Pastor Jana's final sermon at First United Baptist Church - September 18, 2016
“Get behind me, Satan.” These are some of the most shocking words to come out of Jesus’ mouth. And it’s not just the words themselves, but who they are spoken to. They are spoken to Peter, Jesus’ disciple and friend. Peter, who makes mistakes, but is so eager and willing. Peter, who would raise his hand to answer whenever Jesus asked a question, even if he wasn’t sure of the answer. Peter, who jumped out of the boat when Jesus was walking towards them on the sea and who alone among the disciples walked on water. Peter, this man who is in the inner circle of the inner circle. This is the man Jesus calls “Satan.”
I feel for him. Especially because this follows one of the other top most shocking things Jesus has ever said – him telling his disciples that he must be killed. Many of us know the story so well and we are so far removed from the events of Jesus’ life that these words no longer resonate with the same power. It is easy for us to gloss over the shock of them. But remember, Jesus was young and healthy. He was a miracle worker, bringing health and life to so many others. He was the Messiah, the man destined to save his people. And beyond that, he was their beloved friend and no one wants to believe any harm will come to a close friend.
But with those words, “Get behind me Satan,” Jesus erased any doubts about the truth of what he was saying. There was no chance that he was joking or didn’t know what he was talking about or that there was any way around it. Jesus was going to die.
And yet, dying was not to be the end of the story, either his or theirs. Three days later he would rise again. And that surely also rises to the top of the list of shocking things the disciples heard Jesus say. Resurrection: life coming out of death, a power strong enough to conquer the grave. What could be more ridiculous than that? And yet that is the central mystery of our faith: Jesus died and was resurrected. Life is stronger than death.
If you were here last week, you may remember that for the Children’s Message, Cheryl brought in dandelions. But these dandelions were not bright yellow flowers. They were the dried, white puffs. As the seeds are caught in the wind, they spread and grow in new places. That is how a single dandelion in your yard can soon turn into a sea of flowers. But this doesn’t happen while that yellow flower is still in bloom. This new life and growth can only take place after the flower has died away. New life coming through death: it is the central mystery not only of faith, but also of much of life itself.
This thing that is central to our life and central to our faith – it is amazing how easily we can forget it or ignore it. Something in us resists believing that this is really how things work. We think of Jesus as a great man or an extreme example and think we won’t be asked to walk that road. Or we understand about death and resurrection but think it won’t happen until the end of a long life, after we have seen all we want of this world. Or we think we understand, until the moment it all becomes a little too real.
The apostle Paul says that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. That language is used in our baptism services. And yet we tend to think of baptism being all about new life, glossing over how it is we come by that new life.
Many of you know that I wasn’t raised a Baptist. My dad was Baptist, my mom was Catholic. My sister and I were raised in the United Church of Christ. I attended a Methodist Seminary and spent a lot of time hanging out in Episcopal churches. I could have ended up anywhere. But one of the biggest things that led me to become a Baptist was the way we understand and practice baptism. The imagery and the experience of full immersion is powerful. We physically reenact this great mystery of dying and rising with Christ. As we are guided under the water, we die with Christ, burying that old self. And when we emerge up out of the water, we are rising with Christ, joined with him in his resurrection, rising to new life. It marks a turning point and a transformation. Water is a symbol of life, even when just a sprinkle on the forehead. But we are not just baptized into Christ’s life. We only get there by joining him in his death.
I remember in one of my classes when we were sharing our stories of baptism, there was one woman with a particularly powerful story. She was terrified of the water. The thought of being dunked under water made her break out in a cold sweat. It took months of prayer and preparation for her to set her fears aside enough to walk up to that baptistery to spend less than sixty seconds in that water. But she did it.
Many pastors would have said to someone with that kind of phobia, “You know what. We’ll work around this. After all, the important thing is the inner commitment, not the outward symbol.” And I agree with not being legalistic about the method of baptism. And yet something about her experience seems powerfully honest in a way that most of ours are not. In that water, she saw death. And she had to face and conquer her fear of death before she could step into that water. She knew in a visceral way what it meant to be baptized into Christ’s death. And she knew what resurrection felt like on the other side.
If we look again at Jesus and his experience, he could have lost everything. He clearly knew resurrection was God’s plan. He had faith enough in God to follow were God was leading. But he couldn’t see the other side yet. He couldn’t hold it yet. There were no guarantees. By continuing on this path rather than actively fighting against it, he could have lost his life, his movement, everything.
But it was also the only way he could gain everything. Jesus came to bring abundant life. But the great mystery is that abundant life is filled with death. That is how we move and grow and become transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ. You can’t walk the way of the cross without sacrificing something. You can’t grow into a better version of yourself without letting go and letting that old version of yourself die. You can’t embrace what God is doing today without releasing your grasp on what God did yesterday and you can’t reach out for what God is going to do tomorrow while clinging to what God is doing right now. Abundant life is a series of deaths that make room for new life to spring up.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so shocking that Jesus called Peter “Satan.” The things that would derail us are rarely those things that are hateful, ugly and smell of sulphur. We are more often derailed by the things that seem good enough: things that are pleasant but not challenging, good but not great, easy but with no depth. Jesus was not going to be tempted by the devil. He could see right through that false witness. But while listening to his beloved friend Peter, I bet a part of him wanted to say, “You know, he has a point. Maybe he is right.” After all, Peter’s words were filled with love and devotion. He wanted the best for his friend and he wanted the best for his people. He spoke out of the vision of the best thing he could imagine. But the best thing Peter could imagine still paled in comparison with the good that God had planned.
Friends, my parting message to you is this: do not be afraid to pursue the life that only comes through death. Do not be afraid to encounter the cross in the depth of its challenge and conviction, when it requires nothing less than sacrifice and deep transformation. Do not be afraid to follow Jesus, even when he heads into uncharted territories that look very different from the past. Do not be afraid to be vulnerable and uncomfortable and to walk into places that are a bit unsettling in order to bear the love and grace of God to those who need it most. And do not be afraid to let that love and grace into the places in your own heart that need them most.
Do not be afraid because even though at times it can look difficult and feel rough, this is the path of life. This is the path that God has paved. This is the path that Jesus walked before us to lead the way. This is the path the Holy Spirit walks with us, bringing life with every step.
Remember Jesus’ final words to his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel. He said, “Remember, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” Remember, Jesus is always with you: through life and death and new life again.
People of God, you have been baptized into Christ’s death. But you share in his resurrection. As we say on Ash Wednesday, “You are dust and to dust you will return.” But never forget that we worship the God who shapes even the dust into new life. Amen.