Text: Matthew 16.21-28
HEALTH WARNING…the first three paragraphs are a parody…to be read in a phoney American accent!
I have great pleasure in announcing last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me. He said to me..."Pastor", he said, "Pastor - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful acts of God Almighty, that the whole of Havant will flock to your doors!
All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with riches from heaven. Then they all will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)
So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasurer, Sister Shelley, will be standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign at the end of our service. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!
It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world. They feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...but they are tricked into making their preachers wealthy instead. Remember that TV Evangelist I talked about last week – with his massive house on a hill. Hmmm…perhaps I’m in the wrong branch of the church?
According to today’s Gospel text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. Verse 21: "From that time on, 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,"
You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah (as we heard last week). He’s just been told that on him – Mr Rocky – Jesus was going to build his church. And now…Jesus is talking about having to suffer and die. Peter probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts. Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard? "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)
But Jesus is adamant. He tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff. And then Jesus goes on, in verse 23: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God thinks...to see things from God's perspective".
And then – here comes the ‘drop the mike’ line: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (verse 24).
So what does it mean to embrace suffering as part of the Christian life?
Let me introduce you to my friend Lucy (not her real name). She had spent all her life serving others through the church. She had been at coffee mornings and fundraisers, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. She had truly denied herself for others. And yet, Lucy now found herself bed-bound, and unable to serve others anymore. She even had to rely on others to help her to the bathroom.
Lucy’s body was failing her but not her mind. She said to me, "perhaps God is teaching me that there was still a bit of pride in me. I’m learning that I need to let others serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people. That none of us can exist in isolation."
I was intensely moved by what Lucy said. After a life-time of faith God was teaching her something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God. There was, for Lucy at least, a purpose in her suffering. She learned to gladly take up her cross, for what it would teach her and others, even as she neared the end of her life.
This does not, of course, explain all suffering. To even begin to explore the place of suffering in God’s plan would take a lot more time than I have today! And it does little to explain the awful and apparently senseless suffering of so many. But I suggest to you that Jesus offers us a clue. Jesus had to suffer, and indeed to die. But through death, came resurrection. There is hope at the end of all tunnels of suffering, for those who trust in God’s essential goodness. And for those who are open – like Lucy – to hearing God’s voice in the midst of suffering.
So, may you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you. May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter and serve.
And it’s alright…you don’t have to sign over the deeds of your house to Sister Shelley!