“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old person which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death - we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship
Let us pray: You call us, Lord Jesus, to take up the cross and follow you. You call us from death into life. Raise us up, this day, in faith and love to follow you to the end. Amen.
A Baptist preacher friend of mine, in San Antonio, Texas, tells the story of a family with a terrible burden. One of their sons was deathly ill, with a condition that required much care and medical treatment. But that’s not the tragedy. The tragedy is this: they chose to forego medical treatment in favor of prayer.
I don’t remember how the story ended, whether the son lived or died. I do remember that at some point the family left my friend’s church for another church that believed far more strongly in healing prayer, and I do remember that there was great suffering in this family as they dealt with this illness. And the question that comes to mind for me is, “Why?”
Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. As Pogo said in a famous cartoon, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” I don’t mean to suggest that this family was altogether wrong to consider the power of prayer. Neither do I mean to suggest that in our Gospel reading today, Peter was altogether wrong to think that Jesus’ suffering and death would be a terrible thing. No one wants Jesus to suffer. God calls us to pray for all that we desire, including healing for those we love. But what happens when our own will conflicts with the will of God? What happens when we cling to false hope because it is our own, rather than risking faith in the way of God?
Did you know that today you would be called to die when you came to worship? There is a dying involved in genuine, hope-filled, authentic faith in the promises of God Almighty, a dying that begins with baptism and continues to our dying day. Luther said that in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” When we confess our sins together, like we did this morning, we confess that in and of ourselves we are as good as dead - that only God can raise us up out of the bondage of sin into new life in Jesus. The problem, of course, is the dying. It’s unpleasant. It is inconvenient. And it often comes wrapped in what looks right and good on the outside, hiding the poison and death within.
Take Peter in today’s gospel, for example. In Mark’s gospel, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Messiah, the Christos of God, the Anointed One whom Scripture said would bring freedom and joy to the people of God. Now you and I know what it feels like to get something like this right. But in our reading today, in the midst of the same conversation, Peter gets things wrong, terribly, horribly wrong, and there’s one reason: what needs dying in us often clings to life with everything it’s got, and that dying process is HARD.
Mark Twain once said, “Many people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand; but as for me, I always noticed that the passages in Scripture which trouble me most are those which I do understand.” I think he was talking about moments like what Peter experienced when he rebuked Jesus. Of course no one wants the Messiah to suffer. Of course no one wants a beloved teacher to die. There’s not even a hint of confusion about this - except it’s not how things are going to be. To add another Twain quote, “What gets us into trouble is not what we know; it’s what we know for certain that just ain’t so.”
This is the hard work that lies ahead for Jesus: opening our eyes to see that until our false hopes are as good as dead God cannot give us real hope, real faith, real life. Abraham and Sarah serve as a perfect example. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they would be the parents of great nations, but they reached old age with no children of their own and only one child at all: Ishmael, a child of Abraham and Sarah’s servant Hagar, born on Sarah’s knees to signify her adoption of Ishmael as her child. Ishmael did indeed become the father of a great nation - legend identifies Ishmael as the father of many Arab nations, and the spiritual ancestor of the Islamic faith. But God promised that Sarah would bear a child, even though in their bodies Sarah and Abraham were as good as dead, as Paul says.
This is how it has to work, however. Our false hopes are tenacious, seductive dreams that draw us away from the cross Jesus calls us to bear. God waits until we are as good as dead, so that when resurrection does occur, only God could have brought it about - there can be no doubt that God is the actor when resurrection happens, because we can’t bring life out of death by ourselves.
Dabo Swinney, the head coach of the Clemson University football team, did a curious thing this fall as the season progressed. The Clemson team was faltering - their coach got fired halfway through the season, and they had lost some pretty big games. But the coach insisted that they could be good if they would go “all in.” Before every game, he distributed a poker chip to each player, and had them toss the chip into a basket to signify that the team was “all in” with each other.
In reading the gospel for this morning, it seems to me that there are no “half-in” disciples. Jesus asks us to go all in, even though it means denying ourselves, our false hopes, our doubts and fears, and dying with Jesus. God kills the good in us in order to resurrect the wondrous, the astonishing, the divine - and we who are good as dead give thanks for it.
Abraham and Sarah did have a child in time. His name? Isaac. The name means “She Laughs.” When Sarah was told again that she would bear a child, she laughed at the idea. But God knew better. God knew that what seems good as dead is the best place to begin working in us, who are so tenacious about keeping alive what is killing us. When God brings life from what seems as good as dead, joy is the result - not happiness, that fleeting sentimental emotion so easily destroyed, but joy, the deep, uncontainable changing of the heart that gives real hope and real life. So may you, good as dead here today, be raised anew to live in joy, bearing your cross and following Jesus through all that is to come. Amen.