"From that time on..." are the words that begin this week’s gospel lesson and it is closely tied to verses 13-20 of
Matthew 16 from last week’s lesson, where Peter confessed his faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.
Now Jesus shows him (and us) what messiahship and discipleship entail.
Prior to Chapter 16, Jesus had spent much of his time addressing crowds, working miracles, and verbally jousting with the Jewish religious leaders, before turning his focus to instructing his disciples - preparing them for what will happen in Jerusalem - his personal cross - where he will be put to death.
He tells us that the reward of cross-bearing is life – but what does he mean by life?
The Christian life, with its costs and rewards, begins when we first begin to take up our own cross and follow Jesus.
Some attributes of such a person and resulting reward could be:
With a few powerful words at the beginning of Chapter 16, Jesus reveals the whole purpose of his earthly ministry - the Father’s divine plan for the salvation of all humankind and the good news (Gospel) that he, the Christ, was sent to suffer, die and be raised again for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of the whole world.
Sadly, Peter couldn’t comprehend all that Jesus was revealing to them and he responded,
“Never, Lord! This shall never happen to You!”
He, like the other disciples, was probably looking for a different kind of Messiah, one who would come like a shining knight on a white horse – an earthly saviour, sent to free them from the tyranny of their Roman overlords.
But Jesus knew exactly who he was and exactly why he had come.
Looking “through” Peter, Jesus said to the devil, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Jesus knew that he had come to “take up his cross” and follow the will of his heavenly Father.
It was absolutely necessary that he must go to Jerusalem;
suffer unjustly at the hands of wicked, hateful men;
die a cruel death on the cross and, three days later, be raised again to life by the power of Almighty God.
By doing so, he took on the shame of our sins, and through this forgiveness restored our relationship with God.
Just as he did on our behalf, so he calls us to “take up our cross” and follow him.
So often, however, it seems that we misunderstand just what a cross is.
Our type of “cross” is not something that’s common to all people – Christian and non-Christian alike.
Difficulties at work, illnesses and disease, struggles in relationships are not necessarily “crosses”, because they’re
common to all human beings.
Rather, our cross is something Jesus places before us to willingly endure (and even suffer)
because we are his followers,
because we are believers and
because we are his disciples.
Giving up your comfort, loving the unlovable;
sharing a hug with the untouchables;
giving up your time volunteering to help those in need;
caring for the lonely and forgotten;
providing a ride to church for a newcomer in our community;
giving to the Lord “over-and-above the tithe” to help meet unusual
ministry challenges of the church at this time;
and in many other ways.
The true Christian tries to rise above these challenges, because we have the love of God in us and we aim to pass that on to those we meet.
Finally, Jesus said, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.”
We know that Jesus doesn’t promise us eternal life because of what we do, but rather by how willingly we take up our cross to follow him, demonstrating the faith in our hearts and our loving response for all that he’s done for us.
It’s by this faith which he promises to reward with the gift of eternal life.
So, how is the Holy Spirit working in you at this time?
What cross is Jesus placing before you today?
How will you respond in joyful service to your Saviour?
How will you, today, “Take Up Your Cross” to follow Jesus?
The answers to these questions, which you can quietly answer in your heart, will give you some idea of the steps
required to know if you are moving down the path of becoming a true Christian.
Prayer of Intercession for our Church Community
God of new life, be with us as we journey through our faith.
Let the signs of your goodness be upon us, that others may be invited into your way.
May we genuinely love others.
May we be enthusiastic and spirited in our acts of service.
May we rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer, contribute to those in need and extend
hospitality to strangers.
May we bless those who persecute us, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, and not claim to be wiser than we are.
Help us to not seek retribution or choose evil ways but seek to live peaceably with all and to overcome evil with good.
If our enemies are hungry, strengthen us and fill us with your love, following the ways of Jesus as we feed the hungry and, if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink.
Let kindness and generosity be your marks on us as we take on and live into your grace.
In the name of Christ. Amen.
In my opinion, if you ask any group of people to keep a secret, you’re looking for trouble.
More than likely, somebody, at some time, will let it out.
Especially if the secret is something extraordinary.
In the Gospel reading, we discover that Peter is the first among the disciples to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah.
