Texts: Jeremiah 17:5-13
The idea that life can change quickly, shockingly, should be no surprise to any of us. During the last decade we have witnessed disasters, natural and human wrought, that have either ended life or forced those caught up in destruction’s path to face a life radically different from what they had known before. Katrina, the tsunami, September 11, Columbine. These events have become a litany that flow off the tongue more readily than any call to worship we might recite here. Though we are all one in Christ, there are certainly other life altering events your neighbor would have in her litany that you would not in yours. Only certain events affect us all on similar levels. I doubt many of you would include November 26th, 2005 in your litany. That day, the lives of four men, all our brothers in Christ, were radically changed.
Norman Kember, a 72 year old retired professor of medicine from London, James Loney, a 41 year old Canadian mediator, Harmeet Singh Sooden, a 32 year old Canadian engineer studying to be a teacher, and Tom Fox, a 54 year old father of two, musician, Virginian, were serving in Iraq as members of the Christian Peacemaking Team. Formed by Mennonites, Brethern, and Quakers over twenty years ago, this organization seeks to devote themselves fully to the cause of nonviolent peacemaking. These men entered the hottest zones in Iraq, unarmed, to help rebuild homes and lives destroyed by war, to speak out for those who had no voice. Working along side Muslim peacemaking groups, the four men earned the respect of many who found it hard to trust those from the West.
On November 26, 2005, these men who went to Iraq to serve the Iraqi people, were taken hostage by a group calling themselves the Swords of Righteousness Brigade. This group threatened to kill the four Christian peacemakers unless all prisoners in US and Iraqi-run detention facilities were released. Deadlines have come and gone and until recently, no one has been sure of what has happened or was going to happen.
For the family of Tom Fox, March 9, 2006 will undoubtedly be added to their list of life changing days. This Thursday, Tom’s body was found after he had been conspicuously absent from a video showing the other three peacemakers that aired Tuesday. We don’t know when he was killed, we don’t know – though I’m sure we could all speculate – why Tom was killed and not the other 3. It’s frustrating – this not knowing – because there is a lot we don’t know and may never know. But we do know one thing – we know why Tom and his fellow peacemakers were in Iraq in the first place.
The world of Iraq is not safe – anyone who has loved ones who have been or are still over there know this too well. Why do people go to such a dangerous place? Some people go over because they have been required to by their government; some go over because the opportunities for financial improvement are so much greater than can be found here; some go because they believe good work can and must be done and they want to be a part of it. The four members of the Christian Peacemaking Team were among those who went to Iraqi because of their belief there was good to be done. But it wasn’t just “good work,” it was God’s work.
The day before the four men were taken, Tom, a Quaker who went to Iraq believing that there is that of God in every person, wrote an article that spoke to the very question – why are we here? This is how he answers: “If I understand the message of God, his response to that question is that we are to take part in the creation of the Peaceable Realm of God. Again, if I understand the message of God, how we take part in the creation of this realm is to love God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves.”
Tom Fox and his fellow Christian Peacemakers found themselves in harms way, found themselves more vulnerable to life altering events like the one they experienced on November 26th, because they believed the message of God is to take part in the creation of God’s kingdom here on earth. These men left safety behind, left their self-orientated interest behind, in order to come take part in God’s work in Iraq.
Tom, Norman, James, and Harmeet are not alone in this journey – others, in Iraq here and now and in other places in other times, have left behind security and the interests of the self for the sake of the gospel.
One of the very first to take up his cross and follow Christ is the same one who rebukes Christ. Just after Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah for the first time, and just before he witnesses the transfiguration and hears God proclaim Christ the beloved, he has – a moment. Jesus predicts what lays in store for him – rejection, death, resurrection – for the first time. Peter, hearing that the man he has just acknowledged as Messiah speaking of his rejection by the powerful and his subsequent death, does not react well. He takes his Teacher aside and rebukes him as one might a child. The writer of Mark does not tell us what Peter may have said but the writer of Matthew does. In Matthew’s account of this story, Peter tells Jesus that these things cannot happen to him. Peter cannot believe that the Anointed One – the one who is supposed to be all powerful - will be rejected and killed – the resurrection part of Christ’s prediction doesn’t seem to register.
