Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
A Christian once remarked to me that apart from our Lord, the gospel writers always gave St. Peter the best lines to speak, so we’ll begin this morning’s reflections with Peter. In the passage just before this morning’s gospel reading, he spoke for the other disciples and said that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. How pleased the Savior must have been to hear this confession of faith. But then Peter said something that greatly displeased the Lord. He heard what Jesus said about his suffering, rejection, and death, and he was distressed. Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection, you see, had not registered in Peter’s mind. He heard only the bad news, so he said that such terrible things shouldn’t happen to the Son of God. Jesus knew, however, that his future included a cross of suffering and that anyone who tried to keep him from it would be tempting him the way Satan tempted him in the wilderness. He needed to break the influence of Peter’s well-intentioned concern. Suffering comes before glory. We sow in tears and reap in joy. This is a rule of earthly life that was especially true for our Lord. We don’t accomplish anything worthwhile without discipline, sacrifice, and hardship. Athletes train; students stick to their books; mothers and fathers – and grandparents – make sacrifices every day. Jesus gave up his earthly life so that the whole world may know God.
He needed to speak sharply to Peter, then, but he didn’t hold Peter’s lapse against him. He lifted him up, instead, and strengthened him to carry his own cross. It’s human nature to say that a person who offends us once will do so again and so it may be best to break off relations. Jesus works by a different principle. He wanted Peter to be the best man he could be, so he forgave him. He introduced Peter and the other disciples to one of the secrets of worthwhile living. People who want meaningful lives accept burdens. If we want to accomplish something like finding a new place to live or raising a family, we pay attention to that and give up other things, as interesting and tempting as they may be. We carry our crosses. A full life includes sacrifice and self-denial.
Crosses are not pleasant or easy. They challenge us. We hardly ever get to choose the ones that we’ll carry. Our crosses are imposed from outside us. “If I have to give up that month in Hawaii to help my neighbor who is ill,” we might say, “then I won’t by myself anymore.” Or: “I’ll lose my good nature if I have to go out of the house and deal with people who are impossible to get along with.” We learn from Jesus’ example, however, that crosses bring rewards and that blessings come from self-denial. Our flesh may rebel, but the Holy Spirit that lives within us strengthens us to walk along the rocky road that leads to satisfaction.
When we Christians speak about carrying crosses, we often refer to something very specific, not just any hardship, but the burdens we bear because we’re Christians – first, the penalties the unbelieving world may put upon us, which are very severe in certain countries, and even difficult in Canada as materialism and misuse of freedom capture so many minds. We carry a cross when for Jesus’ sake we deny ourselves pleasures and privileges that are available nowadays in abundance. In the second place, we carry a cross when we recognize our shortcomings and feel sorry for our sins. This is a daily reality for us, because our consciences are very active. We feel grief when the Holy Spirit convinces us of our sins, and we may wonder at low moments if we have made a mess of our lives. We know how Peter must have felt when the Lord called him Satan.
As Jesus forgave his apostles, though, he also pardons us. No matter how weak our flesh or grave our offenses may be, the blood of Christ washes us clean and strengthens us. The Savior is infinitely forgiving. He encourages us never to give up the hope of abundant, godly living. He doesn’t give up on us. He empowers us to deny ourselves for the sake of the best.
Along with the blessing of forgiveness, he confers a new status upon us. We’re ordinary people, of course, but at the same time our Christian faith means that we are the Heavenly Father’s adopted daughters and sons. The Lord assures us of his fatherly goodness. He promised Jacob that he would be with him and watch over him. He promised never to leave him. The Father’s love for his people is much greater than the love of an earthly father, and so we trust that the crosses he gives us – whether concern for others or the stress of living in a secular culture or awareness if sin – will not be too heavy for us to carry. We don’t lose sight of the better life he has prepared for us, because his fatherly hand strengthens us to persevere.