He’s the first to understand that the man he knows so well is the one sent by God to deliver Israel from bondage.
Peter reveals this when Jesus asks him, point blank, “Who do you say that I am?”
This answer marks him as the star student and Jesus promises to build his church upon the foundation of Peter’s faith.
He gives Peter executive authority over the fledgling church and promises to support him.
In this case, Peter stands for the whole church and Jesus entrusts his mission to all who recognize him as the Messiah.
What a glorious development!
Now should be the time to call in the media, get out the word, let everybody know that the Messiah has come and is setting up his organization, but Jesus tells them that it’s not that time - far from it!
Did you notice at the end of the gospel, Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah”?
not a soul
mum’s the word
cancel the publicity
keep it a secret.
Why is Jesus intent on keeping his being the Messiah a secret?
Why shouldn’t he let it out?
Now that he’s admitted who he is, and the disciples all know it, does he really think that this secret can be kept?
Won’t it travel from mouth to ear with the speed of its novelty?
The voices will ask,
“Have you heard about Jesus, the Nazarine?”
and they’ll multiply rapidly across the land.
Also, have you noticed that it’s not just this once that Jesus wants his identity to stay a secret.
Repeatedly, throughout the gospels, he tries to keep from becoming the talk of whatever town he’s in.
Yet, when he performs deeds such as healing the sick, raising the dead and feeding the hungry, when he fulfils the messianic job description, how are people expected to keep his identity to themselves?
And why should they?
What he does in one community after another is a publicist’s dream.
This person has got the makings of a star and he’s going to be big, really big.
There’s a name for everything Jesus does in an effort to pass unrecognized for who he is.
Students of the Bible call this the “Messianic Secret”, so, what’s behind it?
The most convincing explanation is that he doesn’t want to be acknowledged as the Messiah before the time of his death and resurrection, believing that only in the light of those events would people begin to recognize what his being the Messiah really means.
If they hear he’s the Messiah before he even gets to the cross, they’re sure to misunderstand him and, rather than being a messiah of sacrifice and triumph, they’ll see him as someone who’s come to solve their problems.
Rather than recognize him as the one who calls them to their own death and resurrection, the crowds are likely to view him as a messiah sent to save them from their problems and make their lives more comfortable.
Jesus doesn’t want his ministry to be seen in the wrong light, so for this reason, he prefers that only his immediate circle know that he’s the one sent from God.
The opportunity will come later for them to announce that he is the Messiah.
That opportunity will come once the crucifixion has taken place and he returns from the dead.
The Messianic Secret helps us to understand what goes on in the gospel story, why Jesus sometimes behaves in a way that seems incomprehensible.
But the Messianic Secret is more than that, for it has a contemporary application.
People in his own time were ready to misunderstand Jesus because they wanted, indeed expected, a messiah of a different kind to be sent to them from God.
Even today, people are also ready to misunderstand Jesus.
We want, we expect, a messiah different from the one sent to us.
We expect someone who saves us easily and asks from us nothing much at all.
We want a Jesus who doesn’t die, or at least doesn’t expect us to follow him in doing so.
While we hope for something easy - what the gospel offers us, is quite different.
So just what does this difference involve?
Well, first of all, we can best know God through this one human being, a single life where the Word becomes flesh.
But this particularity is only the start of the difference, as the gospel goes on to insist that we must know him most completely, not only by the notable events of his life, but by his dying and his incomprehensible resurrection.
His cross and triumph don’t adequately reveal him until we become participants in them and accept them as our own. With Jesus, we must die and rise if he is to be our Messiah.
So, in our time, the Messianic Secret has changed, for where it once it meant not announcing Jesus as the promised one until his death and resurrection revealed him completely, now it means not announcing Jesus without mentioning the cross and the empty tomb - not announcing him unless we’re ready to die and rise together with him.
There are plenty of versions of Jesus abroad in the world today, but what makes a particular version authentic is not any denominational or cultural label, nor any other marking designed to set us at ease.
What makes a version of Jesus the real thing and not human fantasy, is whether it invariably returns us to what is most important, what reveals divine love completely - we can’t welcome Jesus without the cross and resurrection.
