I find bumper sticker theology to be a fascinating area of study. Somehow, in the space of twelve inches by three inches, hopefully in a font size big enough to be read by the car behind, whole systematic theologies can be spelled out. Take, for example, a few of my favorites, “Warning: In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” Obviously, this is a dispensationalist Christian, who expects Jesus' second coming to not only be soon, but also to involve the immediate whisking away to heaven of all believers. Another classic reads, “If it ain't King James, it ain't the Bible.” Assuming the owner of the vehicle isn't being cleverly ironic, this is a grammatically challenged biblical literalist who understands the only true English version of the Scriptures to be the beautiful, if difficult to understand, prose or the 1611 King James Version. One of the best theological bumper stickers ever made is actually a response to one of the worst. The original bumper sticker read, “God is my co-pilot.” Some wise person, upon seeing all the flaws contained in such a statement, printed another set of stickers that read, “If God is your co-pilot, swap seats!” I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure this bumper sticker is directed at St. Peter.
Things are looking great for Jesus and his disciples during their visit to Philip's newly updated Ceasarville. They have paused for a bit to regroup after a series of storms, miracles, and a few run ins with the religious and political powers that be. Last week we heard Jesus trying to get a feel from his disciples of the popular opinion, “who do people say the Son of Man is?” Then, in that great turning point moment, we heard Simon Peter declare without question that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the Son of the living God. The passage ended with Jesus sternly warning his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Did anyone wonder about that? I did. Why keep important news quiet? Why not tell the whole world? The disciples had an idea of why they had to keep things quiet, it was the wrong idea, but that didn't much matter at the time. The best way to enter Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman occupiers would be through the element of surprise. Keep the news quiet until an army is gathered, then BAM, strike down the Romans and their sympathizers in the Sanhedrin: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Remove them from power before they even know what them. A brilliant military strategy, but a terrible understanding of the way in which God works, for Jesus, you see, had other reasons why things should be hush hush.
“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hand of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Let's be honest, none of them heard anything beyond “be killed.” To a man, their brains began to swim with anxiety, misunderstanding, and, most likely anger. And so Peter, as spokesman, takes Jesus aside to explain to him the error of his ways, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” This way Jesus is describing is messy. It is unseemly. It is not the way things are supposed to work out for the anointed one of God and his disciples, and so Peter, as spokesman, as favored son, as the Rock, politely tells Jesus, “why don't you let me drive, clearly you don't have the directions quite right.”
In a lot of ways, I'm a lot like Peter. First and foremost, I'm a terrible passenger, literally and figuratively. As sad as this statement may be, two of my worst nightmares are sitting in the passenger seat for a trip lasting any longer than 30 minutes and sitting in a meeting where the person in charge is running without an agenda. I hate that feeling of being out of control. I hate not knowing the path ahead.
“Get behind me Satan! Peter the Rock, you are a stumbling block to me, for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” In a matter of a few seconds, Jesus finds himself being swept from the room he shared with his disciples in Ceasarea Philipi to the wilderness of his temptation. All of a sudden Satan is back to tempt him. Turn this rock into bread, worship me, throw yourself from the pinnacle of the Temple, raise up an army and take over Jerusalem – you don't have to suffer, you don't have to die, there is always another way. Jesus has had his identity challenged by the Pharisees, the Sadducees and a Canaanite woman, his world has been spinning out of control for some time, and now, in his moment of weakness, Satan returns to tempt him yet again. In five short verses Peter the bedrock of the Church has become Peter the stumbling block of Jesus as he tries to wrestle control away from him, but Jesus is prepared, he knows the directions, he has his mind set on the things of God.
One of the hardest parts about being a disciple is the whole following piece. The rugged individualism of 21st century America predestines us to be leaders, if only of ourselves, and so we find it hard to follow, to sit right seat, and to trust someone else's set of directions. As Peter's encounter with Jesus shows us, our own path, as beautiful and simple as it may seems, is the way of destruction. The way of Jesus, on the other hand, is hard and dusty and fraught with danger, but it is the way of life.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, 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.” Jesus lays out before his disciples the way of life: set your mind on divine things, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow.
If, as I suggested in a sermon several years ago, the Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor are impossibly simple, then this lifestyle of denying oneself and taking up one's cross is simply impossible. Denying ourselves the privilege of taking the driver's seat is hard enough, but to bear our own cross, the feel the weight of our own torture device, to know the pain of the splinters digging into our shoulders – that is just too much to bear. Fortunately, no one uses crucifixion as an execution technique these days. Thankfully we can't really understand the powerful image Jesus is raising in his disciple's minds. But, unfortunately, the act of taking up one's cross has become so trivialized, that we've lost all concept of the life, the way, Jesus is describing here.
If you were with us for our evening service on Ash Wednesday this year, you heard a little bit of what it means, and doesn't mean, to take up your cross. Your chronic back ache is not a cross to bear. Your pain in the neck mother-in-law is not your cross to bear. Your tough work schedule is not your cross to bear. A cross is only a cross when you make the choice to carry it on behalf of someone else. Jesus chose the cross, he chose to die so that he might raise all of creation to new life. He chose to take your sin and mine with him so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace. As Keith's friend, Max Lucado says, “He chose nails.” Through the power of Christ living within you, you too can make that choice. You can choose to live a life of self-giving love. You can choose to live a life focusing solely on the will of God. You can choose to live a life that stands up for the outcast and oppressed, the widow and the orphan, the poor and the alien. It may seem simply impossible, but by the grace of God, you too can move yourself out of the way, and gain the life that God had in mind for you from the very beginning.
The battle over who's driving never seems to end. Standing by a charcoal fire, late on a Thursday night in Jerusalem, Peter will three times deny Jesus in a fruitless effort to save his own life. Jesus will take Peter's life back for the kingdom around a different charcoal fire on the shores of Lake Galilee. I continue to struggle with my control issues, wanting God to fit into my plans rather than the other way round. We all struggle to live fully into our identity as children of God, but God, ever faithful, ever merciful, continues to point to the map and say “Trust me, I know a better way.” Is God your co-pilot? Because if he is, you are surely in the wrong seat. Amen.