“Just when you thought you had it all together…”
Jesus went on with his disciples to the village of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still
others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him,
“You are the Messiah.” And Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the
elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this
quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his
disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on
divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them. If any wants 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it
profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their
life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them
the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Now I’m the kind of person who likes to have things figured out. I like to have the right answer
when I’m asked a question.
I like to be able to talk about God knowledgeably and with confidence. I want to declare, “This
is the way God works in people’s lives and this is the way God works in my life.” Then I want to put this
information in a box, neatly place it on a shelf in my mind, bring it out when needed and appropriate,
and feel confident that I have everything under control, that I don’t have to fuss and worry about being
right, about who God is or about the way that God works— ‘cause I got this.
Isn’t it true about all of us, that we like to be able to be the ones in the know? We all like to
have things under control. We all like to have the right answers, particularly when it comes to religion
and God-stuff. We don’t want to be wrong about anything having to do with God and Jesus.
Now, taking this line of thought a little further because our text takes us on this ride for sure,
the very idea of having a God who is different than we have been taught or different than we have been
declaring, or different than we want God to be, the very idea of a Jesus who surprises us rather than
being predictable, is, at the least, not what we want to deal with, and, at its worst, a little bit frightening.
…Well, Peter and the other disciples were shocked by Jesus that day on the way to Caesarea
Philippi. As they walked along, you can imagine how important they must have felt when Jesus asked
them this question. “Who do people say that I am, who do YOU say that I am?” They all tried so hard to
give him the right answer, just like we probably would. “John the Baptist,” they eagerly said. “Elijah,”
they guessed again. One of them even tried to keep it generic enough to cover all the bases and said,
“You’re one of the prophets, Jesus.” Then Peter piped up, authoritatively and said, “You’re the
Messiah.” But instead of Jesus excitedly shouting, “Right, Peter!” he told them all that they had to be
quiet about this entire matter.
Worse still, Jesus launched into a teaching about how the Son of Man would have to suffer, then
be killed, and, then after three days, rise. “WHAT?” they must have been thinking. What in the world is
he talking about?
Can you blame Peter for taking Jesus aside and scolding him for talking that way? Peter did NOT
want to hear about the death of the guy who was their beloved, respected teacher and friend, the one
he had just identified as the Messiah. But then Jesus turned around and scolded Peter right back, telling
him that his mind was stuck on human things rather than on divine matters.
Who knows if the disciples understood at all when Jesus began talking about how his followers
needed to take up their cross and follow him? And don’t forget what he said about losing one’s life in
order to save it. How confusing that must have been! In fact, it probably all seemed like nonsense to
the disciples. They were only trying to give Jesus the right answer.
They were trying to give him the right answer, to show him that they understood who he was.
Still, they were speaking from their own interests, needs, and egos. And that showed that they hadn’t
really been listening to what he had been telling them. They just wanted Jesus to approve of their
answers. …We all can be like that sometimes.
…But the lesson that they, like us, need to learn is, when it comes to God, we need to close our
mouths and open our eyes, ears, heart and mind. There is simply no way we can put God in a box with a
set of instructions and a recipe that will cover any eventuality. There’s just no way….
The disciples, Peter in particular, thought they had Jesus all figured out. They pretty much had
put him in a box and placed that box on a shelf ready to be brought down when needed. Peter had
begun to suspect that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah and, being a good Jew, he knew very well
who and what the Messiah was supposed to be.
The Messiah was supposed to be royalty, a powerful ruler, a conqueror, a liberator whom
everyone would obey. In this time and place the Jewish people needed to be liberated from the heavy
domination of the Roman Empire. Can you see what their God in a box on the shelf must have looked
Certainly, then, you can understand the disciples’ confusion when Jesus told them that those
who wished to follow him must take up their cross. Now, for us modern Christians, the cross is an
object of reverence, a devotional icon, a beautiful piece of jewelry. To the disciples, the cross
represented a tool of death, a horrid way to die.