If we’re to call ourselves Christians, members of his church, then we’ll have to accept the Messiah crucified and risen - not only 2,000 years ago, but now, in our lives. Then, and only then, will we be dealing with the real Jesus.
Moreover, we mustn’t keep the Messiah a secret.
The world, the one where we spend our days, still waits for him and is desperate to meet him – through us.
Paul tells us in his letter to the Christians in Rome, that to do so, we must keep ourselves pure and acceptable to God.
Instead of big-noting ourselves and thinking that we’ve got it all together, we have to realise that we’re only one small part of the body of God in the world.
He’s given each of us functions and we’re only effective if we work with other members of the body towards bringing glory in God’s Kingdom.
There are many spiritual gifts – such as prophesy, preaching, teaching, exhortation, leading, compassion, etc.
Do any of these gifts ring a bell with you?
Maybe your gift is not as obvious as the ones I’ve mentioned, but everyone has been blessed by God with gifts of some sort, so it’s up to us to determine what our particular gifts are, and how to use them in in service for the Lord.
The time for secrets is over.
Now we need to be like John the Baptiser and “Prepare the way of the Lord”.
That is, let people know about the risen Christ, who was prepared to die for them, to allow them the gift of eternal life.
Time for no more secrets.
Gracious God, who hears the cries of all and knows the yearning of our hearts, we pray for people and places that we see struggling to get by, those who are ill, those burdened economically and those in strained relationships.
May we find ways to help lighten their load.
May we be peacemakers in our community and advocates for those who campaign for peace and justice.
We pray for the earth, the land, the seas, the rivers and plains that provide sanctuary for animals and the wildlife that live within their bounds.
May we understand that we are part of the whole, entwined with everything in our global habitat.
Living God, in the silence we bring before you those for whom we are concerned.
O Lord, hear our prayers.
In today’s passages we encounter the prickly theme of “being chosen” and we wonder:
“Does God have favourites?"
Is there really a chosen nation, a chosen people?
Is it the Jewish nation of Israel?
If God’s the Creator of us all, how can this be?
These are not easy questions to confront, or to answer.
Not when we now know what terrible acts have been perpetrated in the past by those who believe that God is on their side – and that includes both Christians, Jews and Gentiles.
The passage from the gospel of Matthew is not a very long one, but it is definitely a very interesting one.
Jesus went to Tyre and Sidon – part of Lebanon – and just 30 minutes’ drive south of Beirut, where there was a terrible explosion last week (but more of that at the end of this reflection).
Why did Jesus go there?
It was a journey of approximately 64 kilometres, which is a long way just to heal one child (if that was, indeed, his reason for going there).
Possibly he just went for privacy – we know that he liked to get away from crowds – or maybe it was to find a location where he could quietly teach and educate his disciples.
When he arrives, he meets a Canaanite woman.
(as an aside, there was no country called Canaan, it was just a general area between the Mediterranean coast and the Dead Sea / River Jordan)
From that, we can discern that she’s not Jewish – not one of God’s chosen ones – she’s a Gentile.
However, this Gentile woman has heard a lot about Jesus and she managed to find Jesus at his retreat with the disciples.
Unlike some of his own people, the Jews, who doubted him and tried to trap him at every conversation, this woman takes it as a given that he alone has the power to heal her little daughter, who is possessed by a demon.
And because she loves her daughter, she begs, asks and shouts until his power gives her what she wants: the healing of her child.
It’s notable that, in her pleading and her shouting, she asks first for mercy and only then for healing.
She recognises Jesus as the Messiah (a Jewish term), who has the power to cast the demon out of her daughter.
Initially Jesus ignores her, but she’s persistent. The disciples want Jesus to send her away.
Yet, here we encounter a side of Jesus that might affront our modern sensibilities and political correctness.
The words Jesus uses to argue with the Canaanite woman are not ones we expect from his mouth.
He tells her that he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.
So, what can we determine from that?
Is Jesus playing favourites (Jews over Gentiles), or was it said just for the ears of the disciples to show that, even though it wasn’t his main commission, he could, and would, do miracles even for the gentiles.
These words didn’t stop the woman - she persisted, even when Jesus tries to tell her that it isn’t right for him to deviate from his appointed task and that he is supposed to be focussed on God’s chosen ones.
