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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Poor Peter! He was a dedicated disciple. For nearly three years he had seated himself closely at the foot of the Rabbi Jesus and listened intently to his teaching. He had witnessed the miracles of the Lord’s healings, and had seen the evil spirits driven from the possessed. So it was no surprise, that when Jesus questioned his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter could answer definitively, “You are the Messiah.” But Peter stumbled just as quickly. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” The poor disciple had yet to learn one of Jesus’s most important teachings. He could not have imagined that the God’s kingdom would demand sacrifice and suffering. That, however, is exactly what we pray, when we utter the familiar words, “Thy Kingdom Come.”
On Ash Wednesday we began our Lenten journey reflecting on the nature of our prayer life and meditating on the treasure we have been given in the Lord’s Prayer. Over the last two weeks, we have pondered the reasons that we should pray and Jesus’ own invitation that God should be as close and as intimate as a loving Father. Last Sunday, we considered the occasions when we should pray and how we should seek ways to let God’s holy name in heaven be made known in our own words and deeds here on earth. Today, I would like to share two new thoughts. First, whenever you pray, “Thy Kingdom Come,” to remember that you are proclaiming the primary message of the gospel, “The Kingdom of God is near.” And second, that in these very words, God is encouraging you to examine your own life as a disciple and follower.
Let me begin by stating that the disciple Peter is not the only one who held a distorted view of discipleship and God’s kingdom. We live in a world where men and women have been led to believe that faith is simply a private matter, and that God’s holy and everlasting kingdom is a personal reward for embracing this private faith. Perhaps, you accept this as well. But my friends, such a personal, private faith has little to do with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom he came to proclaim.
Jesus describes his kingdom in many parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus teaches us that God’s kingdom is worth every price and sacrifice. You see, “thy kingdom come” is not a geographical place, involving nations and people, nor even the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth. “Thy kingdom come” is much more subtle. Martin Luther wrote in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us.” Yes, the kingdom will come secretly, silently, and unstoppable. We simply pray that we may be a part of the kingdom.
Now before you become overly concerned about this role in the kingdom, let me remind you, that the invitation to live the life of a disciples is an honor and privilege. God has drawn you into his wonderful story of salvation that will one day draw to a close with the joyous celebration of eternal life and the holy praise of angels. It is the promise of a kingdom more glorious by far than anything we have known or can imagine. Jesus himself reminds us, “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life.” Yes, such an invitation is worth the call and challenge of living such a public faith.
As Jesus called the crowds to him, together with his disciples, he encouraged them to examine their lives. These three teachings are at the very heart of the Christian faith and Jesus own invitation to discipleship.
First, “If anyone wishes to come after… if anyone wishes to be my follower, let him deny himself.” Ordinarily we understand the words to deny as giving up something that we would otherwise prize or cherish. During the season of Lent, “we deny ourselves pleasure” to remind us of Jesus’ own time of testing in the wilderness. And so we give up chocolates, coffee and alcohol. “We deny ourselves excess.” Perhaps in our occasional fasting, we are reminded as well of those for whom hunger is not a choice, but a daily companion. But as important as this dimension of self-denial may be, this is only a small portion of what Jesus meant by self–denial. To deny yourself is also to affirm publicly, that your own personal identity is intimately linked to the life, the way and the truth of Jesus Christ.
Nearly a generation ago, a statesman in India, welcoming a group of American churchmen said, bluntly, “Give us your friendship and your skills, but keep your religion to yourselves.” Franklin Clark Fry, an eminent Lutheran leader who headed the group, responded to this candid greeting, “We want to be your friends, and as your friends we must offer you the best we have, which is Jesus Christ.”
