There’s a scene on the show The Office where Dwight buys everyone in the office bagels one morning. As each co-worker takes a bagel and they thank him, and Dwight says, “Oh no problem, but you owe me one!” Most don’t seem to be worried about owing him a favor, but the character Andy is. He doesn’t want to owe anyone anything. So in the next scene Andy presents Dwight with a gift: his briefcase, fully cleaned. Dwight then tries to do a favor for Andy again and holds the door open for him. Andy, in turn, pulls out Dwight’s chair out for him to sit down. Later that day Andy buys Dwight and everyone in the office lunch to return the favor. But then Dwight insists on allowing him to clean up. And the two go back and forth doing each other favors. Until finally Andy tricks Dwight into opening a Starbucks gift card, a little gift from everyone. Leaving Dwight very disappointed that nobody owes him a favor now.
I was reminded of this scene by the statement in Romans “outdo one another in showing honor” and by Jesus’ call to live a selfless life. Obviously, Dwight and Andy were doing good deeds because they either wanted a favor or didn’t want to owe a favor. One could say they did it for all the wrong reasons. But the selfless life to which Jesus calls us is a path that doesn’t worry about silly things like that, but which truly seeks to put others first and not be concerned with any kind of repayment or returned favors.
In the Gospel reading today we pick up where we left off last week. Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus tells him that God has revealed this truth to him, and that on this rock he will build his church. So Peter must’ve been feeling pretty good at this point. Pretty sure that he understood what was going on. But then Jesus starts talking about how he will go to Jerusalem and be killed. Peter takes him aside and says, “God forbid it Lord, this must never happen to you!” To which Jesus replies: “Get behind me Satan!” I’m sure Peter went from feeling very high to very low in a flash. He goes from thinking he gets what Jesus is all about to being corrected and humbled.
Jesus’ response is pretty harsh. But remember that the temptation to be the Messiah without the cross is something Jesus has been challenged with before. In the forty days in the wilderness Jesus was tempted by Satan to be ruler of the world with all its glory and fame and power if he would only give up God’s mission and worship Satan instead. It must have been a pretty tempting deal. Instead of following God’s plan which leads to the cross, follow Satan’s plan which leads to fame and riches and glory and comfort. All Jesus had to do was forsake the cross and go with Satan’s plan, and the world would be his.
Fast forward a year or two and we have this scene where Jesus tells his disciples that he must die. And Peter takes him aside and offers Jesus the same temptation he heard in the wilderness. Forsake the cross and the world can be yours. To this Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me!” Considering that Jesus had actually encountered this same temptation from Satan in the wilderness, it’s no wonder he responds so forcefully to Peter here. In this passage, Peter goes from speaking a truth revealed by God in one verse, to speaking a temptation from Satan in the very next verses.
It’s not surprising though that the path Jesus describes is rejected by Peter. In commentary on this passage, Dr. Richard Ward points out: [Peter’s] first act as leader-in-waiting for the Jesus movement is to say ‘no’ to Jesus. Saying ‘no’ to the way of Jesus will become a habit for the Church. Too often when Jesus says ‘Cross!’ the church votes ‘Crown!’
The disciples would eventually watch as Jesus literally walked the path to the cross. Only after he rose, and really only at Pentecost, would they truly understand the way of the cross. And then they themselves would walk that same path of self-denial, suffering, and death—as they spent the rest of lives there surrendered to God’s will and living in alignment with God’s mission for them. An alignment which led many of them to the cross themselves.
Self-denial, suffering, and the way of the cross. Death-to-self, surrender to God, and alignment with the divine will. These are the marks of the Christian life. What these marks meant to the early church sometimes were literal death on the cross. But over time Christians had to struggle with what this selfless life meant if they weren’t going to literally die as martyrs. Even as early as the writing of Luke’s Gospel it seems the early church was wrestling with this idea. In a passage similar to this one in Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” Taking up your cross daily obviously shows it wasn’t always literal crucifixion they were facing, but that they were taking seriously Jesus’ call to give up their lives, nonetheless. To live a selfless life in the same way we are called to die to self and live the selfless life today.
The selfless life will look different to everyone. It involves surrendering to the divine way and letting God’s love be expressed through us in our own unique way. And while everyone’s call is different, there are certainly common features. These are described quite well in the passage we heard this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another …outdo one another in showing honor.” …Be hopeful, be patient, be prayerful. Bless and do not curse. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be arrogant; associate with the lowly. Do not claim to be wiser than you are. And do not repay anyone evil for evil.
This is the roadmap to the path of a selfless life. This is a passage I’d encourage you to read over and over again. Maybe even put it to memory. This is the way to live the selfless life Jesus taught. Not the tit-for-tat, favor-owing selflessness Dwight and Andy tried to offer each other on The Office. But true, genuine selflessness. No matter where we find ourselves in life, we can put others first and make sure others’ needs take priority over our own.
The place to start is to sincerely surrender your will to God. Ask God to guide your life in every way. Then cultivate that desire and help it grow stronger, so that when challenges come you may ask God’s guidance and do whatever it is the Spirit directs, however difficult it may seem. Living the selfless life will look different for everybody. But it is our calling as followers of Jesus, the call to put others first and ourselves last.
This isn’t a call to stay in unhealthy relationships or to be a doormat willing to be taken advantage of. It is a call to the most genuine strength there is. The strength to follow God’s direction and guidance in every aspect of our lives. To pray about everything, to truly seek God’s will, and to trust and follow through. To give up our own interests and desires, and trust what God desires for our lives. This is the self-denial and self-sacrifice Jesus calls us to.
It is this life that Malia will be baptized into today. She will enter this path of living the selfless life. A life dedicated not to herself, but to God and to others. Baptism is our entry into this way of life. The selfless life Jesus lived and taught. A life dedicated to the good of the world and not the good of ourselves. Each and every one of us here is called to this selfless life. Called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus. This is the life into which we were baptized, and the life we are called to reaffirm every day. Dying to self, taking up our cross, and living in alignment with God’s will. And so, let us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. Amen.
Pastor Brian, September 3rd, 2023.