Maybe, in this encounter, Jesus recognises that his mission has expanded, or perhaps he is using it to make a point to his disciples.
His response to the woman shows them that Jesus did not come just for Israel, but his mercy extends to everyone.
Again, she argues with Jesus, trying to persuade him that even a small amount of his goodness would be sufficient.
We see her willingness to take even the crumbs from Jesus, reasoning that it would be sufficient.
Jesus then utters the words. “Woman, great is your faith. Let it be done for you as you wish.”
A miracle by long distance!
The girl was healed from that very hour (not just when the woman got home).
It is interesting to note the figurative language in the passage: the children represent the disciples; the children’s bread represents the benefits of Jesus’ ministry to them; and the dogs (lit., “little dogs” - household ones, not outdoor scavengers) represented the Gentiles.
Jesus was telling the woman that his first priority in being there was to instruct his disciples.
It wasn’t appropriate to interrupt a family meal to give the dogs food from the table.
Therefore, it wasn’t appropriate for him to interrupt his ministry to his disciples to give his services to her, a Gentile.
But it seems that Jesus’ reluctance to help her, only seemed to stimulated her faith.
She realised he had the right to refuse her request. However, feeling no insult in the analogy he used, she pressed it a little further, saying that even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.
Her point was that the dogs get some food at the same time as the children and thus do not have to wait.
There needed to be no interruption in his instruction to the disciples, because all she humbly requested was a crumb, a small benefit of his grace for her desperate need.
She acknowledged that the majority of food should go to the Jews, but suggested to Jesus that just a small bit of his grace would heal her daughter, to which he agreed and told her that it was her faith that had healed the girl.
Jesus had subjected her to a threefold test:
a test of the sincerity of her desire;
a test of its intensity;
a test of her own integrity.
Her faith triumphed and her daughter was healed, leading us to wonder what we should learn from this passage?
1) We must acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
2) We must come to him, recognizing that we have no claim on his grace, but we can expect him to be gracious.
3) and when we do, Jesus himself will heal our diseased hearts, bringing us new life.
Great faith is faith that takes God at his word and won’t let go until he meets our need.
Great faith can lay hold of even the slightest encouragement and turn it into a fulfilled promise.
“Lord, increase our faith.”
As I mentioned earlier, we should respond to the terrible news of the factory blast in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.
Whatever the reasons behind this tragedy, God’s people are hurting and dying.
In our Lower North Shore Uniting Church community, there are many who came from there, especially those in the Armenian Evangelical Church at Willoughby and the minister at our neighbouring congregation at Longueville.
They have asked for our prayers for their friends and relatives who have been impacted by the chaos.
But as we learned above, we should not just be praying for our Christian brothers and sisters, but for all of God’s creation in that place.
Besides our heartfelt prayers, there are also ways that we can assist the rebuilding – both of their lives and their livelihoods.
Donations of money are the fastest way to provide relief and the suggested focal point is:
the Armenian Missionary Association of Australia. (many Armenians were born and educated in Lebanon)
Rather than spell out all the ways of making these donations in this letter, I suggest that you make contact with me and I will assist you in the mechanics of making your donation.
Alternatively, we have set out some of the ways you can assist in this week's Online newsletter.
Sometimes, the story in today’s gospel lesson is interpreted along the lines of the title of a book by
John Ortberg: “If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat.”
Peter had the right idea when he got out of the boat, quite literally stepping out in faith.
He, like all of us, is invited to step out into the storms of life, where Jesus calls us to take courage, to leave the safety of the boat, and to come to him. The message is that if we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus firmly on him, we will surely not sink, despite the wind and the waves.
If only Peter hadn’t become distracted - because when he kept his eyes on Jesus, he could walk on water.
However, when he got anxious and side-tracked from keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter started to sink into the water.
Jesus wants us to be bold in our faith.
Jesus wants us to jump out of the boat, walk on water, dream big, take risks in our lives.
And if we can just be faithful enough, we will succeed.
In current terminology, “walking on water” has come to be synonymous, even outside of the church, with the idea of stepping out in boldness, taking a risk.
I have no doubt that Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel,
because he’s the one who told some simple fishermen to leave everything to follow him.
