August 30, 2020
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
When I was leading youth groups, we would begin each year with an outline of the rules and expectations. Our group would create a covenant, a promise to each other that we would behave respectfully toward one another. Young people would give ideas such as “don’t interrupt when someone is talking” or “don’t share personal things outside of this group.” Full participation, no use of drugs or alcohol, respect people, places, and things. You get the idea.
We have a group covenant too. Part 1, Section 4 of our Constitution reads, in part, “We agree one with another to seek and respond to the Word and the will of God and to walk together in the ways of the Lord, made known and to be known to us.” When new members join us, they make promises such as to “be Christ’s disciple, to follow in the way of our Savior, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ as best [they] are able?” And the congregation makes promises to the new members: “We promise you our friendship and prayers as we share the hopes and labors of the church of Jesus Christ.”
This passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome reads like a group covenant for people of faith. The vision and mission statement of the Christian church is captured in the words “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” It has a charge both easy and difficult. “Bless those who persecute you,” is a call to costly discipleship, to put in the hard work of loving even the unlovable.
To covenant with one another, to bind ourselves in service to the Lord based on love, goodness, patience, and service is how we work together to bring forth the kingdom of God. This covenant guides our behavior not only in the church building but in the classroom, the office, the grocery store, and the public space. To be the church in the world is to live out this call to live generously toward others, to bless every encounter with kindness and honor.
As Christians, we need this guidance because the way ahead is not a smooth and sunlit path. We must keep our minds fixed on divine things because the mission to which we are called is to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus.
This moment in Matthew’s gospel is a hard lesson. Peter has been committed all along to the Teacher, learning the lessons of leadership, compassion, faith, and healing. Now that Jesus is turning toward Jerusalem, where there will be great suffering and death, Peter is faced with what he believes to be the destruction of all that they have accomplished. “God forbid it, Lord!” You are the Messiah; we can’t let you suffer and die. You have to save us! If you are taken from us, all that we have accomplished will be lost.
Peter the rock has become Peter the stumbling block. All that they have accomplished, all that they have built, the crowds of followers, the reputation of the master healer and teacher, all of that must be lost in order for the true mission of Christ to be accomplished. Jesus isn’t on his way to be crowned king of Israel. Power was never the mission. The true mission is the transformation of human hearts and their relationship with God. That mission will demand the surrender of power, of pride, of status, comfort, and even life itself for the sake of the kingdom of God.
What Peter has not grasped, and what we also often fail to grasp, is that serving God and living the life of faith does not mean a life without suffering. It is possible, easy even, to be a faithful Christian when the goodness of life is all around, success comes from our efforts, and praise is given for our achievements. There is a way of thinking that if you are healthy and prosperous that you must have strong faith. The flip side is that if you suffer and fail your faith must not be true. This is the kind of thinking for which Jesus rebukes Peter.
There will be struggles, failures, suffering, and rejection in life. Even if your life has been relatively pain-free, the measure of faithfulness is not in how you handle success, but rather in how you handle adversity. When trouble comes, when the storm washes everything away, and all that is left is to pick up the cross and carry on, will you? If following Christ means not having the best things, the comfortable life, power and prestige, will we choose the path of suffering for the sake of the mission? “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Discipleship is a commitment to live not in expectation of reward or presumptions of self-worth but, rather, despite the lack of any obvious reward. Otherwise, our following is self-centered and ultimately flawed. We are not in this for ourselves. We are the church, not a club, precisely because the work we do is not for us but for God’s kingdom. Our call to follow Christ is a challenge to re-evaluate everything we thought was important and measure it against the grace of God.
We are a cross-carrying people. We follow Jesus even when the road leads to suffering because we know that God’s grace is all the reward we require. We deny ourselves because we believe in the mission of transforming the world with goodness, compassion, and love. We are called to follow Jesus even when it is hard, and we are able to carry on because we have committed ourselves to one another. We are a people who rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. We will be ardent in spirit as we seek to serve the Lord.
Lift high the cross of Christ; tread where Christ’s feet have
come sisters, brothers in the faith, rise up, O saints of God.
 The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Romans 12:9-10.
 Romans 12:14.
 Matthew 16:25.
 William P. Merrill, “Rise Up, O Saints of God!”, 1911.