A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on March 4, 2012.
Second Sunday in Lent
“Open mouth, insert foot.” So many times in my life, I have blurted out something without full knowledge of what I was saying. On one fine summer day, when I was about ten years old, I remember coming in from playing in the backyard and finding a paper bag on our kitchen table. Curious, I opened the bag and looked inside. At once I was confronted with the strong smell of peaches, but as I looked in, I noticed the peaches were all soft with brown bruises on them. I yelled out to my mom, “Mom, where’d you get these peaches? They need help!” My mom quickly entered the kitchen with panic written all over her face as she whispered intensely to me: “Those are the peaches that your aunt gave us, and she’s still here!” My aunt was visiting us and on her way to our home, she stopped by an orchard and purchased some overripe peaches. I think my aunt heard my comments, but she was gracious enough to ignore them. That evening, when we had some of those peaches for dessert, they were the juiciest, sweetest peaches I remember ever eating as a child. They were fragrant, fresh and refreshing. But boy, was I embarrassed by what I said!
Simon Peter was also prone to the “foot in mouth” disease. I’m so glad I’m not Peter! How would you like to go down in biblical history as the one disciple whom Jesus rebuked as “Satan” because of what you said? Peter wasn’t a bad guy; he was actually one of Jesus’ closest disciples. But in a crucial conversation with Jesus in Mark chapter 8, Peter blurted out something without full knowledge of what he was saying.
In the verses before our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus had gathered his disciples and asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
The disciples replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”
That was the right answer. Peter thought he had aced the quiz. But instead of congratulating Peter for being right, Jesus warned his disciples not to tell anyone about him. Furthermore, Jesus began to teach that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. Jesus had often taught in cryptic parables, but this time, Jesus spoke clearly and plainly, making sure that there would be no misunderstanding in this teaching.
How many times has something unexpected hit us from out of left field, and it gets our panties in a bunch, our knickers in a twist, our bloomers in a knot? I think all three happened to Peter, and he began to rebuke Jesus. Wrong move. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” If only Peter had remained silent after correctly answering Jesus’ question, he would’ve been seen as insightful and smart, and he would have learned from Jesus what a true Messiah was all about. But Peter thought he knew the truth better than Jesus, and Peter’s ignorance is now recorded forever for all to see.
Before we harsh on Peter too much, let’s acknowledge that we could not have done any better. So far, up to this point, Mark has emphasized the power and the authority of Jesus. As I’ve said a couple of Sundays ago, Peter had seen Jesus’ miracles and wondrous deeds; after all, Jesus had healed Peter’s own mother-in-law. Peter saw Jesus healing the sick, casting out demons, calming the storm, walking on water, feeding thousands and even raising a girl from the dead. What Peter had seen so far totally confirmed his assumptions of what a Messiah should be. When Jesus pulls the rug from under Peter and shatters his assumptions, Peter reactively resisted.
What are our assumptions of what Christ should be? Is Jesus merely a powerful, wonder-working Messiah for us? If He is, then following this Jesus in the way of discipleship may look something like what is taught in recent New York Times best-selling book written by a mega-church pastor. In this book, readers are told “to develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace and happiness, and when we do, nothing on earth will be able to hold those things from us. . . . God wants us to constantly be increasing, to be rising to new heights. God wants to increase us financially by giving us promotions, fresh ideas and creativity. . . . With God on your side, you cannot possibly lose.”
This pastor has it partly right. Jesus the powerful, wonder-working Messiah wants victory, health, and abundance for us. But it is wrong to assume that the Christ we are following is only a wonder-working Messiah serving the things of men, and not the things of God. Jesus himself faced this temptation from Satan when he was out in the desert. That’s why Jesus rebuked Peter by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Yes, God wants us to have abundance, but not necessarily the abundance of feeding the five thousand with leftovers, but the abundance of feeding on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Yes, God wants us to have power, but not necessarily the power of us lording over other people, but the power of Christ lording over our lives. Yes, God wants us to have success, but not necessarily the success of millions of people following us, but the success of millions of us following Jesus.
