The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost
August 30-31, 2008
Text: Matthew 16:21-28
Dear Friends in Christ,
Jesus wants you to be rich. We hear this from the televangelists. If we’re really Christians we should be able to use God to get whatever we want as though God were a vending machine. Insert one prayer, get one blessing. This is sometimes called name and claim it theology. But if material possessions and earthly success are marks of God’s blessing, then what about the Mormons? There are many wealthy Mormons like Mitt Romney. What about wealthy atheists and agnostics? If we go back to the movie “Rosmary’s Baby” Mia Farrow’s husband makes a pact with the devil for success in his acting career. So which is it? Is earthly success a mark of God’s blessing or Satan’s blessing?
At the root of this is an increasing ignorance of the Bible. Recently, one very large evangelical mega church did a survey of their members. They were shocked to realize that most of the members of their church were not really Christians at all and knew so little of Scripture that they couldn’t tell the difference between Christians and non-Christians. They instituted a new and revolutionary program to correct this problem. It’s called Bible study. (Where’s a rim shot when you need it?)
When we study the Bible it becomes clear that blessings and curses often come in different forms. Sometimes one man’s curse is another man’s blessing. Pastor Mueller likes to tell this Chinese fable: A peasant woke up one morning and found that a horse had wondered into his farm yard. All the neighbors came by and said what a blessing! The farmer replied: “Is this a blessing or a curse.” The farmer and his son trained the horse and yes they were able to do more work and were more prosperous. Then one night the horse disappeared. The neighbors all came by and said what a curse, you lost your horse? The farmer said: Is this a blessing or a curse?” A day later the horse was back with whole herd of horses. The neighbors came by and said what a blessing, you have a whole herd of horses. The farmer said: “Is this a blessing or a curse?” Then his son was thrown from one of horses as he was training it and broke his ankle. The neighbors all came by and said, what a terrible curse your only son is now a cripple. The farmer replied: “Is this a blessing or a curse?” Then a warlord came by and took all the horses and conscripted all the able bodied young men into his army. The farmer was blessed to still have his son. The point of this is that sometimes things that appear to be curses, end up being blessings.
Our world seeks a sort saccharine, banal existence. Blessings are usually seen in very superficial terms. In out text Christ deal decisively with false notions of what is good. He tells the disciples about His upcoming suffering and death. He is plain about it. He is going to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise from the dead. Now Peter, like most of us, doesn’t see suffering and death as a good thing. How can this be part of God’s plan? Peter tries to turn Christ from this path. But Christ rebuke’s Peter, calling him Satan. He tell’s Peter to get behind Him. This is significant. Peter can be Satan’s agent, standing in the way of what must be done, or He can follow behind Christ, as a disciple. Christ is telling Peter to get out of the way and take the place of a disciple. Peter still had to learn what was truly good, what was truly a blessing.
The victory of the Christian is fully realized in heaven. The most victory that we can have in this life is peace of heart and confidence that in Christ’s death and resurrection our salvation is secure. Material wealth and success could be a blessing or a curse. It is a curse if it takes us away from our Savior. We know from history that some Christians have had peaceful lives. Some Christians have had great material wealth. But many have not had either peace nor wealth. And even those who have had outward peace, often have inner struggles with their own sinful hearts. This is the normal state of affairs. We must give up ourselves and our own sinful ambitions if we are to follow Christ. Many Christians over the centuries have had to literally put their lives on the line. It is a struggle to be Christian even in the best of times. In the worst, it is down right deadly.
We must be careful with our use of language here. We do not struggle against sin and worldliness of our own power. In fact, we have no power to do so. It is only to that degree that Christ lives within us that we can struggle against our own sinfulness. It is the Holy Spirit who installs Christ in our hearts. So we speak of the Holy Spirit as preserving us in the faith. And again we must resist the ways of the evangelicals. They would first make the power to struggle our own instead of the Holy Spirit. Second they would codify this as though we were making progress toward some goal. Some would go so far as to say that if we are mature enough in our faith we can stop sinning. Far from this, true maturity of faith is when we fully see all of our sins. Most Christians, I would dare to say even myself, only see the tip for their own sinfulness. God limits us so that we would not be driven to despair. But as our faith becomes stronger He shows us more fully how truly sinful we are. There is no code or grading system for this. Since we cannot fully see our own hearts, we cannot grade ourselves. And others see even less. So only God truly sees. All we can do is continue our life in Christ and struggle on.
Take up your cross and follow Me. These are hard words. They require us to surrender our life to God’s design. For indeed either we are standing in Christ’s way or following behind Him. Most people don’t want to struggle. Even many Christians will turn from the struggle. For in the end we are wrestling with ourselves and our own hearts. It would be worthless, but for Christ. For why should we struggle against sin if there is no hope. In fact, if all there is were hope, there would be no point in the struggle. For we are not strong enough to defeat our own hearts for some vague hope. No, we do not struggle for hope. We struggle because Christ has won the victory by dying on the cross for our sins. He has washed us clean and made us His brothers - fellow sons of God the father. And here we must use sons, because in Scripture, a son is an heir. This is what Christ has made us, sons and heirs whether we are male or female in this life. We are the heirs of the kingdom of God. This is not a vague hope but a battle already won, a peace treaty already signed with Christ’s blood. So we can follow after Christ and take up our crosses. For this struggle is the smallest matter compared to what Christ has already done for us.