Jesus, who is normally quite calm when one of his disciples questions him, even speaks down to him, reacts quite strongly. He refers to Peter by the name of the Tempter, the Prince of Lies. We don’t know what about Peter’s words illicit such harsh rebuke – is it that Jesus would be tempted to become Peter’s Messiah – a Messiah who conquers, not suffers – and therefore is lashing out at his temptation and tempter? Is it that Peter, who just announced Jesus as the Messiah is, with his rebuke, lying to himself and his fellow disciples about what being a follower of this Messiah has in store? Is it perhaps a little bit of both? Peter’s mind is set on human things, not divine, and Jesus is setting him – and perhaps himself – straight.
Jesus, after dealing with Peter harshly, moves to his more traditional response to a disciple’s misunderstanding and questioning – he uses to the incident to teach, to offer further insight into the Son of Man and what it means to be his follower. To be Christ’s follower, one must deny oneself, take up the cross and follow him.
Jesus’ words here have been a cornerstone in our understanding of what it means to be a disciple. Unfortunately, that understanding has often been as misguided as Peter’s. This passage has been used to justify not self-denial, but self-abuse. People over the centuries have taken up their crosses with such fervor that suffering isn’t something that they endure, it’s something they seek out. They more they suffer, the more they are closer to Christ – at least that’s what some thought. Self-flagellation, hair shirts, refusing to eat anything you might enjoy – disciplines like these were practiced by men and women of faith for years – in some communities they still are. They are practiced because some have understood denying yourself to mean deny any joy, any pleasure, any happiness you might experience in this world. Whatever burdens may come your way, take them on. Do not seek to better your life, do not seek to live out what you want if others want you to do or be something else.
This understanding, it’s all wrong. Plain and simple. Following Christ is not about causing yourself pain or giving to others to the point that you have no sense of self left. It is what Peter did not do – setting your mind on divine and not human things. To deny yourself, take the cross, and follow Christ, is to no longer be guided by self interests but by Godly interests. It is putting your trust not in mere flesh, even your own flesh, but in the Lord. Those who deny themselves and take up the cross are those who participate in God’s work on earth. Those who risk suffering, rejection, and yes, even death, for the sake of the gospel. Those who live out, no matter where it might take them, the message of loving God with all our heart, our mind and our strength and to love our neighbors and enemies as we love God and ourselves.
It took him awhile, but Peter finally understood what it meant to be a follower of Christ. Though before the resurrection he questioned Christ, rebuked Christ, and even denied Christ, after Peter witnessed the truth of Jesus’ passion prediction, after he came to understand that in Christ human death is not the end, he truly became a follower of the one who had called to him so long ago. Tradition tells us that Peter, the one who balked at the thought of Jesus dying, the one who denied him at his death, was killed living and preaching the gospel.
Peter followed Christ. Tom Fox followed Christ. You and I are here because we want to follow Christ.
Does this mean that we as followers may, like Peter and Tom, give our very lives for the sake of the gospel? Maybe. That answer frightens but we cannot escape it. Christ says that those who lose their life for his sake will save it. Followers of Christ throughout the centuries have given their lives for his sake. Though we have a comfortable existence, we might find our faith leading us to places or situations in which we risk our safety, our lives. We might.
Discipleship is not an easy undertaking. But the cross we are called to take up does not necessarily equal physical death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man whose life was ended because of the path he followed out of his faith, believed the cross was not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life – it, instead, meets believers at the beginning of their communion with Christ. “When Christ calls a person,” he says “he bids come and die.”
All of us can add another day to our litany of life altering moments – the day or moment we first responded to God’s grace already at work within us, the moment we consciously decided or when we realized we had unconsciously decided some time ago to follow Christ. Because on that day, we did die. We died as a person oriented in self and rose to new life as person who puts full trust in God. Our old life of doing what we wanted when we wanted, or for some of us, doing what others wanted of us when they wanted, is gone. Our new life, of doing God’s will when God wills it, is here. In our new life we trust that even if we follow God into a place where we lose our physical life, we have not lost our life in Christ. And that is truly the cornerstone of our faith, of being a disciple. It is trusting in God, God’s work in and through you, that even the threat of death does not keep you from following.
Do not let the fates of believers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Fox, or Peter deter you from following the Lord. Let them inspire you. These men, like other women and men throughout history, had such strength and courage of belief that they did not see death as final. Their journey with Jesus was not a journey filled with abuse, the cross was not a burden. The road they were on did not lead them to despair – it led them to joy. It led them to the joy we all may share in the resurrection of the Lord. Amen.