RPM, Volume 19, Number 51, December 17 to December 23, 2017

To be a Christian

Matthew 16:21-28

By Rev. Michael A. Milton

Introduction

One of the lessons we learn as children is to wait. But waiting is a mystery to a six-year-old boy.

My Aunt Eva could really cook up a good lemon meringue pie. Oh, my. That cold and luscious yellow custard, so tart, so sweet, settled beneath a mound of glazed sugar, whipped up into a cloud of goodness, just settling over that delicious golden filling, a nestled onto a flakey crust, the kind that soaks up the scrumptiousness of the lemon custard in the pie. I can almost taste it now. Well, one-day Aunt Eva had some ladies coming over from church. She prepared that pie. She said, "After the ladies leave, son, you can have a piece of that pie. But not until then." I thought that waiting seemed like a waste of good pie and precious time. So, I just cut two or three slices of that pie and, then, hid the evidence: both pie and plate. When the ladies got there, Aunt Eva went to get the pie. But she found a half-devoured dish of lemon meringue. I was long gone and way out in the pasture with the cows. But, after the ladies left, she came to me, with a peach switch, and she swatted me on the back of my knee. She showed me that there is virtue in waiting and punishment in the pilfering of pies. She showed me the spiritual side of pies. The pain of that day resulted in some deep theological reflection about the virtues of thinking before acting and waiting before engaging. The "sum of all life" was not just about me and my appetite for the sweet things of life. There were other people. There were other goals. My life had to be lived in concert with this great life. Does this sound even remotely familiar to your life? If you are human, you understand what I mean.

Peter and the disciples learned that truth, too. There was some confusion about waiting and about the spiritual nature of the Kingdom of God in Matthew 16:21-27. Jesus cleared it all up. He didn't need a peach switch to do it. But the way He responded left no question that the Kingdom of God was something that went far beyond Peter and his friends. It was for others yet to come. It had a meaning deeper than they had figured.

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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

You have heard it said and you know that it is true: the older you get, the more you realize what you don't know. In military strategic studies, knowing what you don't know, is a crucial variable that must be mastered and practiced. If you do not have sufficient intelligence about the opponent's armament reserve, or naval war-fighting capacity, or even logistics, you are at a supreme disadvantage.

Peter had confessed the Lord Jesus Christ. That was good. He knew what He knew. Peter's problem was that he did not know what he did not know. And what Peter failed to grasp, which is brought to light in an extraordinarily painful way in today's Gospel reading, was what he didn't know. He didn't know the depth or extent or full spiritual ramifications of this new Kingdom, this New Covenant. Peter did not know the fullness of what it is to be a Christian. Peter's confession of faith is now challenged by his need to live out that faith.

Matthew 16:21-28 is not merely about Christ's prophecy of His crucifixion, though it includes that truth. The passage is not merely about Peter's bold misunderstanding of how the Kingdom would come. It is that and much more. The passage is not only Jesus' declaration that the "first must be last" in the new Kingdom. It is that. But the passage contains much more. It is so comprehensive, so far-reaching in its implications for our lives that we can only say:

God has shown us in one remarkable passage of Scripture, what it is to be a Christian. Matthew 16:21-28 provides three major movements in the text that help us to know what it really is to be a Christian. The first movement may be stated in this way:

1. To be a Christian is to enter a Panorama.

A panorama is a scene with unlimited views in all directions. The Kingdom of God includes eternity past and eternity future. To be a Christian is to live your confession of faith in a Kingdom that is larger than your own ambitions.

Peter's objection to Jesus' prophecy is not just based on his love of the Lord. The Apostle's objection is based on self. We learn this by reading Jesus' severe response. "'Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (Matthew 16:23 ESV). I don't know about you, but that appears to be a harsh response. It was only a few sentences ago that Jesus said, "'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by My Father in heaven. my Father who is in heaven'" (Matthew 16:7 ESV). Jesus' hard response leads to an even harder reality: Peter expected and anticipated a Kingdom of this world. Now. Jesus' answer shows that the ancient covenantal structure was in place: God requires a perfect life lived. He has required punishment for sin. There must be a sacrifice. Peter completely jumped past the Old Testament Scriptures he had learned at his Bar-Mitzvah, to expect a suspension of God's plan. God had promised the world to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-9), not a small earthly kingdom in a small area of land along the Mediterranean. 1 And he apparently took this position to accommodate his own plans.

We are prone, at this point, to offer our more informed, sophisticated response for Peter. "What a dunce! What a brutish bore!" Yet, I must believe that if you are condemning old petulant Peter, you might as well be condemning yourself. Are we not all prone to think of God's Kingdom as isolated to our own needs? Our own world?

