The Truth About Love

Sermon by:
Rev. Terri Thorn
delivered on:
September 3, 2017
Bible Reference(s):
Matthew 16:21-28

Theologian Karl Barth has been credited with saying:  “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible...not the other way around.”  From a preaching standpoint, I have always understood this to mean that the messages I bring should be rooted in the ancient scriptures but speak to what is happening in the world right now.

But I have to tell you, after a week like this one...I'm thinking Barth had no idea what it is like to preach in the 21st century.  What an crazy news week it has been!  Just when I thought there was a story that I should consider for this message, another one came along.

Still, there was one story that seemed to nag at me all week...which is usually a sign I need to pay attention.  First though, I need to say up front that I'm no fan of Joel Osteen's theology...ministry...or message. He may be a wonderful motivational speaker, but I believe he sells the gospel short.

Even so, I have to admit that I felt a little sorry for the poor guy this week.  For those who missed it, Osteen caught some serious heat from the press and took a beating all over social media because he did not open the doors of his mega-church to serve as a safe-shelter for victims of the flooding in Houston.   

As I understand it, everything started when a question was raised as to why the 17,000 person capacity church building was not quickly made available to the public.  Apparently, the initial response was that the building itself was flooded.  However, when that proved not to be true, even more questions were asked and Osteen responded that they did not open as a shelter because city officials  had not asked them to. He also assured viewers that they would open the doors once other shelters reached capacity. 

Needless to say, there was a huge uproar over his response.  To many folks, the closed doors sent a message that it was more important to protect the building than to help those facing the devastation and dangerous flood conditions.  Osteen's detractors were also quick to point out that local mosques were open to the public, implying that Osteen and his congregation were less Christian than the Muslims in the community.

Don't get me wrong, I see their point and I think they are right about what message was conveyed...but really, who are we to judge?  Day after day, individual Christians and entire congregations are guilty of the same thing...keeping our doors closed and our gates locked in order to protect the things we have accumulated.  Often we play it safe and choose to do that which we believe is in our own best interest.  So no, as much as I disagree with Joel Osteen on almost everything he says and does, I don't think he deserved the public flogging that he received. 

In fact, if Joel had consulted with me before he went on the Today Show, I would have even given him advice to help him with his case.  I would have said, "Joel...this is exactly why you don't want to be the head pastor of a mega-non-denominational church.  Serve a Presbyterian church...instead.   That way, when you face these kinds of things, you can always fall back on the standard Presbyterian response:  Well, Savannah Guthrie, I appreciate your question, but that's a Session decision and Session doesn't meet again until the third Tuesday of next month."

Seriously though, the bottom line is that Joel made a mistake that had nothing to do with whether the doors of Lakewood church were open or not.  He said something unappealing in a way that I suspect he now regrets.  Honestly, it's not all that different from what Peter did in this story.  Both men set their minds on human things and responded from a place of fear and self-preservation.  As a result, they both tarnished their image as a follower of Jesus. 

Now, I'm quite certain that Joel's public relations folks will handle his blunder, so let's turn our attention to Peter.

Seemingly in an instant, Peter went from being called the rock upon which Jesus would build his church,  to having Jesus call him a stumbling block. Last week, Jesus said Peter had received divine revelation from God...this week Jesus scolds him for having set his mind on human things.  Last week, Peter received Jesus' blessing...and this week he's being equated with Satan.

So what on earth happened from last week to this week?  Well basically 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, and on the third day be raised."

In other words, from the moment Peter proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus began to defy their expectation of what that meant.  To the disciples, the Anointed One of God was supposed to be the next King David - ruling politically and militarily.  The Messiah was supposed to FREE the Jews from oppression under the Roman Empire and the corrupt religious leaders...NOT suffer and die at their hands. 

Therefore, the more Jesus revealed about his future, the more it confounded the disciples...and the more they realized that their own lives were at risk as well.  So, no wonder Peter replied the way he did.  Jesus was telling a truth that Peter did not want to hear...so Peter was not going to have any part of it.  No way, no how. "Forbid it Lord...we can't let that happen."

When we read his response today, it is obvious that Peter was out of line...but I can't help but think if we were in his shoes, a lot of us would respond the same way. 

I mean, no one wants to intentionally invite pain and suffering and death into their life.  As a matter of fact, unless one is suffering a mental illness that feeds on pain or suffering, we tend to avoid it at all cost.  We don't want to read about it, hear about it, or participate in it.  We like things comfortable and predictable and happy.  We like feel-good stories of blessing and grace and peace and joy. It's why we rush past Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.  It's why preachers like Osteen can pack the 17000 seat venue week after week.  And, it's why we seek out videos of kittens and babies on social media.  We want to be made to feel good.

I believe our aversion to suffering is why we become unsettled when other people are suffering.  It's why we use clichés to rush people through their grief and shine the glaring light of good cheer within hours of a tragedy.  Avoidance of pain and suffering is also why there is such a high level of substance abuse in our society.  We use drugs and alcohol to numb the hurt...physical, mental and emotional.  

So, no, we can't really blame Peter for wanting to avoid the road that was ahead. It's in our nature to want to steer clear of it too. 

Perhaps that is why Jesus was so intense and harsh in his response.  He wasn't upset that Peter tried to protect him from a death sentence.  I'm not even sure he was really upset with Peter at all.  I believe Jesus is so angry because he knows from first-hand experience exactly how Satan tempts us away from God...and how easily we fall prey to it.  Jesus wasn't calling out Peter for being tempted by Satan, he was calling out Satan for tempting Peter. 

