Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I never made a sacrifice



Then Jesus told his disciples, “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.”

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Catherine’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here. In fact, I was at a conference with Mike in Boston this summer where he gave a presentation on the amazing work that God was doing in this community. And it wasn’t just me who got excited – our presiding bishop was also there and she was excited, and because I work on the bishop’s staff I can say with the utmost certainty that the entire diocesan staff is excited about what’s happening in this community. And so thank you for having me this morning – this is truly a privilege.

There’s a word that I think best describes the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s consumeristic – you and I live in a world that teaches us to consume. And consumerism’s a powerful idea because it feeds on the deepest desires of the human heart. You see, we all want to be happy. We want to be whole. We want to know who we are and why we’re here. And consumerism’s goal is to tell us how to do that – by consuming – what I call the “if only” mentality. If only I had a newer car, a nicer suit, if only I had a bigger house, a better paying job, a thinner waistline or a 52 inch flat screen – if only I had that, then I’d be happy and whole. As Homer Simpson put it, “the answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!” And so the comsumeristic worldview can be summed up like this. “Meaning is found out there, and so if any want to become fulfilled, let them deny nothing, take up their urge, and follow it. For those who want to save their life will fill it.”

Now in complete contrast to this me-centered, I need to consume or I’ll never be happy mindset stands the Christian Gospel. And a few years back I came across a quote that’s had a huge impact on how I understand this Gospel. David Livingstone was a 19th century missionary, and this quote’s his response to a Cambridge student curious as to why he’d give up everything to serve the poor in Africa. And this is what Livingstone said. “People talk of the sacrifice I’ve made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is it a sacrifice which brings its own reward in the consciousness of doing good or that brings hope of some glorious reward in the future? Away with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice, say rather a privilege. And then he said something I’ll never forget. “I never made a sacrifice.”

But isn’t sacrifice what Jesus calls us to do? I mean in today’s Gospel Jesus is pretty clear that if our primary motivation is to save our life – to preserve our own interests at all costs – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek. And so here are the questions I’d like to wrestle with the morning. What exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And second, where do we find the strength to make that sacrifice?

Now you may recall from last week that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Well, this week Peter decides to tell Jesus how to do his job. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like, and what Jesus says about the cross doesn’t really jive with Peter’s script. The Messiah’s supposed to restore the Jewish kingdom by defeating the Roman authorities – not be defeated by them. And so when Jesus says that his strategy is to suffer and to die, to lose his life, Peter decides to intervene. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But you know what I think Peter’s really saying. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – I think he just wants what we all want. To be happy. To be whole. To know who he is and why he’s here. But Peter thinks that in order for this to happen, Jesus needs to start acting like a proper Messiah – like the kind that’ll overthrow Rome and appoint Peter to his cabinet. Peter’s thinking, “Jesus will be president and I’ll the VP. Because when that happens, I’ll finally be important. I’ll be happy. I’ll be whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here. But the cross? God forbid it. That must never happen to me.”

You see Peer didn’t rebuke Jesus because He was looking out for Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because He was looking out for Peter – because he was trying to find his own happiness his own way. And what I want us to see is that even though Jesus’ response is harsh, what Jesus is actually doing is showing sympathy. Because the point of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus wants us to stuff the deepest desires of our heart. It’s that he wants us to find the deepest desires of our heart in Him. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Do you want to know who you are and why you’re here? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life are going to lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

And so let’s go back to that first question – what exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And here’s what I’d say about that. The primary thing Jesus wants us to give up – what he wants us to sacrifice – is that consumeristic lie that says that we can have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. What Jesus asks us to sacrifice is our desire to be happy apart from Him, not because He’s mean, but because it doesn’t work! Jesus loves us, and he doesn’t want us to spend our lives looking for water in the midst of empty wells. But that doesn’t stop us from trying – from investing our ultimate home in our job or our net worth or in what so-and-so thinks of us or in how we look or in our marriage or in our children or in something other than Christ. And whatever that idol is for us – whatever it is that’s out there that “if only” we had we think we’d be whole – that is the very thing that needs to die. This is how CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day: submit with every fiber of your being. Keep back nothing. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

In other words, what has to die in each one of us is our desire to be happy apart from Christ.

