Back to School

Back to school“Back to School”
Sunday, August 31, 2014
12th Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 16:21–28

It is “back to school” time again. Class is already in session for most students.  Students and parents are adjusting to the routine.  Teachers hope that everything is not forgotten from last year.  Every year teachers try to get students to understand how everything they learn builds on something they have learned before.  Skill development and data retention play a significant role in educational success.

This morning we find ourselves nearing a big turning point in Jesus’ story.  Last week the Disciples had a major break-through in their education – the identity of Jesus as the Messiah was made clear in the “Who do you say that I am” story.  This week we see that Jesus is getting serious about teaching them everything they will need to know after he’s gone.  “From that time on, (after “who do you say that I am.”) Jesus began to show (to teach) his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things.”  It’s back to school time for the Disciples and this is an A.P. class from now on.

The word “disciple” really means “student”.  Jesus’ inner circle of 12 disciples were his most advanced students.  These were the guys who Jesus was grooming to keep things going when the time came.  Last week we heard Jesus hand over the keys to the kingdom to Peter, telling him: “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church.”  We talked about how Jesus was really establishing the church built on Peter’s testimony, not Peter’s ability.  This idea of personal testimony then becomes the way that Jesus’ mission is passed from generation to generation.  I think it is important for us to recognize that, even though the Disciples are the advanced students, Jesus still thinks they need more instruction.  They have been with him for almost three years.  They have seen first-hand what he can do.  They have just claimed their faith and affirmed their understanding of Jesus’ identity.  And yet, Jesus still thinks they need to learn more.

I wonder if that is an issue for many of us.  We make our profession of faith; we’re saved!  What more is there for us to learn?  Today’s story says it’s time to go back to school.  I have to admit that what Jesus is teaching can be hard to hear.  Last week was great…We talked about how our personal testimony of who Jesus is and what he means to us offers hope to others.  We saw how testimonies like ours have built the church from the beginning and helped to lead other people to know Jesus.  That is exciting stuff!

This week Jesus gets down to the nitty-gritty of what it might mean to follow his leadership and do the things he is willing to do.  Jesus talks about his own suffering, death, and resurrection.  The Disciples don’t get this part; they don’t quite grasp how this fulfills Jesus’ mission.  Peter says to him: “No, Lord, that can’t be right.”  Jesus tells him: “Peter, go stand in the corner!”  It seems to me that it is the contrast between today’s story and what we heard last week that frames this difficult conversation.  Peter has a hard time reconciling the image of hope and good news we talked about last week and Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, death and resurrection.  I wonder if we have the same problem.  Our confession of Jesus often grows out of an intellectual understanding of who Jesus really is and an emotional feeling for the great love God demonstrates for us through Jesus’ life.  Peter’s confession last week is much the same.  When Jesus begins to teach how he will complete his mission, Peter’s response comes from his great love for Jesus.  Peter simply wants to protect him.  When Jesus rebukes Peter’s expression of love he is saying that Peter still doesn’t get it.  For all his good intentions, Peter is still confused about what it means to be faithful.  He is trying to impose his will on God.

Sometimes, we do the same thing; we convince ourselves that our will is God’s will.  Usually, we are wrong and we need to spend some time standing in the corner.  For the Disciples, and for us, faithfulness can be a challenge.  As far back in Scripture as we can go, we find examples of people who are challenged by their call to faithfulness in God.  All Adam and Eve had to do was avoid that one tree…Oops! They couldn’t do it.  Noah was called to build a boat in the middle of the desert and wait for rain.  Abraham was told to take his son Isaac up the mountain and sacrifice him; God didn’t make him go through with it, but Abraham showed he had faith enough to be willing to do it.  Moses confronted the most powerful ruler on earth with only a stick…that takes faith!  The Disciples were called to testify about their faith in a man who preached about love, was arrested and executed, and then was raised from the dead…That’s not so hard, is it?

Today Jesus tells us that we must deny ourselves, take up a cross, and follow him.  To save our lives we must lose them.  Are we just a little bit confused by all of this?  Do you want to say:  “No, Jesus, that can’t be right?”  This is why Jesus takes us back to school as he tries to teach us about passion and discipleship.  Discipleship is so much more than our profession of faith.  To deny yourself means to be willing to surrender pride, ego, status, comfort, and maybe even your life some day, for the sake of the kingdom of God.  It is about understanding that all that we are and everything that we have never belonged to us in the first place; giving it up for God should be a no-brainer.  Every choice we make should be based on this conviction so that “the right thing” becomes “the only thing.”  Taking up our cross to follow Jesus is about being willing to swim upstream in our culture – to live extraordinary lives beyond the boundaries of the ordinary.  It’s about realizing that we will often be called to do things that other people simply do not understand.  We will be challenged to ignore human expectations and live into God’s expectations.  We must stop caring what other people think of us and only worry about what God thinks.

We often hear that being a disciple of Jesus requires great suffering.  I’m not so sure that is the right way to think about it.  Some may think we suffer when we give up material possessions to give to the church.  That sounds like selfishness to me.  Some may call us religious fanatics when we try to live our lives for God.  That sounds like self-centeredness to me.  Some may think that faith in a God we cannot see is just superstitious nonsense.  That just sounds lost to me.  And it is to these lost that we must testify.

When we went to school we learned some things that were generally true for everybody – like math and science.  We also learned about things that were open to interpretation – like literature and philosophy.  The key to our well-rounded education was to first, know the difference between those two arenas; and, second, to learn how to incorporate all that information into our life.  It wasn’t easy and we keep on learning every day as we mature and understand the world differently.  Our faith is like that.  There is much that is true for everybody – like who God is and what God does.  Then there are things that are open to interpretation – like what God wants each one of us to do with our life.  The key is holding on to the truths of our faith and listening carefully for God’s leading as we discern those things that apply to us.  Maybe that is why being a Christian involves constant instruction.  We can never know everything there is to know about God and we will always be seeking the particular things that God has to say only to us.  So we go back to school every week.  In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.