You see, Jesus was well aware that the biggest lie that Satan tells us in order to separate us from God is to convince us to rely on our own understanding, our own power, our own expectations. Jesus knew that it was the Deceiver who put the fear into Peter's mind...and who continues to whisper it to his followers today:  Avoid the suffering...take a different route...you don't have to do this.  Do what is best for you personally and guarantees your safety and comfort.  Sacrificing for others is over-rated.  Let them take care of themselves. Don't give up your dignity or put your life on the line.

No wonder Jesus says, "Get behind me, Satan."  The entire salvation story that he had come to fulfill was being challenged in this moment of truth.  The Enemy was working overtime to keep Jesus from  establishing God's kingdom on earth...just as he is still trying to destroy it even now...by instilling fear and hesitation and by promoting pride and self-interest.  All he needs in order to be successful is for Jesus' followers to choose to take the easy, self-preserving, road of life...rather than do the hard work of loving God and loving others.

And quite honestly folks, there are days when it feels as if he is succeeding on a grand scale.  Sometimes it feels as if on our best days American Christians are complacent in our faith journey - taking it for granted....and on our worst, we have adopted an entitlement mentality.  We act as if we are entitled to God's kingdom...with little investment on our part.

In our haste to embrace the idea that God's love and mercy are unmerited and boundless, which is true, we forget that to receive forgiveness and live a life of love requires something from us. 

We forget that while grace is free...it is not cheap.  There was a huge cost of suffering and sacrifice by Jesus on our behalf. And as result, we are called to be willing to do the same on his behalf. 

Friends, if Satan's deceit is timeless, then so too must be the truth of Jesus' words about the conditions for following him.  Now, in the case of the early disciples, Jesus may have very well meant they would have to give up their actual flesh and blood lives...becoming martyrs on his behalf.   But that is not our context now.  This is 21st century America.  To follow Jesus in this same bold, sacrificial, suffering-servant, sort of way  is not really about being willing to die for Jesus.  The threat is not real.  As such, denying ourselves and be willing to lose our life must be about more than our physical life. Taking up our cross must mean something other than just carrying a heavy burden.  And being saved is about more than getting into heaven. 

In fact, the "saved" life that Jesus is talking about is actually one that has been set free.   One that is unencumbered to live the gospel.  A life that is free to love the way Jesus did.  A life that is unfettered to offer compassion...to show mercy..to seek justice.  This unhindered "saved" life does not come to us by clinging tightly to the promises of the world...but instead we receive it when we get ourselves out of the way and let Christ live in and through us.  It's the ultimate definition of letting go and letting God. 

The fullness of a resurrected life is ours when we refuse to believe the lies of this world and instead trust in the promise of God's love.  Even when it is difficult to do so.  Even when it is unpopular to do so.  Even when it feels as if we are the only ones to do so.  Even when it feels like we are taking up a cross and heading to Jerusalem.

To live in Christ's sacrificial love requires us to live out his sacrificial love in the world.

That is Paul's point in this passage from his letter to the Romans.   Listen to what he says. 

{READ Romans 12:9-21}

Friends, Paul makes it clear that for the people of God, loving others is not how we feel about someone, it is how we treat them. Love is an action, not an emotion.  More specifically, loving others is a selfless action...one that requires effort...and an attitude of humility...and hospitality.  In fact, Paul gives us all sorts of self-sacrificing ways the people of God are called to love and live in this world.

And the truth about every single one of the things he lists about love is that it requires some level of giving on our part...some level of denying ourselves for the sake of loving the way Jesus loves.   And isn't that what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  To love the way he loves.  Is that not what it means to lose our life so that we might save it?  To give love as a response to being loved.

Obviously, the life of a Christ-follower is not an easy life to live..it is costly and demanding.  It can be exhausting and challenging.   Nonetheless, the good news of the gospel is that this life is a meaningful one...in fact, a life of love is the only life that really matters. 

Now church,  we don't always do this well. But when we do...it is a beautiful thing.

This week we've seen just how beautiful...as we have been glued to the coverage of the flooding in Texas and Louisiana and other states.  We are not watching to see the suffering and devastation...we are looking for the love.  And, oh...there have been so many, many stories of sacrificial, holy love!  Stories of those who, like Officer Steve Perez, died trying to help others, or Collette Sulcer who gave her life while saving her daughter's.  Or stories like that of Mattress Max who set aside his concern about profit margins to open his furniture show room to evacuees...stories of rescuers coming from all over the US, including from right here in central Indiana...stories of financial generosity...and people who have used vacation days and  fishing boats to volunteer and help with evacuations. 

Folks, the amazing thing about all these stories of love is that in the midst of the suffering and tragedy, thousands of people have willingly given up themselves for the sake of what is right and good and just.  They have denied the worldly labels of race, ethnicity, political ideology, socio-economic class, education level, age, gender, and sexual orientation to put on one unifying identity...that of unconditional love in one community.

Yes...sacrificially loving like Jesus is humbling...and a challenge to our identity as independent Americans...but we have proven that we can do it. 

May it be our aim this Labor Day weekend, to consider what it means to labor in love for Jesus' sake...and may we seek to do so...in times of blessing and in times of crisis... in times of conflict and in times of celebration...in the places of suffering here and abroad.  Friends, on this and every day, may our sacrifices of love glorify the one who loves us and gives us life...Amen.