I had a very fine man of God in one of my congregations to tell me in secret that he had intentionally sought to earn more money in his business to give more to God and His good work in the world today. But, he had lost a contract, then another contract, and, at length, his Profit and Loss statement became a nightmare. He sat in front of me, not in tears, but in spectacular wrath. "Look, I did this for God. And what does He do? He lets me down. I don't get it. Where are the promises of God" I had to assure Him that God's promises are always "yes and amen" in Jesus. But because they are in Jesus, they come to us in the form of a cross. They come to us personally, to be sure, but they come to us in a way that is much larger than self. The Kingdom is greater than your singular success or failure. Yet, God loves you and will answer your prayer in a way that collates your life with the lives of others. I believe that the Lord is teaching you to see the Kingdom as a mosaic movement through time and space. You have been swept up into that epic story. You must trust God to answer your prayers within the greater framework of others."

I wonder, for instance—and I have seen this throughout my ministry and have come to experience some of it myself—how many have made plans for retirement only to realize that their health has left them about time their career did. Or, there are those who are newly married and have come to see that marriage is not merely about who you are, but who your husband or wife is. I wonder how many are disappointed with God because He hasn't lived up to their vision of who He should be. Welcome to Peter's world—and mine! The Kingdom of God is a sweeping epic that stretches from eternity past to eternity future, with a vast number of other believers all living through history under the grand and glorious Plan of God for the ages. To be a Christian is to realize that you are in a relationship that is much greater than anything you ever imagined. Indeed, the glory of our faith is that it transcends all that we see and experience here in this world. To be a Christian is to enter a magnificent panoramic "world without end. Amen!" And that is good. For what blesses the whole Family of God will bless you.

The second movement of the text could be summarized in this way:

2. To be a Christian is to live a Paradox.

To be a Christian is to lead your life of faith in a Kingdom where paradox is the new norm.

Immediately after Jesus chided Peter, He explained why He did so. He explained it this way,

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. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Follow Jesus? Take up the cross. Remember, now—in this time of the passage—there was no thought of a cross as a symbol for our faith. Yet, everyone knew the Roman method of capital punishment. Perhaps, they might have thought; he is just using a popular, if not gruesome, sign of suffering. But, on this side of things, we know the depth of that teaching or something of it as Jesus is talking about the thing that has repulsed many pseudo and even certified intellectuals. "How could a King be crucified and then claim victory?" Yet, even at this point, before the crucifixion, Jesus is guiding the disciples to the spiritual principle that created the need for a Savior to die in our place. The way of Christ is the way of the Cross. Jesus drove this spiritual value even deeper by relating it to one's very life. To live one must die: die to self, to others, and to the basic human instinct of "me first."

I begin to share some of the personal aspects of my faith. This principle of paradox was a huge one, as it is for all of us. When I came face to face with the concept, it was not that I failed to grasp it, it was that I neglected to believe it enough to live it. For to do so requires letting go. This required, for me, in my early twenties, letting go of personal ambitions. For me, ambition did not involve money. It also included a personal sense of victory. I didn't know whether that was writing the greatest novel, being referred to as a premier composer, or performer. It just meant "gaining the world." I came to understand with my head much sooner than I did with my heart—with my will. Of course, for that will to be changed, God had to change me. And He did. Through my Aunt Eva's prayers, and much pain, sorrow, and wasted years in the "far country," I came to see that to follow Jesus of Nazareth as the resurrected and reigning Savior and Lord was, of necessity, to rearrange my life. Love and gratitude to Jesus overflowed in my life as I realized the cost of His sacrifice for me and the blessedness of His presence in my life. That love, that gratitude began to shape my desires immediately. How does the old Catechism put it? "What is the chief end of Man?" And the answer became my answer. The answer is His answer: "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever."

I came to give my life to Him by recognizing the calling in my life. But that may not be your calling. That is not the point. The point is, rather, to come to the Cross of Jesus, by faith, and give your all-in-all to the One on the cross. Then, in emptying your life of self, you will fill your life with Christ. And to do so is to fill your life with the life of the One who created you. This can only result in a new life of meaning. And this is the paradox: by dying you live as you could never imagine.

Yet, how many of us continue to think that by conserving, we will have it all later. But what will we have at the end of our lives? What will we have tomorrow morning? Unless we have Christ in our lives, we will have only that which is passing. The most precious thing to you, my Beloved, is yet temporary. And you know what that is: your family, your friends, love, beauty, the simple things that cannot be bought or sold. Yet, our children are on loan from God. Our friends are a gift. Art and music and the simple beauty of a baby's smile is a gift. They are sadly, in this old fallen world, gifts with expiration dates. But to live the paradox of faith in Jesus, to live under the ruling motif of the cross, is to, then, see those faithful family and friends again. It is to see beauty and experience justice in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Do you get it? Is it in your head? Is it in your heart? You will bridge that gap of twelve inches or so, from head to heart, when you cross the river of doubt when you believe the promise of Jesus for your own life.