But that’s hard – and so where do we find the strength to make those sacrifices? Well, let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning as a community of disciples to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so we start by showing up and just acknowledging that Jesus is not a seven-easy-steps to losing your life kind of Savior. I mean think about it, the disciples in today’s Gospel – they’ve been following Jesus for a while now and it’s today, for the very first time, that they begin to grasp the meaning of discipleship. And so here’s the point I’m trying to make. We never know the cost of following Jesus when we join the church, or when we’re confirmed. The disciples in today’s Gospel sure didn’t. And so we begin by showing up with an open heart, week after week, because the meaning of discipleship is always learned along the way.

But that being said it is learned, which is what formation is all about, and so here’s what I’d like to leave you with this morning. We do not find our life – the deepest desires of our heart – in Jesus by deciding to try harder. No, our heart has to be moved so that we can say with Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.” And so let the focus of your heart be the only sacrifice that is at the center of the Christian Gospel. And I’m not talking about our sacrifice for Jesus. I’m talking about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Because the first cross we’re asked to embrace is not our own – it’s Jesus’. In other words, we’ll never take up our own cross until we first learn to take up His. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – is the same question the Father asked Jesus. “Jesus, what will you give in return for their life?” And the good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus had an answer. “My own. I will give my own life in return for theirs.”

Focus on the Lord who lost His life for you, and you’ll find the strength to lose your life for him. Mediate on Hebrews 12:2, which says, “For the sake of the joy that was set before Him Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.” And then ask yourself the question – what was the joy that was set before Jesus that made the cross seem as nothing? Equality with God? Perfect bliss with the Father in Heaven? The entire creation? The worship of angels? And of course the answer is no, because Jesus already had all these things. And so what was the joy set before Jesus that, according to Hebrews, made the cross seem as nothing – what didn’t Jesus already have? And of course the answer is us. Jesus’ love for you and for me was so great that to Jesus the cross seemed as nothing.

In fact, I love thinking about God the Father, on that first Easter morning, thanking Jesus – thanking him for his willingness to sacrifice His own life for the world; for the sacrificial love of that one singular act. And then I like to imagine Jesus’ response, as He thinks about you and me and this church and the world and then deciding to say this in response. “Father, I never made a sacrifice.”

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The power of our confession



When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Paul’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here, because whenever you’re ordained in the Diocese of Texas they send you to Curate Camp once a month to be mentored, and Chuck runs that program and played a pretty big role in my formation as a priest. And so aside from just liking him, I have a lot of respect for Fr. Chuck and so to honor the role he’s had in my life, I decided to grow this beard as a tribute. Sadly, I spent a little more time on the beard than the sermon.

What I’d like to offer this morning are some thoughts on today’s Gospel, where Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. That’s right, Peter – who always misses the point, who speaks before he thinks, who tries to walk on water – Jesus gives Peter power. He gives him authority. He gives him a mission. Now remember, Peter’s that guy who cut off someone’s ear and denied Jesus in his time of need. And Jesus gives the keys to Peter.

You see I, too, was once handed a set of keys I didn’t deserve. It was my sixteenth birthday. And they were keys that, in theory, enabled me to exceed a speed of 100 miles per hour. And at sixteen I tested that theory a lot. But I’m not sure who was less mature – adult Simon Peter or adolescent John Newton – but I got keys to a car and Peter got keys to the kingdom – a symbol for power, authority and mission. And so here’s the question I’d like wrestle with this morning. As a church, what’s the basis of our authority, and second, what’s the nature of our mission?

Well, let’s just go ahead and be clear that our authority is not connected to our merits. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I can be pretty selfish, stubborn and sinful. And so to be a Christian is not to stand in this world from a place of moral superiority, and the people Jesus had the most beef with were the legalistic Pharisees who thought that they could. Perhaps my favorite quote of all time comes from St. Augustine, who was once asked by a seeker what to expect if he went to a church. Augustine responded, “Drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, and assiduous clients of sorcerers.” Now, I’m not saying you should put that on your website, but Augustine’s point is worth noting. Jesus doesn’t give us the keys to the kingdom because we’re good. But how do we get those keys?