Just when the disciples thought they had things figured out, Jesus blind-sided them with this
new, shocking information about how one is to follow Jesus and about how one is to save one’s life…
even, how one is saved. Like the disciples, we have to let go of that which we think we have all figured
out. It means getting rid of that which is not God, which is not Godly. It means, by letting go of all that
we think we know, we will probably find ourselves grieving the God we had made in our own image, our
God in the box on the shelf. …Just when we thought we had it all figured out.
…There are things we say about God all the time, but if we stay with them or whatever our own
little safe recipes for how and who God is, if we insist that God only operates in a particular way or God
is ONLY this or that, then we’re in just as much trouble as the disciples were. Then we’re not allowing
God to work within us in new and life-changing ways. God might be trying, but we just won’t be paying
any attention. I think the United Church of Christ folks have it right when they display their sign, “God is
Still Speaking.” …Just when we thought we had it all figured out….
We all struggle with some of the difficult sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Today’s reading
highlights some of the tougher ones. “For those who want to save their lives will lose them. Those who
lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel will save them.” All I know about this is that when people are
all about themselves, their wealth, their possessions, their own welfare, what’s going on in their lives
only, when that’s all we think about and act upon all the time, we lose our core, we lose our foundation.
We become obsessed with saving everything that’s about us.
This can be said about the Church, as well. When any denomination or church puts all its energy
and resources into survival at all costs, it’s on its way to dying. When individuals see everything through
the lens of “what’s in it for me?” their decisions about money, power and meaning will reflect only this
self-centeredness and arrogance. And you can be sure that their souls are dying.
On the other hand, losing our lives for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the Gospel—that’s
when we are truly taking up the cross and following Christ. There’s no doubt that it is hard for us to
discern what this means in our daily lives, though.
One thing that has helped me to know what it means to take up the cross and follow is to ask
myself the question, “What is the natural, logical consequence of what I see going on, of what I may be
engaging in myself or excusing in others?” For example, what is the natural logical consequence of using
language that suggests that certain people are outside the circle of the love of Christ? Well, it gives
hatred a place to catch fire. It means to haters that, if that person is outside of Christ’s love, the natural
logical consequence of that thinking is that they deserve to die, that they are less than human.
Think of the way that people of color have been treated: enslaved, lynched, …by law, thought of
as 3/5 of a person, segregated, forced into poverty. And, the truth is that churches bought into that
horrible rhetoric of “well, the whole economy of the South will fail if we free the slaves or we’ll go broke
if we consider retribution.” We as Americans are still paying for that self-serving, wrong-headed, antiChristian talk.
1400 years before Africans were hauled away from their homes, Jesus was addressing just that
sort of heresy when he said, “those who want to save their life will lose it. Those who lose their life for
my sake and the sake of the Gospel will save it.”
This example can be used as a boiler plate for any and all of the hateful and evil acts that are
going on today. Ask, “What is the logical and natural consequence of leaving folks outside of the love of
Christ? Gay people, immigrants, refugees?” I’m telling you, we can ask that question about anything we
think or hear. It’s a check on our thinking.
If we are to find hope at all we must follow Jesus, that’s it. We must beware of setting our
minds on human rather than divine things. We’ve gotta keep our minds on Jesus. That’s our hope.
Even in the most hateful situation, God can bring love…. IF we listen, if we are willing for God to
act in new, shocking and life-changing ways.
This is the message of Jesus’ trip to Caesaria Philippi—-hope and life and newness…. But only if
we listen, only if we let go of the foolish notion that we have God all figured out or that humankind has
seen all that God has to offer. All we have to do is listen, hope, and wait….
Now, I’m sorry to disappoint you just when you thought you had God all figured out. We do not
know when God might have another card up God’s sleeve, when God might have something new to
show us. So…keep your heads up, your eyes and ears open, your mind stayed on Jesus. (listen to Woke
Up this Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus.)