The third and final movement in this passage is a critical one for each of us. It is this:

3. To be a Christian is to embrace eschatological Patience.

Now, this sounds a bit high-browed. Not patience, but "eschatological patience." When we speak of eschatology, we are talking about the "study of the last things." Jesus said that this life of the cross would finally come to full fruition when the Kingdom comes. Yet, He then goes on to add that some will not see death before they see the Kingdom. What gives? Well, the late New Testament scholar, George Eldon Ladd, coined a useful phrase: "The here and the not yet." 2 The Kingdom of God was inaugurated with the coming of Jesus. The Kingdom terms of the covenant that make you a citizen of the Kingdom were enacted at the Cross. And by faith, you receive the benefits of Redemption: the righteousness we need is in His life, the terms of the Covenant of Works' requirement for the punishment of sin by death is met in His sacrifice for sin. In the resurrection, you receive the guarantee of eternal life. In the Ascension, you receive the High Priest taking His place to represent you before the Creator. "His blood speaks" on your behalf. Though Christ reigns, the devil is prowling like a roaring lion. But, soon, Jesus will return. Sin will be no more. The Kingdom will have come in its fullest expression.

The catastrophic power of Hurricane Harvey became the worst natural disaster in American history. Yet, the courage of Texas and Louisiana first-responders has been nothing short of legend. I saw where a Texas National Guard helicopter hovered over a little home drowning in the brown lake of death. A family was on the roof. The woman and her children were saved. A reporter asked her what the National Guard said (or was it another house, another family, another agency? I cannot remember). The answer given in awe of the power of the floods is our answer: "They said 'We are here to save you. But there is more on the way."

Jesus came to save. But there is more salvation on the way: in your passing from this life, in the Second Coming, in the Resurrection, in the acquittal from sin at the Judgement Seat of God, in the New Heaven and the New Earth, when the Kingdom is handed over to the Father that God might be "all in all" (1 Corinthians 15:28). To be a Christian is to look in faith to a Kingdom that is here and not yet. And this new life of patience requires faith: faith to look through diseases, wars, pestilence, and, yes, hurricanes and catastrophic events, including your own catastrophic event of death, to say, with the great poet-preacher, John Donne, in his holy sonnet:

"One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." 3

Conclusion

To be a Christian goes far beyond a confession of faith, though it must always begin there. To be a Christian involves, according to Matthew 16:21-28, learning that the Kingdom of is Panoramic—the Kingdom of Christ is larger than yourself, where Gospel Paradox is the new norm, and the Kingdom of God is a life of eschatological Patience—where we follow our Lord who has come and who is coming again, "here and not yet."

I professed faith in Christ at six years of age. But when those great existential questions appeared in my adolescence, I had a startling realization that would send me on a prodigal journey for too many years of my youth: I did not know what it was to be a Christian. I thought it was enough to walk the aisle, be confirmed, and stand up in front of your friends when they used God's name in vain and corrected them. But none of those things, all good in themselves (if not, perhaps, bordering on sticking your nose where it doesn't always belong in the case of chastising others too quickly) could not provide sufficient cover for the deadly cosmic rays and celestial debris of life's constant pain and cruel mysteries constantly battering your soul. A friend of mine, a Gideon, came to me and invited me to go to New Orleans and hear the presentation of Evangelism Explosion. When I heard Dr. Kennedy proclaim that "All things work together" in Romans 8:28 and "What God has required, God has provided" in Ephesians 2:8,9, I came to see that my confession of faith was lacking a life of faith. And at that moment, I recognized that the Kingdom was greater than I could ever imagine. I saw that the very things that came to hurt me were the very things being used of God to bring me to Himself. In this, though I could not articulate it at that moment, I began living the life of the cross.

To take up your cross is to enter a new life, a life lived under the motif of the cross. To take up your cross is to walk in faith in the sweeping epic, perplexing paradox, and eschatological tension of the cross, the emblem of sin and shame, being transformed into the sign of salvation and honor; the grave being transformed from the place of death and Hades, into the place of resurrection and new life.

To be a Christian is to take off your crown and take up your cross; to move from confession of faith to practice of faith. It is to wait on others to come and taste the sweetness of Jesus' love and salvation. To be a Christian is, in a word, to trust Jesus from the confession of faith all the way home.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Notes:

  1. For further study, see Chapter Eight of O.P. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1981). For a peer-reviewed scholarly treatment, see Robert L. Brawley, "Reverberations of Abrahamic Covenant Traditions in the Ethics of Matthew," in Realia Dei: Essays in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Edward F Campbell, Jr at His Retirement (Atlanta: Scholars Pr, 1999).
  2. See Eldon Jay Epp, "Mediating Approaches to the Kingdom: Werner Georg KüMmel and George Eldon Ladd," in Kingdom of God in 20th-Century Interpretation (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Pub, 1987); George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom; Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.,: Eerdmans, 1959).
  3. John Donne and Helen Louise Dame D. B. E. Gardner, The Elegies and the Songs and Sonnets. Edited with Introduction and Commentary by Helen Gardner. [with Portraits and Musical Illustrations.] (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).
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