So how do we follow Jesus? What is the way of discipleship? Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Taking up one’s cross . . . that is the way of discipleship. But what does that mean? Sometimes we hear people describe their failing health, the loss of their job, their broken relationships as “the cross” that they have to bear. While I don’t want to minimize their suffering, I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant by “carrying one’s cross.” In Jesus’ day, the cross was a political instrument executing the oppressive power of the Roman Empire. The cross was the death penalty that the Roman Emperor used to deter people from challenging his power and authority. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near, that pronouncement was a direct challenge and threat not just to the religious authorities but also to the occupying Roman Empire. To carry one’s cross, to follow Jesus in the way of discipleship means to live in such a way that declares “Jesus is Lord,” not the Roman Emperor, nor the American President, not Wall Street nor Madison Avenue, not our parents, our spouse, or our children. Jesus is Lord, and not our need for comfort, security, worldly success and power. But when we follow Jesus instead of these others, I guarantee they will fight back. The way of discipleship is costly; it will require a sacrifice of our time, our resources, a letting go of certain appetites, ambitions, and anxieties. That’s what Jesus meant by denying one self and taking up one’s cross.
The early Church fully understood the cost of discipleship and the indignity of the cross. Early Christians risked their lives to follow Jesus even in the midst of Roman persecution. Second century Church Father Tertullian once wrote: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” As a result, the Church expanded rapidly into all parts of the empire and beyond.
Compare that to the church of today. Thomas à Kempis wrote these words five hundred years ago, and they still apply:
“Jesus today has many who love his heavenly kingdom, but few who carry his cross; many who yearn for comfort, few who long for distress. Plenty of people he finds to share his banquet, few to share his fast. Everyone desires to take part in his rejoicing, but few are willing to suffer anything for his sake. There are many that follow Jesus as far as the breaking of bread, few as far as drinking the cup of suffering;… many that praise and bless him, as long as they receive comfort.”
There is a lot of talk today about how Christianity is being attacked . . . how our holidays, our practices, our beliefs and our rights are being oppressed and violated. But if you study the history of Christianity, you’ll find that faithful expressions of Christianity have always being attacked. The question is how the Church chooses to respond to such a challenge.
The Christian church in America recently enjoyed a time of great success, power and prosperity, and while no one would complain about such blessings, I fear that we have become spoiled by that experience. In those glory days, we assumed that being a follower of Christ is the same as being a patriotic American. But in the last fifty years, society pulled the rug from under the church, and shattered our assumptions. We’re just beginning to realize that the Kingdom of God and the American Empire are two different things. Today, the way of discipleship requires more denial of worldly comfort, security, success, status and power, and we’ve resisted hearing this message. Like Peter, it has gotten our panties in a bunch, our knickers in a twist, our bloomers in a knot.
During this season of Lent, let us hear with open ears and courageous hearts what Jesus told his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” How will we respond to this challenging invitation? Will we have in mind the things of God and follow the way of Jesus by being willing to suffer many things and be rejected, and by being willing to lose our life for the sake of the gospel? Or will we be like Peter and have in mind the things of men and follow the way of the world by resisting and perhaps even rebuking our Lord?
I want to close with a final image. The way of discipleship aims toward the goal of becoming more Christ-like in our actions, our attitudes, our words and our spirit. Consider these objects I have in my hand. At a distance they both look like oranges, but in reality, one is a real orange and the other is fake. There are many ways to determine which is which, but one sure way to test for authenticity is for me to squeeze each one and see what happens. . . .
When I try to squeeze the plastic orange – nothing happens. It is hard and resistant to my touch, and it would sooner crack than yield anything. On the other hand, it looks good on the outside.
But when I squeeze the real orange – orange juice comes out: fragrant, fresh and refreshing. That’s a mark of a true orange, but it comes at a cost to the orange. But if I squeeze this fruit and lemon juice or grapefruit juice comes out, I may wonder whether this is really a lemon or a grapefruit, even though it looks like an orange.
So here’s a test of our Christian identity. You will be tempted to use this test on others, but this test is most helpful if you use it only on yourself. As Christians, we believe that Christ lives in us. Sure, we may look like a Christian on the outside . . . we go to worship, attend Bible study and small group, give money, and even go and serve others once in a while. But when the expectations of the world and difficult situations and people come to squeeze us, what comes out of us? When accused of following Christ, will we follow Peter by shamefully denying, “I don’t know this man” or will we respond with calm assurance, “It is as you say”? When our enemies harm us, will we retaliate “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” or will we obey Jesus in loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us? When others are trying to crucify us, will we spew out hate and curses, or will we follow Jesus and pray, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?” Will people see the spirit of the world or the Spirit of Christ? When a Christian is squeezed, Christ flows out – fragrant, fresh and refreshing. That’s a mark of a follower of Jesus. That’s the way of discipleship. Amen.
 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Ronald Knox and Michael Oakley (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1959) 2.9, 76-77.