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Proper 17A Gospel

Matthew 16:21-28

Ryan Quanstrom

Sometimes, I stand in God’s way. I never intend to stand in God’s way. I try my best to listen to the Holy Spirit, but there are times that I talk to much. And other times I don’t say enough. Perhaps I am a poor preacher, but I imagine that others encounter similar struggles. We know that God’s ways are higher than our own[1] but sometimes we do not see them. At other times, if we are honest, we think to ourselves all kinds of self-satisfying thoughts. “God I don’t want to give this person time, I’m too busy.” “I barely make any money as it is, do I really need to pay for their lunch?” “They need to know that they hurt me.” “Why do they call to ask about the hotdogs on Sunday after 10:30?” And on and on.

Occasionally, holiness christians can be quick to self-defense. We know that God is capable of sanctifying us entirely. Many of us have claimed that God has already sanctified us entirely.[2] Still others must confess that they are going on to perfection.[3] Those of us who have confessed these things know that there is still work to be done. But we also know a few who who claim to be entirely sanctified who do not want to confess sins. Sometimes they don’t admit that they do not deny themselves.

Still others can use the commands for sabbath rest as an excuse for following Jesus’ command to deny ourselves. We call it “mindfulness” or “self-care.” Many in our pews have become self indulgent. I would not be surprised if more than one joined Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle in a day to “treat yo-self.” This self-indulgence is not limited to any generation, and has probably existed in every generation.

Martin Luther understood how self-centered and defined original sin as a heart turned inward. Augustine defined it as concupiscence, or too much self love. Other theologians have defined original sin as a mis-ordered self love. Some even say that selfishness is simply natural. Self-preservation is the way of the wild. Evangelists have even used the desire for self-preservation for decades. “You don’t want to go to hell, do you?! Repent!” Of course this concept is no stranger to preachers. We know that for many people being a Christian is a method of extending one’s life into the next.

I do not want to be too hard on Christians. I know they are lovely people, but when we read this passage in its larger context we see how quickly one can go from hitting a bullseye to being the devil. In verses 17-19 Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”[4] And then in verse 23 say, “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.” We can believe Jesus is the Messiah, we can call him Lord of our lives, we can believe in Christian Perfection and Entire Sanctification and still stand in Jesus’ way. Not because we are evil, but because “No one then is so perfect in this life as to be free from ignorance.” [5]

When Peter stood in Jesus’ way, it was not because he wanted to stop Jesus’ mission. Peter did not yet fully understand what Jesus as messiah meant. The apostles have had Jesus confirm that he is the messiah, so their expectation is probably that this is now the time for revolution. Now is the time that they would liberate Jerusalem, establish the kingdom, and rule with Jesus. N.T. Wright reminds us, “Yes. We’ll be going to Jerusalem. Yes, the kingdom of God is coming, coming soon now. Yes, the son of man will be exalted as king, dispensing justice to the world. But the way to this kingdom is by the exact opposite road to the one the disciples… have in mind.”[6]

Jesus as Lord means methods that are unlike our own, after all, “The King reigns from the tree. The reign of God has indeed come upon us, and its sign is not a golden throne but a wooden cross.” [7]

We too can know Jesus. We can be set free by God’s love. We can have newness in Christ. We can trust that the God of peace will sanctify us entirely. More often than not, however, God chooses methods that are unlike our own. God may take us through a slavery in Egypt and forty years of wandering in the wilderness. God may send the Assyrians to raid our country. God’s ways are higher than our own. We may not always like the method, but we know that God will bring us through to victory.

Though the instructions “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” may seem to be a heavy burden. We can hear them knowing that what we gain is far greater than our own lives. Once we have taken up our own crosses and denied ourselves, then, and only then, can we live the life that Paul details in Romans 12. Only though denying ourselves can we “outdo one another in showing honor, “and only through picking up our crosses and following our non-violent king can we “overcome evil with good.”

While I believe all that is written above, I would like to add caution in preaching this passage. We need to be aware of our own social location. Given the tension in the United States, this may be a very dangerous passage to preach from. Since most evangelical preachers are white men, we would do well to understand how this passage has been used to convince people to remain in abusive relationships, to allow racial injustice to continue. These considerations do not weaken the verse, but they should cause us to pause. Are we actually carrying our cross daily? Are we seeking to follow Jesus in every way? Are there ways in which we have not denied ourselves? As those who often reflect Egypt more than Israel, are our instructions to our congregations about denying self going to bring liberty or despair?

Additionally, in a world where cutting and other forms of self-harm exist we need to be certain that we do not define sin exclusively as pride or selfishness. Sin is a mis-ordered self love. Some people do not love themselves enough. They need to be reminded that they are God’s children, loved deeply. The message to follow Jesus is good news because in Jesus we are given our true identities. We must deny the false stories about how great or how terrible we are. When we deny ourselves, we are not killing our individual identities we are finding out exactly how God intended us to be. Self-denial is, essentially, the restoration of the image of God. That can humble the proud as well as lift the humble. May this not be a burden on us, but may we rejoice in the work God can do in our lives.

[1] Isaiah 55:8-9

[2] This is a requirement for Nazarene ordination.

[3] This is expected from UMC ordinands.

[4] Matthew 16:17-19

[5] Wesley, John. “Christian Perfection.”

[6] Wright, N T. Matthew for Everyone Part 2 (10)

[7] Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks, 128.

Ryan Quanstrom

About the Contributor

Pastor, Clyde Park Church of the Nazarene