As you read this post, do you count yourself as a Christian? If so, “What do you do as a Christian?” only because you are a Christian, and would give up if you no longer claimed that faith? You might need time to think about this – but if you cannot identify anything, does that throw doubt on your faith? [If you do not describe yourself in this way, do you understand that to claim Christian faith should mean a real difference in ordinary life?].
A second question: “How do you do it?”. Unwillingly, with a long face, or can you manage a positive sense of the privilege of discipleship, and the honour of service?
Today’s gospel (Matthew 16:21) says “Jesus began 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”.
He must. It is clear in all 4 gospels, and the New Testament generally. The story works up to the cross. But Peter doesn’t get it – like many today. He sees Jesus as Messiah – King, and is looking forward (perhaps with some doubts) to celebrity, glory, winning. But God has very different ways, and the Messiah will win through suffering. Jesus tone makes it clear that is not negotiable, not a detail to be skimmed over.
I think we might all have some sympathy for Peter, and find it hard to keep in focus this strange way God chooses to work. Why does Jesus have to die? What good does it do? Evangelical Christians will say firmly that He pays the price for our sin, and it is only by his death that we are free. That’s true, and if you haven’t come to terms with being in debt for your life, you need to do some thinking about it with God, and perhaps with 1 Peter 2 esp v24.
But be aware, too, that Jesus is unique, and all descriptions are metaphors which help us understand, but eventually no one picture covers all the angles. The New Testament does not give just one picture to explain, but many, to build up our understanding. So:
- Jesus changes places with us 1 Peter 2 (esp v24)
- Jesus is the sacrifice, the “Lamb of God” John 1
- Jesus is the High Priest who offers a unique and effective sacrifice Hebrews 7, Hebrews 9
- also the Pioneer Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 12:2
- and Jesus is Teacher (Matthew’s gospel has 5 collections of teaching, “new Law”, like a new Moses (see Deuteronomy 18).
- this isn’t a full list, you can go on finding other pictures describing Jesus, his work and importance.
That is in danger of being confusing! Let’s summarise and say: It was no accident that Jesus suffered, died, and rose – it was all central to God’s plan to save us in love. The New Testament reflects on something very strange to our culture, assumptions, and ways of understanding, and offers a number of comparisons and pictures in explanation.
If you read another of today’s lessons (Romans 12:9-21), you will find the life described is reformed around Jesus – finding hope, patience, and love for enemies. This is the life which brings hope to Christians in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan today. It is the same life which must characterise our learning to work together. I am sure there are those sitting at home today saying things like, “I don’t like going changing my habits, why can’t I have it the way I want it?” I think Peter would have had an answer, for the Christian must follow Christ and become like him. I think Jeremiah would have sympathised – he had a hard time (Jeremiah 15:15-21) – but also knew the discipline of obedience.
We follow a Lord whose Kingship was shown in the suffering of the Cross. We begin to see how God wins, in situations like yours and mine, in a way totally different to anything Hollywood, or the Islamic State, or Westminster can get their heads around. “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering” Peter, and the others who followed then and later (even now!), would have to learn Jesus way of winning, and see in it the glory of God’s love.