(A sermon for Sunday, August 31, 2008 based on Matthew 16:21-28 & Romans 12:9-21. Ninth and last in the series “Good News.”)
It’s something that I suspect that many of us, when we are honest with ourselves, ask: is it really possible to live the life that the Bible puts before us, the life that a Christian is supposed to live?
The answer is yes. But it isn’t easy and anybody who tells you that it is easy is not being straight with you. We will never do it completely on this side of heaven but we have the opportunity to make a lot of progress while we’re here. Still, it’s not easy.
It’s not easy because even if we are Christians we still have to live a real life in the real world. We still face real problems; we still pay real bills; we still encounter real illnesses; we still suffer real losses. Most significantly, we also still confront real people; we have real relationships. The way of the world is that real people in real relationships can do really good things to each other, but the way of the world also is that real people in real relationships can do really bad things to each other.
Being a Christian influences how we will respond to and deal with such hurts because being a Christian influences how we will respond to any and every situation in life. Granted, we may live in denial of the need of and the reality of such influence, but it is necessary and real nonetheless. Methodist Bishop Woodie White was talking about how professing Christians can still harbor bigotry and prejudice. He said that he confronted such a man about that and the man said, “Well, I’m a Christian, but….” White went on to say, “That’s it, isn’t it? Christian, but. There are times when being a Christian is impractical, inconvenient, illogical, even embarrassing—Christian, but.”
Simon Peter was one of the first ones to say “Well, I’m a Christian, but....” He didn’t say it in so many words, but that’s what he said. Peter fell so far and so fast. Just a few verses and apparently not too many days earlier, Peter had made his magnificent confession that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and had heard Jesus commend his faith and his revelation. Now, though, he hears Jesus call him “Satan.” What happened? What happened was that Jesus had set about to “show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Anna Carter Florence has pointed out the significance of the fact that Jesus “showed” them rather than “told” them. She said, “I suppose Jesus tried to show his disciples in every way a teacher can think of. But how do you show them, without the cross?” [“Preaching the Lesson,” Lectionary Homiletics (August/September 2008), p. 47]
Jesus was trying to point his followers toward the cross; he would keep pointing them toward it until they finally saw it as he hung upon it—which is when they would finally get it. In our text, though, Peter had enough of Jesus’ kind of showing and he said, “I’m a Christian, but….” Well, what he actually said was, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you,” which meant, “Jesus, you can’t be that kind of Messiah!” Don’t you think, though, that in the back of his mind or maybe even in the front of it Peter was thinking, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me!” since if it happened to Jesus it stood to reason that it might happen to his followers, too?
Sure enough, after letting Peter have it for trying to tempt him away from his true vocation, Jesus told Peter and the rest of them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those words mean a lot of things, but they surely mean that being Christian influences how we will respond to everything that we encounter in life. They mean that the God-glorifying, self-emptying, other-serving way that was the way of Jesus is also to be the way of his followers. They mean that the self-protecting, self-serving, self-justifying way that comes naturally to human beings is not to be the way of his followers.
As Philip Yancey put it, “When Jesus was in the garden, he prayed ‘Lord, if there is any other way…’ There was no other way but the hard way.” Here Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that there was no other way but the hard way. The way to which we Christians are called is a radical way, it is a hard way, and it is the only way.
There is some holy idealism here; the standards are high; the calling is lofty. But make no mistake about it: this high and lofty and seemingly idealistic Christian way has to be lived out in the real world. We can’t just live above it all, being “spiritual,” and acting like our problems and struggles don’t exist. The way of the Christian is that we have the real presence of Christ; we have the real indwelling of the Holy Spirit; we have the real presence of God’s love. Those are to change our responses to human situations in radical ways.
Take, for example, the way that we respond when somebody does us harm. What are you going to do when somebody injures you or insults you or angers you? “Don’t get mad; get even,” our human feelings tell us. But consider the challenge that our Bibles, that our Christian faith, that our following of Jesus, put before us:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, given them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
Vengeance, Lewis Smedes said, “is a hot desire to give back as much pain as someone gave you.” [Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), p. 130]
But there are problems with vengeance. For one thing, vengeance betrays a lack of faith in God. If we hold and nurture a grudge until we get to take revenge on someone, then we have admitted by our attitude and by our actions that we don’t believe in the justice of God about which our Bibles clearly teach us. If vengeance is truly appropriate, then God knows that and knows it perfectly. God will do justice; everything really will be all right some day. For another thing, vengeance in the long run does more harm to you than it does to the other person. How does it help you if you compound someone else’s sin by committing one of your own? For a third thing, vengeance leads to a never-ending cycle of revenge that can literally affect your life and the lives of those who love for generations. As Smedes reminds us, “Revenge never evens the score…. It ties both the injured and the injurer to an escalator of pain. Both are stuck on the elevator as long as parity is demanded, and the escalator never stops, never lets anyone off.” (pp. 130-131)
But the main problem with seeking to achieve revenge rather than seeking to offer forgiveness is that it is not the Christian way; it is not the way of Christ; it is not the way that allows love to take hold and do its work. I know it’s hard not to seek vengeance and I know it’s hard to forgive—but remember, we really can live the Christian life, and the Christian life really does affect such real things as our relationships.
A family member once hurt me very deeply. Actually, she hurt my father but in so doing she wounded me. And, she had hurt my father because she believed that he had hurt someone else, which he had, but unintentionally. My father died with their relationship still ruptured. For years I harbored and nursed a grudge against her; my anger toward her acted like an ever-growing parasite in my life, sapping more and more of my spiritual and emotional vitality. She was also not, so far as I know, a Christian. Finally I decided that I had to live the Christian life for my own sake and possibly for hers. Maybe, I hoped and prayed, if I confessed my sinful attitude to her it would have a positive effect. So one day I told her that for many years I had held that grudge against her and that I was sorry. She pretty much threw my apology back in my face. So far as I know she took her hate and anger with her to her grave—but I hope not. As for me, well, at least I had tried. I still did not and I still not feel good about it all, but I feel better that I at least tried to show love and to show grace and to show forgiveness.
It takes a lot. Forgiveness is a complicated thing. It doesn’t necessarily make everything good, it doesn’t necessarily lead to total reconciliation, and it doesn’t mean lying down and accepting a lifetime of hurt. But it does mean taking our responsibility to lead the Christian life seriously. It does mean taking up our cross and following Jesus. It does mean being the radical disciples that we are called to be.
Are you living the Christian life? Are you following Jesus’ way rather than your own? Are you showing genuine love for others and genuine trust in God that allows you to discard vengeance and to embrace forgiveness?
Perhaps we want to ask for another way than this hard way. But, for the Christian, there is no other way than the hard way that Jesus showed us—the way of the Cross.