Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
How many of you wear a cross? When you wear a cross or see someone wearing a cross, do you ever take a minute and stop to think about why one might wear a cross? For some, one might wear a cross simply because they look nice. They look pretty or cool. When I was about 7 or 8 years old, my father (who is Jewish) asked me what I wanted for Chanukah. I confidently replied, “A cross necklace.” My father was very patient and kindly explained that it is unusual to get a Christian symbol as a gift for a Jewish holiday and that I might want something else. I remember clearly why I wanted a cross and it wasn’t because I wanted a physical reminder of my Christian faith (I was not a Christian at that point). I simply thought they looked cool. I had a bunch of friends who wore them and I thought it would be neat to have one too. If we aren’t wearing across for aesthetic purposes, we might be wearing them so that we have a visual reminder of what group we belong to. It reminds us that we are Christians and part of a body of believers who sometimes also wear this symbol.
But when you stop and think about it, it is a really strange thing that Christians walk around wearing crosses. We Christians often wear a representation of the instrument that killed our Lord and Savior. This torture device and executioner’s tool is the thing that we decide to wear around our necks. In no other context would we find that not weird. Let’s say you met someone who was a great admirer of John F. Kennedy Jr. This person thought the world of our former president and seeks to live his or her life following after the ideals that JFK proclaimed. As a sign of that devotion and a reminder of his worthiness of adoration, the person wears a necklace with a bullet charm on it. The bullet is modeled after the one fired from Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle.
We would probably think that person is quite strange. If he or she admired JFK so much, why would they proudly bear the image of the thing that ended his life and prevented him from continuing his good work?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus stops off in Caesarea Philippi to take an opinion poll. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The answers include John the Baptist, Elijah, or some other prophet. Then, Jesus makes it very personal and asks, “But who do you say that I am.” They really don’t want to get this wrong so the disciples take a minute to mull it over, but before the silence gets too long, Peter blurts out, “The Christ! The Messiah!” Ding! Ding! Ding! Peter’s got it right. But we see shortly that Peter got the right title, but he got the wrong meaning.
Peter is like someone who went to see Silence of the Lambs for the first time and expected it to be a documentary about shepherding. This person would be very surprised to find the movie to be a very disturbing crime/horror flick. Right title, wrong meaning.
Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, but Peter doesn’t really understand what that means. After Peter gives the correct answer, Jesus goes on to describe what being the Christ looks like: betrayal, suffering, rejection, and death. Peter has something very different in mind from Jesus and pulls the Christ aside to tell him that he’s got it all wrong. We might hear Peter say, “Listen Jesus, you’ve got it all wrong. Let me set you straight on this one.”
Jesus in turn rebukes Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things!” Jesus completely flips our notions of what divine and human are. We like Peter might think that the divine- including God and God’s anointed Messiah- are immune from those “human things” like want, suffering, change, and death. Jesus, however, has other ideas. The divine is found in exactly those places that we would be so quick to rule out as “too human.”
To steal an infamous expression from presidential candidate, Donald Trump, Jesus looks like a loser. We don’t like to think of God as a loser, but when we consider Jesus Christ betrayed by his own people, abandoned by his closest friends, and slowly dying on a cross you can’t get around it. Jesus looks like a loser and certainly not a winner.
Jesus is a Christ of the cross. He is not a Christ of comfort. He seeks to serve, not to be served.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that we are worth the cost of losing one’s own life- even the life of Christ himself. Jesus willingly became a “loser” so that he might save us from all the things we “lose” to. We lose to selfishness, greed, despair, and fear daily until finally we lose to death. Jesus became a loser too so that he might be right beside us and when we lose or die with our crosses, we might also raised to new life as he was.
When we are neck deep in muck and sinking fast, he is the one who jumps in to save us and in the process is also neck deep in muck. Jesus is the one who is unafraid to become a loser and die for our sake if that’s what it takes to save us (and that is what it takes).
Why do we wear crosses? Why do we voluntarily wear a representation of the instrument that killed Jesus? There are many different things we can remember as we wear a cross or see a cross. We might remember that the cross is a tool of shame, fear, sin, and death; and that Christ chose to confront that terrifying instrument and every instrument that threatens us with shame, fear, sin, and death. We might remember that Jesus won and the cross couldn’t hold him. We might remember that we who have shared in a death like Jesus, will also share in a resurrection like his.
When we wear a cross or see a cross, we might remember that Jesus was a loser. The divine Christ would rather be an abandoned, suffering, dying loser on a cross and be right next to us losers suffering on our own crosses, than be a winner who is too good to get his hands dirty and give his life to a friend in need.