In February of 2002 my life turned upside-down. It was the weekend that I planned to ask Cassie to marry me; so my life was already on its way toward change, but in an instant my life, soon to be Cassie and my life together turned upside-down. I was back for a second year at the Jubilee Conference for Christian college students in Pittsburgh. Having met Cassie there the year before, it seemed a no brainer that this should be were we got engaged. Needless to say I had other things on my mind, and learning about what God had to do with my chosen career path seemed a little less than important. Still, being a good Episcopalian, I went through the motions. I showed up at every plenary session and even attended the breakout group for fellow Christian business students. The weekend was going along mostly as I had planned, when I was smacked by God in the back of the head. Just before the break in our small group session the facilitator asked a seemingly innocuous question, “are you studying business to further God’s kingdom in some way or to get money and buy stuff?” BAM!!!! There was the two-by-four that God often likes to use smacking me square in the back of the head. All of a sudden “get money and buy stuff” wasn’t the right answer any more. In an instant I was called to reevaluate my priorities and to invite God into my vocational discernment. Within an hour I was realizing that I was studying business to hide from what God was really calling me to; a life of service to God in ordained ministry. Two hours later I gave Cassie the news, and an hour after that I proposed. God has a way of turning our lives upside-down.
We know well the stories of the disciples and how their lives were turned upside-down. Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee are examples of Jesus’ ability to change the course of human events in a very real and very drastic way. Two weeks ago you heard of Jesus raising the young man from Na’in turning a funeral procession into a resurrection party. Today too, we find ourselves dealing with Jesus’ turning upside-down the expectations of life. Two examples are available in today’s gospel lesson.
First, we have the account of Peter coming to know who Jesus really is. Jesus begins by asking the disciples who other say that he is. It seems the people are doing the work of faith; they are working hard at understanding that which makes so little sense. Mostly, the people have come to recognize Jesus as a prophet like John the Baptist. Others see something else in Jesus and his ministry; perhaps he is the promised return of Elijah who was to come to announce “the great and terrible day of the Lord.” Jesus must have seen something in their answers, some deeper level of understanding in the disciples as he turns the question to them, “but who do you say that I am?” Peter, in his usual way, blurts out the answer, “You are the Anointed one of God!” “Exactly Peter, now be quiet!” Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed one of God, despite the fact that he looked nothing like the Messiah the Jews were expecting. He didn’t come in power and great glory to overthrow the occupying Romans. Instead he called them to a life focused not on earthly kingdoms at all, but on the kingdom of God. As Bishop NT Wright puts it, “Jesus was not simply pointing to God’s kingdom some way off in the future, he was causing it to appear before people’s eyes, and was setting in motion the events through which it would become firmly established. And sooner or later he had to put the question to the disciples. They marked themselves out from the crowd by piercing the disguise; even though Jesus wasn’t doing everything they had expected a Messiah to do, the combination of authority, power, insight, and fulfillment of the scriptures that hey had seen in him was too potent to mean anything else.” Jesus took what they thought their Messiah would be and turned it upside-down such that God was glorified not by military and political power, but by service to the least, compassion for the needy, and ultimately in death on a cross. As Jesus told them, "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised."
Immediately the upheaval of life continues. Seemingly without taking a breath Jesus turns the attention away from his own calling and toward the life his disciples would need to lead. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Given in the fact that Jesus came to be the Messiah in a very different way than the Jews had hoped is the need to live life differently as a result. Not being lead into a new age of triumph for the nation of Israel, the followers of God’s Anointed One were headed not to glory but to a dark and scary place; to the cross and beyond. We sometimes have these romantic notions of 1st century Palestine. Growing up I thought that the cross was used only once to crucify Jesus and the two criminals, but now I know this was not the case. The cross in all its devastating brutality was used quite liberally by the Roman Empire. William Barclay tells this story, “When Jesus was a young boy of about eleven years of age, Judas the Galilean had led a rebellion against Rome. He had raided the royal armory at Sepphoris, which was only four miles from Nazareth. The Roman vengeance was swift and sudden. Sepphoris was burned to the ground; its inhabitants were sold into slavery; and 2,000 of the rebels were crucified on crosses which were set in lines along the roadside that they might be a dreadful warning to others tempted to rebel.” When Jesus told the twelve that anyone who wanted to be his follower would need to take up their cross daily, it was not a glib statement; they all knew how agonizing that would be. This certainly was not the life the disciples expected as they came to realize just who they were following. Jesus turns the expectations of life upside-down.
I don’t know y’all very well, but I am certain of this, we share the experience of having our life turned upside-down as the result of following Jesus. It is those stories that are so important in our faith journey. Whether you were called, like me, to change your chosen career path or Jesus turned your understanding of scarcity and abundance upside down on a habitat build, following Jesus is a daily adventure in the unexpected; a daily upheaval of life. Finding a first call after seminary is not one of the best parts of the process toward ordained ministry. For many it means coming to terms with one of two realities; I’m going home and I don’t want to or I’m not going home and I want to. For a good friend of mine it was a third, and much more painful realization; where I thought I was going, they don’t want me anymore. She had been all but promised the assistant’s position at her seminary internship site. For over a year she and her husband made plans based on having this job as, at least, a backup option. When nothing else seemed to come down the wire, it seemed to clear to us all that she was called and would be called by her church to stay in Virginia. Little did we know that in her daily upside-down walk with God, this too would have her standing on her head. Needless to say the church offered the position to someone else. Always the optimist, she came to realize through this painful process that perhaps God’s dream for her ministry is larger than the easy fit at her internship site; a realization I probably wouldn’t have come too, but then again she is an amazing person. Following Jesus means being prepared to have our lives and expectations turned upside-down.
As we heard in today’s Gospel, however, it doesn’t matter much who I say Jesus is; what really matters is who you say Jesus is; what really matters is how you relate to Jesus. Where in your journey had God turned your life upside-down? How have you come to know Jesus as one so different that your expectations of God? If maybe you haven’t yet been called to journey upside-down for a while are you prepared by faith to do so? Sometimes following Jesus means standing on your head. Amen.