Together with forgiveness and a new status, the Savior also transforms us. He renews our minds. Paul wrote in Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” God’s Spirit fine tunes us so that we focus on Jesus instead of the things of the world that momentarily catch our attention. We direct our wills and our desires toward Christ in whom we find riches beyond riches.
A sports psychologist once said that he works to build up the self-esteem of the athletes who come to him by getting them to change the kinds of thoughts they think. Most people have a high number of thoughts every hour. A surprising number of thoughts for many people are negative, and many of these negative thoughts are directed at themselves, such thoughts as, “Oh, I’m not going to do well today,” or “I can’t cope” or “I guess I’ll never reach the goal I set for myself.” The psychologist said that he trains athletes to turn such thoughts around and to say instead, “I’m going to do my best,” or “I’ll make a bit of progress today” or “I’m going to stretch myself this week.” He said that this discipline produces remarkable results. If we think well of ourselves, we have a good chance of doing well. But thoughts can create self-fulfilling prophecies.
It’s easy to imagine adapting these guidelines to fit a Christian pattern. Suppose that instead of surrendering to negative thoughts when we meet a stressful situation, we train ourselves to say: “The Spirit is working on me. I’ll be able to cope.” Or: “God is guiding me to renew my mind.” Or: “The Lord will help me to bear up under these burdens.” Then the rocky road will smooth out and we won’t lose our pictures of the better life our Heavenly Father is creating for us. To strive for better understanding of our Lord’s promise to transform would make a good exercise. We’d do well to remember every time we catch a hurtful thought flying in our own direction to say this: “I am forgiven, a child of God; his power to transform is renewing me. His cross is reshaping me.” If we think this sort of thing, we proclaim Jesus’ victory over the devil to ourselves and we are strengthened to bear the weight of our own crosses. We become confident that the fruits of salvation are planted deep in our minds and hearts.
Progress in devotion to our Lord isn’t always obvious, of course. There are times when faith is deeply hidden, as God is hidden from our sight, periods when joy seems far removed from us. Such wintry moments don’t corrupt our minds, thank God. We remember that we are forgiven, that we are God’s beloved children, and that his transforming power is at work on us. He gives us the valleys through which we pass so that we may receive from him – and only from him – the faith to keep on going. He steadies us so that we don’t drop our crosses, because then we are most like Christ, who teaches us how to take the difficult but rewarding road, the way of self-denial and sacrifice that leads to victory and ever-lasting joy.
Now, from what I’ve seen, I suspect that St. Peter’s people don’t shrink from carrying crosses. I’m sure you often make sacrifices for the good of others, resist temptation with God’s help, patiently endure the roadblocks that secular society puts in your way, and repent of your sins. Though rewards can be hidden and delayed, I believe that you take to heart Jesus’ admonition to deny ourselves and to pass by earthly glitter.
What a witness you make to your neighbors. You show them that life is more than work and fun, providing material things and building comfortable nests. You set examples by following the cross that leads to victory. As you live under the cross in sacrifice, self-denial, and joy, you show your n neighbors that there is a better way than the way of the world. Some will pay attention and seek God along with you.
The whole Christian church is passing through a time of humbling just now. As always, the kingdom lives under the cross, and the cross ultimately comes from God. He chastens his people for a purpose, to purify us so that we will turn to him in faith. He teaches the church today the same lesson the Savior taught Peter, that God’s people don’t find their fulfillment in comfort and security of life. We don’t live for our stomachs or our bank accounts. Nor do we think the church needs to be powerful and glamorous. We are people of the cross, whom the Lord encourages and nourishes in his special way. We know a lot about what it means to carry a cross. The point is that the Lord carries us. He will keep on strengthening us and helping us to endure. Peter missed the message about Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Thanks to God, we do not make the same mistake. We keep on going; we don’t give up. A very great day is coming and we’ll be part of it. The Lord will return. He will claim us and all believers. When that day comes, the crosses of the present day will look like nothing. In Jesus’ Name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.