Well, in today’s Gospel Jesus asks his disciples a question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And as they begin to tap dance around Jesus’ question – “some say this, others say that” – Jesus cuts to the chase and Jesus gets personal. “Yea, but I’m asking you – who do you say that I am?” You see, there’s something about this question that forces us to take a stand.

As a church, we need to always be asking this question – what are we clinging to as the basis of our authority? And if today’s Gospel tells us anything, it’s that what makes Jesus’ church a rock is not our record. It’s our decision to confess that Jesus is Lord. In fact, a friend recently told me that the words decide and homicide share the same root. And his point was that when we decide for something we at the same time have to decide against, or kill, something else. And that’s what Jesus is asking his disciples for in today’s Gospel, a decision, he wants them to take a stand, which is exactly what Peter does. “You are the Messiah,” he says, “the Son of the Living God.”

I am convinced that there is only one thing we can cling to as disciples of Jesus Christ – our confession that Jesus is Lord – that, and nothing else, is the power we take into the world. And I’m obviously not talking about the kind of power that’s so prevalent in our world. I don’t mean power that’s coercive or violent or self-seeking. I’m talking about the power that’s unique to the Christian Gospel – the power that’s revealed in a Messiah that came not to conquer but to be conquered; that came not to be served but to serve; that came not to judge but to be judged. I’m talking about the power of Jesus – a power that’s unleashed when we answer His question. Who do you say that I am?

And for the record, this is not a question that Jesus asks us only once. It’s a question that Jesus asks us every day of our lives precisely because He wants us to always be taking a stand – not so much on doctrine, but on discipleship. Because like my friend said, the words decide and homicide share the same root, which means that whenever we decide for Jesus, something else inevitably dies – like the idea that we’re in charge, or that we take care of ourselves, or that we even know what’s best for us. In other words, to confess with Peter that Jesus is Lord is at the same time a decision to confess who isn’t Lord: us.

But with that confession comes a mission. “On this rock,” Jesus says – the rock being our confession – “I will build my church.” Now, when Jesus talks about building His church, Jesus is not talking about a building, or an institution, a denomination or a club – He’s talking about a people; a people that know the power and authority that come with confessing His name, and who consistently choose to live in this world relying on His generosity, His wisdom, and His mercy and not on themselves. In fact, the Greek word translated church is ekklesia, which literally means “an assembly of people called out.” And so to be part of that one church that Jesus Christ is building is to be among the assembly of his disciples called out into the world with a counter-cultural, confession: there is one Lord, one Messiah, one Son of the Living God who is in control of my life and this world – and thanks be to God, it isn’t me.

You see, there’s a reason this confession is so important and live giving. We live in a world that’s bought into the myth of self-sufficiency, which runs completely counter to the Christian witness that we’re utterly dependent and in desperate need of the salvation – the wholeness – that only God can give. I’m not sure when, but somewhere along the line we bought into the lie that if we just work hard enough we can build the perfect marriage, the perfect job, the perfect life and make ourselves whole. As the late Henry Nouwen put it,

“The world around us is saying in a loud voice, we can take care of ourselves. We do not need God or the Church. We are in control. And if we are not, we have to work harder to get in control. But beneath all the great accomplishments there is a deep current of despair. Broken relationships, boredom, and depression fill the hearts of millions.” In other words, what I think Nouwen is saying is this. You and I were not meant to bear the burden of Godhood, and the first thing God asks us to give up when we confess Jesus as Lord is the burden that comes with trying to be our own.

And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I’d offer as your mission to the world. If only to yourself in the recesses of your heart, decide to confess the Lordship of Jesus, and decide to meditate on what that means for your life. Because every single time we decide to confess that Jesus is Lord there is at the same time a homicide. And what has to die in each one of us is that false notion that we’re in control of our lives, or that we’re perfect, or that we can make ourselves whole if we just try hard enough.

And so let me end by asking you this. Are you frustrated? Burnt-out? Anxious? Angry? A little tired from trying to be your own Lord? There is so much power, so much authority, that comes with knowing we don’t have to please, perform or perfect our way into the Kingdom of God but that it always comes as a gift – not because we’re good, but because God is. Like Simon Peter, God gives us the keys to his kingdom every single time we make our confession. But then again, we all must decide for ourselves. Because some say this and others say that, but who do you say that He is?