Following Jesus’ Path - Matthew 16: 21-28
On an episode of Seinfeld called “The Opposite” George Costanza starts the episode so discouraged with life that he decides from now on he’s going to do the exact opposite of all his instincts. He starts by ordering the opposite of what he normally does for lunch. It turns out a beautiful woman at the next table ordered the same thing and talks to George. Continuing to do the opposite of his instincts, instead of trying to impress her he tells her he’s unemployed and lives with his parents. She’s impressed by his honesty and agrees to a date with him! Later in the episode George gets a job interview with the New York Yankees. And still doing the opposite of all his instincts, he criticizes Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for his managing style. Well Mr. Steinbrenner likes the fact that George speaks his mind and isn’t afraid to tell his boss when he thinks he’s wrong. So he hires him! It turns out doing the exact opposite of his instincts was the path to success for George Costanza, it’s brought him from the bottom to the top, and he vows to make doing “the opposite” his new life philosophy.
Perhaps Simon Peter could’ve used a little bit of George Costanza’s philosophy in the Gospel lesson today. Last week Peter was on top of the world. He had just proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, and Jesus said he would be the rock on which the church was built. After hearing all that, Peter probably thought he had the right instincts about Jesus and also about what Jesus should be doing.
So later when Jesus talks about his upcoming suffering and death Peter feels like he’s the guy to set Jesus straight. He needs to remind Jesus that he’s the Christ and that the Christ can’t suffer; that’s the exact opposite of what Peter’s instincts tell him the Messiah should be doing. So he follows his instincts and tells Jesus to cut it out. Then Jesus says “Get behind me Satan!” And Peter who was just on top now must’ve felt like he’d fallen to the bottom.
Jesus, who’s been struggling with the reality of his upcoming crucifixion and death, is more than a little irritated that somebody’s trying to talk him out of it. Jesus knows he needs to follow the divine calling of his life and recognizes that Peter is a temptation to him to follow human things rather than divine things. I think that’s what Jesus means by calling Peter “Satan”. Satan is the great tempter. Jesus knew what he had to do, Peter tries to talk him out of it, and Jesus responds quite assertively, rejecting the temptation to abandon God’s will.
I suspect we all have those moments of temptation to live for ourselves rather than for God. The desire to live according to self-will is what many theologians define as original sin. St. Augustine said that original sin is being “curved in on ourselves”. And it’s pretty obvious this is something every one of us struggles with. We even live in a society that tells us following our own greed and selfishness is the way to bring about the most good. When we hear such things it’s appropriate to say: “Get behind me Satan!”
But it’s often hard to recognize our own selfish will as we go about our daily lives. And it can be even harder to recognize what God’s will is in the midst of all the noise and chaos of life. Learning to hear the still small voice of God’s call to us is a daily spiritual practice. Turning over our wills to God on a daily basis is a discipline that will establish this way of being in us. Praying for God to direct us and guide us and help us to recognize God’s will in the events of the day is something we can do every morning. It’s a simple yet powerful spiritual practice. I’d encourage you to say a prayer like this every morning:
Help me to do Your will today God
to give all my efforts up to You.
To not worry about doing good deeds or resisting sinful ones.
But rather to trust in You to guide me
confident in Your in infinite grace and mercy
that if I turn my self over to You
I will be wrapped in Your love,
and live as I am meant to.
That’s a prayer I wrote years ago. And when I hear Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow, to let go of our life for his sake, I’m reminded of the call to surrender my wills to God’s. To align our will with the divine will is how we manifest God in the world.
And what does that look like when we align our will with God’s will? In a world where Christians don’t literally take up crosses anymore, what does it look like when we invite God to do God’s thing in us? Well Romans 12 gives us an excellent, timeless description of life on this path. It describes a life full of love and zeal for the Lord. A life that is relentlessly hopeful, yet full of patience and perseverance in trials and difficulties. A life of sharing with those in need and extending hospitality to strangers. Wishing well for those who persecute you, annoy you, or anger you. And not just saying you wish them well but truly cultivating an attitude of goodwill toward them. It looks like joining people in both their joys and their sorrows. It looks like not being haughty or looking down on people, but associating with all people especially those society looks down on. It looks like a life in which we don’t take revenge on anyone, where we stand for nonviolence in our personal lives and in the global community. It looks like being at peace with everyone you come into contact with and doing your best to stand for justice and peace in all the earth. It’s about not judging or taking vengeance into our own hands, but entrusting that to God. And lastly, Paul says it’s overcoming evil with good. When people are nasty, be loving in return. Even when someone treats you wrongly, still treat them the way you want to be treated.
This is the path of a Christian. We should all reflect on how much our lives resemble this description and pray for the humility to be honest with ourselves. I know I don’t live up to it everyday.
But I do want to make one thing clear. Manifesting God’s love in our actions isn’t about acting a certain way in order to gain God’s approval. God freely loves us, forgives us, and redeems us. That’s grace. We are God’s children, saved, redeemed, restored. That’s our starting point. And it is because of this love and grace and relationship with God that we are inspired to give up our self-will and to live the life Romans 12 describes.
So like I said in my children’s sermon, let’s follow Jesus up the mountain. The trail may be hard. The Christian journey is not an easy one. But we have a great trail guide who has walked the road before us and is walking side by side with us every step of the way. Amen.