"A Difference of Perspective"
There is a difference between the way most of the world thinks, and the way a follower of Jesus thinks; just as there is a difference between the way God sees things and the way we normally see things. It is a difference in perspective. God sees a much larger picture than we do – because God is not only bigger than everything, beyond everything, but also within everything, connecting everything; and because God is not limited by time, even if he is active in time. He gets the big picture, because he invented the big picture. Meanwhile, we can’t see the forest for the trees. We are stuck in time, in a moment, in a very small speck of a very small planet. So we can’t see things as God sees them, unless he tells us about it. That’s a good reason to read your Bible!
Of course, for those who don’t read the Bible, or who don’t believe it, or have faith in God – they can’t share this perspective – God’s perspective. For them, life exists for a brief moment, then it’s gone. For them, the little patch of ground they are standing on right now is all there is. It’s kind of like those old ant farms we had when we were kids. The ants thought the farm was the whole universe, and would go about, busily doing their work, while we watched them. That’s all they knew. For the person that doesn’t have the benefit of god’s perspective, this place and moment of time is all they have.
That where our lessons come in today.
The Old Testament lesson is about God’s call to Abraham. Here’s Abraham, ninety-nine years old. From a human perspective, his life, as well as his wife’s, are over. He’s been on social security for years now, wondering when the end will finally come. Then, one day, he hears a voice. If it were me, I’d think it was dementia. Because the voice tells him he’s to take a long trip, to explore a new land that God will give to this childless man and his progeny, and that he will be a blessing to many nations. From a human standpoint, it’s all nonsense, of course. Are you kidding me? Call a younger man – maybe someone only eighty years old. But Abraham believes God, and puts on his walking shoes.
Then there is the Gospel lesson. Jesus has been doing great. He and the disciples are on a roll. He’s just done another miracle – this time, healing a man born blind. The crowds are enthusiastic. So are the disciples. So, Jesus calls his disciples together for a little reflection: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples blurt out all kinds of possibilities. “Who do you think I am?” is the next question. Peter’s been thinking about this. “You’re the Messiah! The Son of the Living God!” Good for you, Peter! You get an A plus! Then, Mark says, Jesus begins to teach them. He had been teaching them, but now it’s a new kind of teaching. He had been talking about God’s kingdom. Now, he begins talking about his death. And Peter won’t have any of it.
There’s a difference between what God sees and what we see. There is a difference in perspectives. When Jesus was on a roll, Peter thought, “this is good – this is how it should be. God is blessing his ministry. There’s an old saying, that “the good is the enemy of the best.” Peter thinks he has God figured out. But when Jesus started talking about failure and death on a cross, Peter couldn’t understand that that was God’s will. He was caught in the “success syndrome.” What they had been doing was good – but it wasn’t God’s – or Jesus’ – final intention. It was just a stop along the way. The good became the enemy of the best. A lot of Christians – a lot of ministries – get caught up there. A few years back, a popular book was called “The Prayer of Jabez.” The prayer said, basically, “God, give me lots of wealth, so I can use it to further your kingdom.” Sounds good. I think I could do a lot of good, winning a few million in the lottery.
But that’s just me. That’s why the text says that Jesus called out Peter – he not only did it in front of the disciples, but in front of the crowd as well. He told them all, “Anyone who wants to be my disciple, must pick up his cross and follow me. In other words, it’s not about us. We don’t get to pick the hymns. We don’t get to pick the message. We get to open our ears, so that we can listen. Then we get to open our heart, so that we can believe what we have heard. Then we get to crucify that old Adam and Eve in us, so that we can follow – that’s what he means by, “pick up your cross.” God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. If we are not listening to God – if we are out of touch with God – then we are in opposition to God. That’s what “Satan” means: “the opposer, the opposition.” Like Peter, we may even think we are on God’s side, but in reality, as Pogo used to say, “we have met the enemy, and they are us!”
There is something freeing about the truth, even if it is hard to bear. Sometimes it's not until we are told that something is wrong, something life-threatening, that we become free to really enjoy life - that we realize that all the stories we have been told about the efficacy of success, power, money and all the rest, are just fable. And it is only by walking toward the cross, by embracing it, that we find true joy.
That is the option that Jesus offers the disciples. He offers them the opportunity to embrace Golgotha with him, to live with a sense of abandonment to God, ready to give their lives up at a moment's notice, to enter with him into this conspiracy of death. He called them once before, from beside the Sea of Galilee, or from their place of work, to follow him, not knowing where he was going. Now he tells them where he is going, and asks for a deeper commitment, to bear their cross. In the Roman world, the condemned were forced to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. In a very forceful manner, he is telling them, that their living must anticipate their dying. They must live as crucified people.
When you put it that way, it doesn't sound like a walk in the park. That is what Peter was reacting to. The question is, which is better - living a lie, under a myth, a life of false illusion - or to give up fantasy for reality, to die to our hopes, dreams and illusions so that we can experience real life - the life God intends for us to live?
When we are grasped by God's love, the world regards us as irresponsible, because we don't seek the things the world seeks after, we are willing to risk ourselves for those whom the world does not consider to be worth the risk, and the limitations the world seeks to use to control us, the “worst-case scenarios” of starvation, homelessness, even death - aren't that important to us any longer. On the other hand, when we give up our false world-view, and begin to listen to God, we begin to feel God's peace residing in us; as we give up our own need to control things, we begin to experience hope; as we give up our false illusions, we find the joy that the world cannot give. In short, we find real, abundant life!
That all sounds rather speculative and ethereal. But what it boils down to is this: you can't follow Christ and sit on your can. You can't follow Christ and sit on the fence. You can't follow Christ just by making an intellectual commitment to him. You follow him by walking with him. You follow him by going wherever he goes. You follow him by turning from wherever you were going before, wherever you may be going now, and begin putting one foot in front of the other. You follow Christ by deciding that he knows better than you do, because he is God. You follow him by letting go of what you think is best, letting go of your own wisdom, letting go of your own fears - and taking up his vision, his cross.
For many of us that means a total reversal of life - a total rebirth. The old-fashioned Bible word for that is "repentance," which means, literally, "walking a different path." Luther suggests that that is a daily experience; that every day we must turn toward him again.
There is a story told by Henri Nouwen of an old woman who was entered into a nursing home. Because of the state of her mind, the attendants decided that they had to take her things away from her, so that she would not hurt herself. Except that there was one coin which she held so tightly in her hand that it took two strong man to open her hand and release the coin. It was, he said, as if, with that coin, everything she had and everything she was would be gone. And that exactly was her fear.
Yet the coin must be given up. The magical powers with which we imbue it are an illusion. We must give it up. There can be no resurrection without, first, a death. If we are afraid to give God everything, if we hold onto the fear that there will be no "me" once he is done with us, we will never give ourselves to him, and will never experience the life that only he can give. We will remain partners with the world, and in opposition to God. If our hands are clasped tightly around the world's illusions, they cannot be free to receive the gift of new, resurrected life in Christ.