How to be a Martyr: A sermon on Matthew 16:21-28
The scripture passage we just heard follows right on the heals of when Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Last week we explored the fact that in calling Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God”, Peter was pointing to the fact that Jesus was the King the people of Israel had long been waiting for. Jesus exuberantly accepts Peter’s titles, affirming that He is indeed the messiah, the long awaited for king. As you no doubt have heard before, Peter likely had particular ideas of how Jesus should take the throne. To Peter, the obvious course of action would be to march on to Jerusalem, amassing an army on-route, launch a surprise attack, overtake both the Temple and the city Jerusalem, get rid of the fake kings and priests presently misruling Israel, and finally install Jesus as King. You know that Jesus had a different plan. Yes, they would march into Jerusalem, triumphantly even, but after that things would go terribly different. Jesus planned to suffer at the hands of the very rulers Peter expected to overthrow — not only suffer, but be killed.
Jesus’ plan triggered Peter’s anxiety so much that he actually pulled Jesus aside to say, “this certainly must not be so. God forbid!” In the most stern rebuke ever uttered, Jesus firmly shuts Peter down: “Get behind me Satan, you are seeing things from a merely human point of view, not from God.” Such a harsh rebuke. Peter, from his human point of view, had inadvertently aligned himself with Satan, the Enemy.
Peter’s problem is he’s thinking human thoughts, not God thoughts. Based on what Jesus says next, human thoughts have the primary motive of avoiding suffering at the expense of God’s Kingdom. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus could have avoided Jerusalem, avoided terrible suffering, but the Kingdom of God would not have advanced.
God thoughts entail a willingness to take on suffering in hopes that in doing so the Kingdom of God will advance. Jesus tells his followers to embrace suffering that will advance His Kingdom. Jesus commands us to take up the cross and follow His way. Jesus challenges us not to be like the one who avoids suffering in an attempt to save their life, but in process loses the very thing they were trying to save.
When we hear these words the natural reference is martyrdom, literally being killed for witnessing to Christ. Picking up the cross wasn’t a simple metaphor for suffering, it was an image of the most horrific methods of capital punishment. Many of Jesus’ disciples, not the least Peter, were in fact martyred, killed, for proclaiming Jesus is Lord. They did not try to save their life, so they were killed. We live in a very different time and culture. We are not persecuted in the same way. As a result, hearing Jesus’ command to take up the cross can feel like a dead end. How do we obey this command? Do we actually seek out martyrdom? Generally nobody actually wants to kill us for our faith, and so we abstract Jesus’ words a bit more, and suppose Jesus is telling us not to shy away from suffering for the sake of the Kingdom.
I think this is a fair move, but as Christians we can still come up against problems in applying these words to our lives. When we hear Jesus challenge us to, “deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him,” we can think this involves any and all kinds of suffering — especially the passive kind. Turning the other cheek. Carrying our cross through silent suffering. We think that not saying anything is a particularly Christian virtue. Paradoxically, this has led to a different popular understanding of the word martyr. When we hear the word ‘martyr’ used today, it most often refers to someone who needlessly takes on suffering. Occasionally, we’ll hear someone use the term martyr in its original form of true suffering for Christ, but that’s fairly rare. Just yesterday Michelle told me not be a martyr by mowing the lawn despite my mold allergies. If we call someone a martyr, we’re saying that they needlessly take on suffering. What we’re calling a martyr is in fact a fake-martyr. Most families have fake-martyrs. Someone who suffers greatly only because they're afraid of addressing the real problem. Their suffering may win them approval, people might look on with admiration at how well they’ve taken up the cross of their parents, their kids, their brother or sister, or their spouse. Yet their suffering actually enables those burdensome family members to continue in all their disfunction, irresponsibility, learned helplessness, destructive choices, or passivity. And so, the fake-martyr does in fact suffer, but its not a fruitful suffering. Its a suffering that come from avoiding a problem. This is not the suffering that Jesus is talking about. This type of suffering is not a virtue. Jesus never avoided a problem. Jesus horrified His disciples when He said that He would journey to Jerusalem (at least a 70 kilometre hike) just so that He could suffer and be killed. Yet so much of our suffering is because we don’t actually want to deal with an issue. We may suffer as a result of our avoidance, but that’s different. We may suffer from our avoidance in our families, at work, at church, with our friends, in our community. Have you ever experienced considerable pain because you avoided dealing with an issue?
