This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning. The gospel text was Matthew 16:21-28.
By now most of you have seen the devastation that Hurricane Harvey has wreaked on Houston and surrounding cities in Texas. And perhaps some of you are wondering why things like this happen. What did the people of Houston do to deserve that? Was it God’s punishment for some sin? Some kind of test of their faith? No. It was not. Our faith tells us that suffering is not God’s punishment for sin. Or did it happen for a reason? No. It did not. Our faith tells us that God can, and does, work through suffering, but that God does not cause our suffering.
But still the question is there: even if God didn’t cause the destruction, then certainly God allowed it to happen. This is one of the oldest questions of faith, which prophets and theologians and priests and mystics have wrestled with for centuries: the problem of evil. If God is all powerful, and God is good, then why does evil exist?
Why do natural disasters like this happen? And for that matter, why do human-made disasters happen? Most of us have seen the events of Charlottesville from a few weeks ago. Why are racism and hatred still so strong in our country? Why do people attack and kill one another because of the color of their skin? Or because of their religion? Or because of their nationality?
Why do we still deal with suffering and evil? Didn’t Jesus come to take them away? Isn’t that what the cross was for? To make all our lives easier?
Oh, if only it were. If only it were. If only being Christian meant that we would be safe from pain and suffering. If only following Christ meant that we would be sinless people, people always able to make the right decision, people who never judge others. If only the cross of Christ had made things easy.
I’ll admit it. I wish that were true. And so did Peter. In today’s gospel reading, Peter wanted protection from fear and suffering and hatred. Now, if you remember last week’s gospel, you know that Peter was the first person to proclaim that Jesus was the Messiah. He figured it out. That happened right before today’s reading. Well, now Peter thinks he understands what it means that Jesus is the Messiah. To Peter, it means that Jesus shouldn’t have to suffer at all. To Peter, the Messiah came to protect us from suffering. So, when Jesus tells the disciples that he is going to have to suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised, Peter doesn’t like that at all.
“God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you!” God forbid it, Lord. You should not have to suffer. God forbid it, Lord. You should not have to deal with the anger and hatred of those around you. God forbid it, Lord, you are the Messiah, and we want your life to be easy! And ours too, for that matter!
“No,” says Jesus. In fact, he doesn’t just say “no,” he says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now don’t get too hung up on Jesus referring to Peter as Satan. Satan wasn’t understood in those days as the very personification of evil. The word “satan” literally means “tempter,” and that’s who Satan was – the one who tempted, the one who tried to get you to do things that were not right. And that’s how Jesus viewed Peter at this moment, as someone who tempted him. Perhaps Jesus was tempted to avoid suffering, tempted to avoid those who were hateful. Surely he didn’t want to suffer and die on the cross. But he told Peter, “No. You are saying the wrong thing. This isn’t the way. Get where you belong. Get behind me.”
Get behind me.
Perhaps that’s where we belong as well. Behind Jesus. Behind him, and following him. Jesus says, “If any want to be my disciple, let them deny themselves.” “If any want to be my disciple, let them take up their cross.” “If any want to be my disciple, let them follow me.” Get behind me, and follow me.
I think perhaps Jesus says to us:
“Follow me to where I am going; follow me to a place where there is suffering. To a place where there is anger and hatred. Follow me there. Deny yourself. Deny the thought you have that you know what’s best for me. Deny the idea that you know what’s best for the world. That you know what’s best for you. Deny that, and trust me. I know what I am doing. I am the Messiah, and I know where the Messiah is going. To a place of suffering and hatred. I do not cause suffering and hatred, but I go where it is. I go to the cross. And I know where the cross leads. To resurrection. To life. Eternal life. True and abundant life.”
Following Jesus isn’t the path to an easy, happy life. Because that’s never where Jesus goes. If that’s what you seek here, you will not find it. When we follow Jesus, he leads us places where we might prefer not to go. He leads us to stand with those who are suffering in Texas, to generously open our hearts and our wallets to help them. And he leads us to take a stand against the evil that infests our world, to stand up and say that racism and white supremacy have no place here. He leads us to take a stand against the evil that dwells within our own hearts, the sin that festers, the self-righteousness, the ways we divide the world into “us” and “them,” the way we hide from things that are frightening.
He leads us to places we would rather not go. Like Peter, we are tempted to say, “No! God forbid it! You don’t deserve this, and neither do I!” But like he said to Peter, he says to us, “Get behind me, tempter. You are setting your mind on human things, not on divine things. Not on my things. Now get behind me, and take up your cross, and follow me.”
Remember, Jesus loves us dearly, and he is not calling us to places that will destroy us. He is calling us to places that transform us. Because Jesus knows where this leads. It leads to the cross. He leads us there, not because it’s safe. It’s not. The cross is a sign of hatred and death. Jesus himself was not safe from the cross. But he leads us there, because he knows that it is worth it, and he knows what will happen there. Not destruction, but transformation. He knows that he himself transforms that cross from hatred to love, from death to life. He transforms meaningless suffering into the deepest meaning in our lives. He transforms pain into hope. He gives true, deep, surprising life where we never expected it.
And he will transform us. It is not easy to follow Jesus. It is not safe. It is risky. It is frightening. It is the unknown. But it is worth it. If you follow Jesus, you will sometimes find yourself in the midst of a swirling storm, or in a place of uncertainty, or even in a place of suffering. You may find yourself giving more money than you expected, giving more time than you expected. You may find yourself saying “no” to things, or “yes” to things that you didn’t expect. But you will also find your true life there. You will also find meaning. You will find redemption. The depth of life you’ve sought is found in the very place Jesus is leading you. You will find what true life is there. Are you ready to be transformed? Get behind Jesus. Take up your cross, and follow him.