A Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (30/08/20): Must

Matthew 16:21-28

From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised 

When reading the Bible, and especially when thinking about preaching my attention, is seldom captured by a single word. But one word here seems quite decisive. The small word “must”, in Greek an even smaller word “dei”, makes all the difference. 
This is the turning point in Jesus’ ministry. This is the point when he moves from the Galilean ministry of teaching and healing and turns towards the decisive showdown in Jerusalem. And here Jesus predicts the final outcome of what he is doing. He “must” He must go to Jerusalem. He must suffer. He must be killed. And he must rise again. And the little word “must” is decisive in all of that. The cross is not an accident. The cross is not a tragic intrusion into the story. It is not just, as with so much of history, the way things happen to happen. The cross is not simply way things turned out in the collision of random and unpredictable events. From the outset, as Jesus predicts it, his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection are necessary to God’s plan.

St. Paul quite rightly observes the difficulty of the cross. Famously he says that the gospel of the cross which he proclaims is: “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor. 1:23) Two thousand years may have altered the difficulty, but not reduced the problem. To the Gentiles, in Paul’s experience, the cross is foolishness because they can’t fit it into the philosophical ideas they have about God. To Jews the cross is a scandal, literally a stumbling block, an obstacle, because the cross makes the Messiah, their champion look like a failure, which is of course unthinkable. 
To modern minds the cross suggests other unthinkable things. If the cross is a necessary part of God’s plan then, modern arguments tend to run, God is responsible for a terrible crime. It is bad enough that the cross is a cruelty. But Christian faith appears to declare that God deliberately inflicts a cruelty on his Son. God is excused from the guilt of this crime on the basis of the ends justifying the means. The idea is that the good which is accomplished through the cross is so great that even a brutal and unjust execution is justified in achieving it. That may be so in a manner of speaking. But the moral consequences of such a view are disastrous! Because they have viewed the cross in this way people, especially Christians, throughout history and even into the present have felt able to do all kinds of dreadful things on the basis of the good that might come out of them. From Crusades to the harsh treatment of “wayward” girls. Some feminist theologians have been very forceful in their rejection and argued that the cross seen this way amounts to divinely sanctioned child abuse.  This is a scandal which forces some people to reject the cross, Christianity and the Christian God outright! 

But there is more to that little word “must” than God choosing this as the path that Jesus has to take. To place the certainty and the blame for the cross all on God is to overlook the role of human nature in it.  The great 20th Century Swiss theologian Karl Barth  noted that it is not only God who is revealed in Christ. It is not as if it were only God who was the mystery and human nature was self evident. The reality is that in Christ and especially at the cross we not only see God we also glimpse the truth about human beings There is another side to the “must.” 
It is a mistake to make God culpable of the cruelty perpetrated by human beings The blood of the cross is on the hands of a small group of conspirators, a cabal of elders, the priestly caste and their scribes, along with the Empire’s military government whom they manipulate. The cross is as much a consequence of human nature is it of Divine intention. The cross says as much about what human beings are like and what they are capable of as it does about God. Human nature “must” try and destroy God from within its midst. The self interest, the appetite for power, the desire to be in control, of human beings means that inevitably they will try to thrust God out of their lives and out of the world altogether. The cross is the equally inevitable outcome of the way human beings are. Trapped by their desire for control, the will to satisfy their own appetites, the elders chief priests and scribes are typical of human beings who reject and deny God and try to destroy the evidence of God’s presence and rule in the world. Jesus must die, his death is predictable and inevitable, because that is the way human nature is. God is not culpable of the cruelty inflicted by human beings.  But God does accept suffering and death as the price that “must” be paid to set human beings free from being determined by their own “must.” It is what God must do to reconcile the human race to himself. 

Peter’s role in the story is often the same, he is the representative of the disciples, but also of all humans beings at their well-intentioned but misguided best. Simon Peter, as he so often does, jumps right in. He does what rest of us might have done, only he got there first: 
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 
His reaction may be just the natural one. Faced with the prospect of the loss of a loved one anyone’s first response would to deny that possibility. But, Simon who has been called the rock, Peter, by Jesus, puts himself in front of Jesus. Peter stands himself in Jesus’ way. And he turns out to be the kind of rock that someone could trip over, a stumbling block. His mind is set on human things not on divine things. Instinctively, like the elders and their co-conspirators, he rejects the way God wants things done. Instinctively he wants to set his own agenda. He wants the story to turn out the way he wants. And that doesn’t involve the loss of a loved one. Probably he wants the story to reach its climax with a triumphal parade, Jesus enthroned, the Romans expelled – and he Peter basking in reflected glory. Peter wants to be part of a heroic ending. He wants that rather than to accept the difficult, but gracious and ultimately beneficial sovereignty of God. Like all human beings Peter is trapped in his own desires. What human beings want is in fact what exercises the greatest tyranny over them and leads them often to do terrible things. 

The stories which we pay attention to and respond to have moral consequences. The necessity of the cross, that Jesus “must” suffer and die in order to be raised again does have moral a consequence. But that consequence is not that the ends justify the means. The moral consequence of cross, given that God is God and human beings are they way that they are, is discipleship. Jesus says: 
“If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me.”
At the cross Jesus’ followers are called upon to let go of what we want. When Jesus says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross, he says we must break free from the human half of that “must” that brought about the crucifixion. We must stop being determined by our minds being set on human things and instead set our minds on God’s things. Self denial does not mean some kind of asceticism, or a sort of religious masochism, or a false humility of self-loathing. That kind of self-denial for the sake of self denial is just another kind of self- assertion. That is still an expression of  the need to stay in control rather than submit to God’s will. Self-denial is freedom from the wilful tyranny of human nature  and the acceptance of the liberty of God’s will. And without that kind of self-denial human beings are doomed to repeat the crucifixion, the denial of God’s place in and rule of the world. And they are themselves headed for self destruction. 
“For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” 
What would you give in exchange for your soul? The answer to Jesus’ rhetorical question would presumably be, “Everything!” And that as it happens is the deal which is on offer! Jesus says: “You can have what you want, or you can have life, but not both, which is it, choose!” Our desires and our wilfulness are so distorted and misshapen that they are inevitably self-destructive. They “must” eat us up. We have to be freed of getting what we want because the outcome of that is actually loss. Self denial is the other side of accepting God’s presence and rule. And discipleship, following Jesus, is the reshaping of our desires and wilfulness so that they will give us life.
Peter did something that most people seem to do when they hear Jesus predict his death. What Peter seems to overlook when he jumps in is the final clause of Jesus’ prediction. He heard about the suffering. He heard about the death. But by then his own wilfulness had kicked in and he’d stopped listening. So he didn’t hear “and on the third day be raised.” The path which Peter and all of us must follow is a difficult one. Ridicule and rejection are an inevitable part of it, our allegiance to the cross, our self-denial will seem foolishness to most people. But the end is the same for all of us. Except that like Jesus, those who accept his cross and followed, their lives will become like his life, and will be concluded not by death but by resurrection.

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Must by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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