As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am? And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
The man ahead of us in the hotel check-in line looked like a reasonable person. As the minutes passed, however, he grew increasingly agitated, looking at his watch repeatedly and pacing around. He started mumbling under his breath. Did he have an urgent message about a fire in one of the rooms? Was he was trying to get medical attention for his pregnant wife? Had he been attacked by bed bugs?
He finally reached the front of the line and shouted at the attendant: “What is taking so long? I have a dinner reservation at the Magic Kingdom! I need to check in NOW!” The young front desk clerk at Disneyworld cowered as the dad continued his rant. What I’m sure began as a wonderful family vacation had now devolved into a spectacle in which a guy who looked like he would be an excellent forensic accountant or stock broker was yelling while wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. His dinner at the Magic Kingdom had become his focal point in life.
Disney Dad might not have realized it, but he was suffering from COUS (Center of the Universe Syndrome). Most of us suffer from COUS at some point when we at least momentarily convince ourselves that our desires are the highest priority for everyone around us.
Have you or someone you love ever suffered from COUS? I know I have. Sometimes it hits when we have to wait behind three people for a cappuccino. At church, we deal with COUS when someone is sitting in our seat or the service includes a song that doesn’t speak to us.
It’s not surprising that we are increasingly agitated by minor inconveniences. Advertising and social media foster narcissistic tendencies. Every time we do an Internet search, data is gathered and the content we see is tailored for us. Do a search for crème brûlée recipes and you’ll see ads and articles for cooking torches and ramekins for weeks. Search for the Golden State Warriors basketball score and a vendor will try to sell you Steph Curry’s new line of shoes. When everyone gets a trophy and our thoughts are validated by likes or followers, it is all too easy to accept our inward focus as normal.
In today’s Scripture lesson, Jesus provides challenging guidance for what it means to live as a person of faith. Peter and the other disciples had already given up any sense of stability to follow Jesus. The disciples knew that they weren’t the center of the universe, but they did have certain expectations about Jesus. By the time we reach this story, they have already witnessed a bounty of miracles—lepers healed, demons cast out, paralyzed people regaining mobility. If we had been one of them, our ego would have likely swelled from association with such power. It would have been easy to get caught up in his worldly abilities.
That is why Jesus shocks them when he starts talking about undergoing great suffering, being rejected by religious leaders, and being killed. Peter views Jesus’s words as ridiculous. He pulls him aside and rebukes Jesus! Peter and the disciples wanted their Jesus to overthrow corrupt government and business and religious leaders. They had visions of justice (and I imagine of their spoils and role as followers of this new King).
Jesus knows this and blasts the disciples for missing the big picture, for focusing on human rather than divine things. The word translated as “life” here is psyche in the Greek text, with a much deeper meaning than whether one has a pulse. Disciples and others hearing the words of Jesus about losing or saving souls would have been influenced by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and understood soul to refer to one’s core. Followers of Jesus struggled to see the virtue of giving his life when he had such power.
Jesus was reminding his followers that a focus on superficial, temporary good in this life can suffocate one’s soul. Peter couldn’t understand why the Christ or Messiah would have to undergo suffering to the point of death, when he had the power to help others overcome suffering. The cross was a symbol of terror, used to humiliate threats to Roman order. Forcing the convicted criminal to carry his own cross added shame. Telling his disciples that they would have to behave like lowly criminals shattered their notions of the power of this Jesus and demanded that they reorder their priorities.
Jesus reminds us that a focus on superficial, temporary good in this life can suffocate our soul.
One of the great honors and challenges of ministry is being present with people in their final days and moments. I have yet to hear a dying person say, “I wish I’d worked more” or “If only I could have bought imported Italian marble for my bathroom” or anything to do with buying more or gaining more professional accolades.
I have heard a great deal about love and relationships. I’ve witnessed the miracle of renewed relationships between siblings and ex-spouses that seemed broken beyond repair. I’ve encountered sacrificial generosity from virtual strangers who didn’t want surviving family members to be burdened with hospital bills. And I have heard hours and hours of beautiful stories from friends and family about how an imperfect person had loved them.
The most fulfilled people I have ever met in those situations had something in common: they were looking to God and divine things first, and not fixated on worldly pursuits.
A call to follow Jesus is not a call to convenience or luxury. It is a call to receive unconditional love, and share that love with our fellow children of God. To take up our cross and follow Jesus. That is what really matters.