!” And along comes Jesus, healing and feeding people. “You are the one to save us,” Peter says.
But then Jesus told them that he will suffer and die. Maybe the shock of that overshadowed the part where Jesus said he would be raised on the third day, or maybe the disciples didn’t understand. “God forbid it!” Peter said. “’Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…’” Jesus replied. Jesus called Peter a stumbling block because Peter put himself in front of Jesus, in front where he could be tripped over. As a disciple of Jesus, Peter should have been behind Jesus so that he could follow him.
“’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” This verse has been misinterpreted to try to justify abusive relationships. It’s been cited to prove that God says suffering is God’s desire for us, but that’s a misreading not only of the text, but of Jesus and Jesus’ mission, and God’s desires for us. God want us to flourish. Not only us, but our neighbor. Jesus gives us a better way to do that than our way. “’For those who want to save their life will lose it,’” Jesus says. Do you think maybe Jesus needs to re-consider his advertising campaign for Christianity?
There are all kinds of ways that we try to save our own lives. We try all kinds of things to overcome our problems without depending on God. We have ways of protecting ourselves. We have worked out our own ways of staying in control of our lives, thinking that’s how to save it. We turn to and invest in things to give us life that simply can’t. In what or in whom do you put your trust and faith? Is it your perfectionism, or perhaps your intellect? At the end of the day, what has given you life?
Jesus says that he is the one who gives life. “’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,’” Jesus says. It is not command, but an invitation. Denying ourselves does not mean that we give up cookies. Denying ourselves means that we choose either the life we thought we wanted, or the life God offers us through Christ.
In our reading of Romans, we hear St. Paul elaborate on what a life of following Christ entails. “Let love be genuine,” he writes. That’s easy, right? Then Paul reminds us that love should include actively extending hospitality to strangers, and blessing those who persecute you. Associate with the lowly, and don’t repay evil for evil. If your enemies are hungry, feed them, and if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink. This is a good time to remember that we do not do these things on our own. Jesus gives us the courage and the strength and the power to do the things he wants us to do.
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to come behind me, that person must turn away from oneself and take up one’s cross and live a life following me.’” “’For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,’” Jesus says, “Love me. Let go of things that can’t love you back. Stop protecting your own ego. Love me more than life itself. Love me enough to be willing to be laughed at, spit upon, and mocked. Be willing to suffer and to die, to die even to yourself, on account of me. Follow me, and I will give you life that never fails.”
Let Jesus be in the first car, and you are in for a wild ride! Sometimes we will be up, and sometimes we will find ourselves plummeting. But Jesus promises to lead us through it all. “Help! Somebody save me!” Jonathan screamed as the coaster crested the hill and he plummeted down. And as he stepped off the car, he was heard shouting, “Let’s do it again!”
~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
 Matthew 4:19.
 Translation by Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Churchbook, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004. 139-163.