I have no doubt that Jesus wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission,
because he’s the one who reminded his followers, in Matthew 19:26, by saying
“With God, all things are possible.”
I have no doubt he wants us to utilise the gift of faith that has been bestowed on us,
because he’s the one who tells us to take up our cross, even to lose our lives for his sake and, that if
we have faith even the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that mountain, “Get up and move” and it would.
When the resurrected Jesus stepped out of the tomb that first Easter morning, he really outdid himself in thinking “outside of the square,” didn’t he!
No doubt, Jesus wants us to take risks, be bold, do outrageous things for the gospel, step out in faith and follow him.
But I wonder if that’s the only thing that Jesus wants us to hear in this particular gospel lesson?
In fact, the same account in Mark and John doesn’t mention Peter trying to walk on water and Luke doesn’t mention this story at all.
Much of Matthew’s gospel is focussed on what it means to be a community. He’s interested in figuring out what it means to be the church, the gathering of people who are trying to follow Christ together.
In today’s lesson, Jesus makes the disciples get into a boat and head out across the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus said he would meet up with them again, but first he was going to take some time, by himself, to pray.
Unfortunately for the disciples, a storm blows up, as storms sometimes do in our lives, and Jesus doesn’t wait for them to get safely to the other side. Instead, he comes to them, walking across the water.
The boat has, from very early days in the Christian community, been a symbol for the church. Think of a boat as large enough to take a number of people, doing a number of tasks, to make it move. A boat is a great symbol for the church.
We know that sailing through calm waters on a gorgeous sunny day can be exhilarating. When wind and water and sailors cooperate, the journey is grand.
Sometimes, though, the weather doesn’t always do what the sailors want.
And then there’s Peter.
While we usually just skip right to impetuous, enthusiastic Peter, faithfully thinking outside the square, jumping overboard and pulling off an amazing stunt, if even just for a moment, what Peter actually does first, is say something.
He says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
There are only a couple of other times in the whole gospel when someone addresses Jesus with “if” and it’s not normally a happy ending.
The devil does it three times to Jesus when he tempts him in the desert,
“If you are the Son of God,” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me.
When hanging on the cross, people mock Jesus, calling out,
“If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
And here, Peter, beautiful, real Peter, joins this voice,
“If it is you, Jesus, command me to come to you on the water.”
Now, Jesus doesn’t chide Peter for being afraid.
Naturally it’s ok to be afraid in the midst of a storm. Instead he asks “Why do you doubt?
Do you really think I wouldn’t come?
Do you really think I wouldn’t save you?
Do you really think, when I told you to get into the boat and go on ahead, that I would ever leave you alone?”
Matthew’s whole gospel ends with the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples.
The resurrected Christ himself appears where he said he would meet them.
And Matthew tells us, “When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
Even with the risen Jesus standing right in front of them.
Yes, they worshiped - but some doubted.
Luckily, that’s not where our story for today ends.
Even in the midst of their worship, even to those who doubt, Jesus gives a command and a promise.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The promise is: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Storms will certainly blow up at some time in our lives – for example, the COVID 19 virus that’s devastating the world at this time.
Fortunately, we know that Jesus hasn’t left us alone.
He told us so.
The one who calms the storms and makes the winds to cease, is still with us.
He still has work for us to do.
And yes, it’ll mean us jumping out in faith, but not going it alone - keeping our eyes firmly on Jesus.
The purpose of a boat is to set sail, not to stay at the dock.
A wise friend of mine says:
“God is like your rudder in life, but if your boat’s not moving, the rudder can’t steer it.”
There are plenty of adventures ahead for us and Jesus bids us to follow him.
And he’ll say to us, in the midst of our storms, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
So, let’s go wherever God sends us and let us not be afraid to jump towards him when times get tough.
We might get tossed about a bit today, for we’re called to place ourselves in a rocking boat, on churning seas
and yet we should not be afraid but seek salvation by taking a big risk. Let us care for each other as we sail on.
May the compassion of God be in our hearts, the saving grace of Christ keep us safe and strong and the wisdom and gifting of the Holy Spirit be upon our lips and in all we do. Amen.
Blessings on your journey…………..Pastor Rick