Sermon text: Matthew16:21-28
Jesus wants to give you a gift today. Will you accept it with gratitude or will you turn it down? That is the decision Peter had to make. Peter wanted what was best for himself and thought that was also best for the church. We are like Peter. We want what is good for us. We are not like Jesus. Jesus wants what is best for the church. There is a disconnect between our vision and Jesus' vision for the church and for the world. We pursue our own agenda for our personal benefit not for the greater good. That is the biggest problem in our society. Our very social structure seems to be coming apart because of centralized greed and mismanagement.
John Robb, author of Brave New War, says the Soviet Union fell apart because of centralized greed and mismanagement.. Power was in the hands of a small government elite who made all the major decisions for the entire society. They made the wrong decisions and their system finally crashed. Our current Western system seems to be falling apart before our very eyes. We too have vested in the hands of a small group of government and corporate elites who make all the important decisions for our entire economy. They often make the wrong decisions because they base their decisions upon what is best for them instead of what is best for whole society. In both cases, a small group mismanages the larger group because the goal of the small group is to increase their own power rather than serving the greater good for the larger group. Such a system is not only wrong it is also unsustainable over time. The goals of the small group who makes the big decisions are not the same as Christ's goals. We are all going to face the bad consequences of their selfish decisions.
This is also true on the level of the local church. Our Bible story demonstrates a powerful truth. Our churches are not thriving because every church has a small minority of people who seek to control the church and their goals are not in line with Christ's goals. This was Peter's sin and failure in our text today. There we see that Jesus has set his mind and heart toward the greater good of the church but Peter's vision is different. Peter does not want to hear about Jesus' future suffering. Peter closes his ears to any talk about Christ and the cross. Peter won't have any of that. He confronts Jesus about it and tells Jesus to lighten up and get himself back on track. Jesus comes right back at Peter. He looks Peter in the eye and says: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Wow! What a direct confrontation. That is exactly the kind of honesty and truth we do NOT hear in our churches today. No wonder our churches are in decline. We don't have the guts to confront people who stand against the greater good.
Jesus did. He looked Peter in the eye and called him "Satan!" How scandalous can Jesus get? Pastors don't always set a good example for the church. We don't call a spade a spade like Jesus did. If we did, we fear people would side with the spade rather than the pastor. We fear we would lose our job. So our pastor's are prohibited from following Jesus' example of calling a spade from a spade because we have bills to pay and a family to support. Sometimes the pastor IS the spade who needs to be called out. The church system seems to be set up for failure. No wonder the churches aren't growing. We don't stand for anything. We are FOR everything and everyone. That means we are really for nothing and NO ONE. We have no boundaries. We set no limits on acceptable conduct. Our pastor's goals for personal security are not in line with Jesus' goals for the greater good.
What would happen if we showed real leadership and called a spade a spade? Look what happened to Peter when Jesus confronted him. Peter didn't run away. He didn't quit the church. He became convicted by what Jesus and he changed his ways. It didn't happen overnight. Peter would still make mistakes. He will still get it wrong sometimes. He will still deny he ever knew Jesus three times on the night when Jesus needs his support the most. But Jesus will give him a second chance, and a third chance, and a ninety-ninth chance. After his resurrection, the risen Jesus meets the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He cooks them breakfast of fish over an open camp fire. Jesus as chef: Now there's an image. Then he publicly forgives Peter and commissions him to STILL be a leader in the church.
So we are talking here today about a Lord who will call a spade a spade and yet we are talking about a Lord who will give us another chance after we fail. Today is your opportunity for to change your goals from what is best for YOU to what is best for the church. If you don't do that, you will still have another chance. Today isn't your only opportunity to make this change. But if you go ahead and do it today you will save yourself and this church so much suffering, so many set backs, so much unnecessary heartache and hassles. You will also save yourself so much lost energy and time. You will feel such a sense of relief to lay your burdens down at the foot of the cross. You will learn what it means when Jesus says to take up his cross for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The easy thing, the natural thing, is to just let it happen today. Change your focus from your goals to Christ's goals. Divert your energy from trying to get your way to letting God have His way. It's such an easy thing to do and yet we make it so hard. We hold on to our deluded dreams of glory and we won't let go. We cling to unhealthy patterns and behaviors even when they make us weak and sick and keep us on the fringe of the community.
This week I read a story about a French waiter in Paris. Here is how author Peter Meyers describes him.
"I once sat in a five-star restaurant in Paris, and watched a waiter working. He moved as if he were on skates, gliding so smoothly, with such balance, that it was a pleasure to watch him. As he put the food down on each table, he said something to the people sitting there. Each diner's face would light up as the waiter spoke. I watched the other waiters, and no one seemed to be having the same impact on the people they were serving. I caught this waiter's eye, and he came over to my table at once.
"May I help you, m'sieur?"
"I know this sounds like a strange question," I said, "but I've been watching you, and you seem to be having a huge impact on the people in this room. What are you saying to them?"
He smiled. "As a young man, when I first came to work in a fine restaurant, I was instructed by the headwaiter to say 'Bon appétit' after I served each table. Because I was in such a rush, I would usually just put the plates down, repeat, 'Bon appétit,' and leave quickly. One day I noticed that there was one second, after I put the plate down, when the diners would look up at me. I found that in that moment, I could look into their eyes, say, 'Bon appétit,' and mean it. I could tell them without words, 'I wish that you have a good meal. I want you to be happy.' Through this simplest gesture, I could make them feel wonderful. It took only a moment to do this, to put the plate down in front of them as if I had cooked it myself. I went from serving food to serving a sacrament. I am the most fortunate of men, m'sieur. What an honor it is to host a meal, to bring nourishment to people, to offer things that brought them joy and delight!"
That's where I learned that with the right intention, you can transform anything into the opportunity to give a gift. (Meyers, Peter; Nix, Shann (2011-07-26). As We Speak (Kindle Locations 180-195). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.)
Today is the day when you give a gift to this community of faith. And in giving that gift to this church you are giving a gift to yourself as well. The gift you give this church today is to stop trying to subvert what Christ is doing in this church. The gift you give yourself is the sense of relief you will find when you lay your burdens down. Because that's what it is that you are carrying around: Burdens. Your burdens are those sins and ways that keep you focused on your own goals and blind you to the harm you do to others.
Lay down your burden and take up your cross. It sounds impossible but it's the easiest thing to do. That is the gift you have to give today to yourself and to this church. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and for all the rest of us. Deny your misguided goals and take up the cross of what is best for the church. You will find that Christ's burden is easy. You will find that Christ's cross is much lighter than you had imagined it would be. This is a hard but necessary lesson. Jesus only taught it to his top leadership prospects. Peter learned this lesson and became an amazing leader in Christ's church. So may you. This is the opportunity Christ gives you today. This is his gift to you. Take it and use it for your own benefit. If you do you will be a blessing to this church and to the world. You can follow you own vision and be a stumbling block or you can follow Jesus' vision and be a leader in the church. Peter chose to follow Jesus even when it seemed hard. So may you and I.
The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on August 28, 2011.