Yet Jesus does say, “any who want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Jesus calls us to follow His way. Jesus’ way is to persistently address those things which were antithetical to the Kingdom of God. He suffered for it. Not only on the cross, throughout His life. He constantly was attacked for the fact He would confront the corrupt and rotten religious establishment of the day. This was in fact His life’s work, for which He suffered greatly. We see Him working to change the system in so many different ways. Sometimes He did so with a violent passion, as when he fashioned a whip and drove out those who’d turned his Father’s house into a marketplace. Sometimes he disrupted the religious system with incredible verbal force, as when he rebuked the Scribes and Pharisees for their oppressive way of being: “woe to you!” More often he disrupted the system indirectly, like when he healed those who were considered not fit for the Kingdom of God; or when he ate with people everyone else considered pariahs; or when gave praise to inconsequential people, people not taken seriously by the establishment; other times Jesus disrupted the religious establishment playfully, by telling funny stories that undermined the values of the scribes and pharisees. Jesus would never shy away from bringing up topics nobody wanted to talk about (like when Simon the Pharisee was silently judging a disreputable woman while she was honouring Jesus — Jesus tells Simon a story about forgiveness to the dinner party). Everything Jesus did forced people to face their unsavoury realities, forced them to take responsibility, and called them to live a life more in line with the Kingdom, lives of love joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. People did not like this. Jesus perpetually disrupted the ungodly systems of the world so that they might either die or bear fruit— Jesus even disrupted the ungodly system for dealing with people who disrupt ungodly systems. Killing someone works really well when you want to stop someone disrupting your system — unless of course God raises that person from the dead.
A true martyr is one who lives for the Kingdom of God, and suffers the consequences. A martyr isn’t one who puts up with hell in order to avoid suffering. A martyr is one who will go through Hell in order to advance the Kingdom of God. Se the difference?
How do we follow suite? How do we know what’s our cross to take up? A first place to start is by asking God to help you pay attention to what you're avoiding. Just like Peter offered his rebuke when he got anxious, pay attention to what makes you anxious. Pay attention to the conversations that you don’t want to have. Pay attention to that niggling voice in the back of your head that says, “this just isn’t right.” Pay attention to when you’ve gotten defensive. May the Holy Spirit speak to you through these things which bring you dis-ease. Maybe the Spirit is saying, “things can be different.” Very likely, the Spirit will bring something to mind — perhaps something you’ve been avoiding. Perhaps something that causes you suffering. Maybe you’ve been sacrificing your self in unhelpful ways for family, or a friend, or maybe its your work — maybe you’ve found yourself covering up for people, enabling people to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. Maybe you’ve been keeping their secrets. Maybe it feels like the only fruit of your suffering is that it enables people to not change. Maybe God is calling you to live and act differently. But if you do, remember that people may protest. People may resist. It’s then that you’ll find out what it means to be a martyr. Some of you already have.
Say that you’ve started to pay attention to what you’re avoiding. You want to bring a change, and are willing to take on suffering, maybe even persecution, to make that happen. What do we do? I think prayer is a good place to start. Ask God to show you what Jesus would do if He were in your shoes. How would Jesus live as a member of your family? How would Jesus be a coworker in your workplace. How would Jesus be your friends friend, who’s treating you the way she is. How would Jesus start up school this fall with so much uncertainty and loneliness. Have fun. Really use your imagination audaciously. Prayerfully and playfully imagine the different ways Jesus would be. Remember all the different ways that Jesus brought change for the Kingdom — what would it look like in your life? Have fun in the process of losing your life — after all, if you are going to lose your life, if people are going to resist your change, you might as well be a bit playful and have fun in the process.
The reason we pick up our cross is not because we actually enjoy suffering. The author of Hebrews tells us that it "was for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” It was for the joy set before him. That’s why we pick up our crosses, that’s why we work for change, that way we give up our life. For the joy. When we begin to think about acting like Jesus to bring change to our family, our church, our friends, our work, our school — when we start thinking about bringing change for the Kingdom of God, we’ll experience the paradox —- we will both be terrified and exhilarated. We’ll be scared to the bone and filled with hope and excitement. We’ll be filled with hope and excitement because God’s Kingdom is actually a good thing, wildly fantastic, and the prospect of it taking root in our homes, our church, our community, our nation, our world, is also wildly fantastic. The possibility of the Kingdom in our lives is worth the suffering, it’s worth the cross. It’s that hope which enables us to pick up our cross and endure whatever push back might come.