To deny yourself cannot be simply a private, personal matter, for to deny yourself is to share publicly the very best you have been given with others. These need not be grand gestures. In public, even your smallest witness of faith will be noticed. It takes courage to witness to bow your head, and offer a silent word of prayer before your meal. It takes confidence to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper supporting that which you believe is right from a Christian perspective. It takes self-assurance to abandon the way of the crowd and embrace a lifestyle that supports the spiritual health of your family. You see, to deny yourself, is to be constantly conscious of your identity with Jesus Christ. In the night in which Jesus was betrayed, Peter denied his relationship with Jesus. When questioned if he knew Jesus, Peter answered defiantly, “I don’t know him.” No doubt, the word, “Get behind me Satan suddenly haunted the poor disciple. My friends, as you pray, “Thy kingdom come,” ask yourself, in what ways are you denying yourself and giving public witness to your identity in Christ?
Secondly, our Lord Jesus teaches us, that if you are to live in a public faith, you must learn to take up your cross. 30 some years ago on my first visit to the former Soviet Union, I met a young Russian man in Leningrad. He invited me to visit his home on the Baltic Sea. As we were walking along the shore, looking out over the Gulf of Finland, he asked, “Andre…” he couldn’t say Arden, “Andre where is your cross?” In those days, I wore a little gold cross. I answered, “It’s here… under my shirt.” Sadly he looked away and sighed, “I had a cross, but my grandmother took it away from me. She said it was too dangerous.”
Many people today wear crosses as mere jewelry, but that is not the meaning of Jesus’ words. Certainly it is let the cross be seen, but to take up your cross is to recognize the dangerous cost of discipleship. It is to act boldly in spite of the consequences. As the late Dutch evangelist and World War II concentration camp survivor Corrie ten Boom often said, “…(in Jesus Christ) The worst can happen but the best remains.” More importantly, to take up your cross is to proclaim that not even “hardship and burden” can tear your loyalty away from God.
The disciple Peter knew the dangerous, cruel nature of the cross. When he was a young boy, Judas the Galilean had led a rebellion against Rome. Judas and his army had broken into the Roman armory in the village of Sepphoris, which was only four miles from Jesus’ home in Nazareth. The Roman vengeance was swift. The village was burned to the ground; its inhabitants were sold into slavery; and two thousand of the rebels were crucified on crosses that were set in lines along the roadside. The cross was a dreadful warning to others who might be tempted to rebel against Roman authority. My friends, when you pray “Thy kingdom come,” ask yourself how is the cross and its cost of discipleship being made known in your life?
Finally, our Lord Jesus teaches us, that if you are to live a faithful life, you must learn to follow him. In the 1990’s a youth group leader in Holland, Michigan named Janie Tinklenberg began a movement to inspire the teenagers in her group by wearing bracelets bearing the initials W.W. J. D to remember the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” The symbol became almost as popular as the cross. The phrase had actually be penned a century earlier by Charles Sheldon. The phrase encourages one to ponder, if I am to follow Jesus, I must ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” It is to mirror Jesus’ life obediently in thought, word and deed.
But my friends, I believe that living an authentic faith is much more. To follow Christ means that you must be led often to that place where you simply cannot follow any further to the Cross of Christ. You must journey often to that place where you are forced to stop and to stare. For at the Cross of Christ, you discover a God who loves you, not because you are religious, or because you’re trying or because you’re doing better. But at the Cross of Christ you discover a God who simply loves and forgives and calls you his friend because that is his nature. And there you recognize him not simply as Lord, or Creator, or Master, or Judge, but there you will learn to follow him and trust him as your Savior.
Poor Peter! Forever remembered as the disciple who was rebuked by Jesus’ with his own words, “Get behind me Satan.” But it was upon the faith of this same foolish and forgiven disciple that the kingdom would come and that Jesus would establish his Church. And it is upon this same imperfect faith and witness that God continues to use you. Peter did not forget and deny Jesus again. When the disciple was to be martyred he refused to be crucified as his Master. He insisted instead that he be nailed to the cross upside down.
For better or worse, as Christians, you and I must live publicly in the world. Our faith and follies are visible for all to see. But be assured. God’s kingdom will come. When you pray the Lord’s Prayer, you dare ask that your faith in God may be visible for all to see, and that those who see may trust that God’s good and wondrous kingdom is coming through you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.