Rededicating Ourselves to Grow in Faith

Pastor Rachel B. Livingston 

 I. We Seek to Grow In Faith

Cheltenham United Methodist Church.  The Little Church with the Big Heart where our mission statement says that we seek to grow in faith, serve others, and share the love of Jesus Christ.  This means that one of our first priorities is to grow in faith, strengthen ourselves as disciples of Jesus Christ, to deepen our relationship with God, that we might genuinely be the people of God within the world, doing the work of Jesus Christ that the world might be led to him.  We have already professed that all year round this is our main goal, to grow in faith, however, during the season of Lent, we are intentionally seeking to grow in our discipleship with Jesus Christ, we are seeking grow in our faith, to better understand God in this moment, so we take on a time of prayer and fasting that we might establish a deep relational connection with our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.
We take away some of the things in our life that distract us so that we can better view God, better learn from what God is saying, that we might be transformed from the movement of God within the world today.  It is important to remove all the things that can cloud our judgement, all the things that fill our ears and misdirect our vision, all the things that block our focus, because if our scripture tells us anything, it is that the word from the Lord, the things that Jesus teaches us, are not always so clear cut. The things that Jesus reveals can be controversial, counter cultural, beyond the scope of the status quo, and sometimes even lack common sense.  I mean think about it, Jesus called us to love the social outcast, he cared for and healed the lepers and those who were possessed – spending time with the ones that society had proclaimed unclean and shameful, he humanized the Samaritan – which by societal standard was a racial outcast that was treated as the lowest of the low, he taught that it was more important to feed the human need of hunger rather than trying to hold up empty gestures of rituals when observing the sabbath, he taught us that even death can bring about new life. The teachings of Jesus rebel against any notion of what society will tell us is common sense.  So, if we aren’t INTENTIONAL about connecting with God and removing the clouds in front of us that distract us, we can anticipate confusion, disorientation, and missing the details of what God is saying to us in this season, in the now.

 II. We Look For A Word From The Lord

What are we seeking to see and hear in this season?  What are we trying to hear from the Lord?  Well, there are still many who suffer from poverty who need the hope of a brighter tomorrow, so we listen for ways that we can provide love and hope as the people of God.  There is still those suffering from sickness and chronic ailments that need a comforting touch, so we listen for ways to reinforce the comforting love of God.  There is still racial injustice where people just want to be seen as human beings and for society to acknowledge that their lives matter, so we listen for God’s direction on how, we as the people of God, can tear down systemic oppressions that are intertwined within society from America’s original sin.  There are moments that make clear the oppressions of sexism, classism, and homophobia that seem to cut down and bring direct pain to the lives of women, the poor, and gay and trans people, so we as the people of God are listening for ways that we can bring liberation and life to those struck down by society – that we might be able to find a way to create a welcoming place of safety and affirmation so that all can feel the love of Jesus Christ and know that they have been offered God’s grace.  There is still the presence of homelessness within our community, so we turn to God listening for ways that we can provide food, clothing, warmth and even ways to address the root of the problem.  There is still the reality that we have reached the point where we are standing with families that have been directly affected by the loss of 500,000 United States citizens who have lost their lives to COVID-19, so we turn to God looking for how and when we can get out of this, and what the faithful response of the church is for the heavy hearts that bring a somber disposition that hangs over the entire nation.  There is no doubt that we are looking to God for a word.  And it is undeniable that many of these responses are going to require a response that is counter-cultural and stretches the bounds of the status quo, because what has been done, the solutions of the past, have created some progress, no doubt, but that some scenarios have produced little to no progress on many of these issues.  Yet, it is clear that the world needs love, peace, justice, and the presence of God that is found in Jesus Christ that the world might find restoration, salvation, and liberation.

III. Jesus Teaches The Disciples

In our scripture, the disciples are in the same place we are, sitting before Jesus, seeking to learn from the teacher, that they might grow in faith and better dedicate their lives to Jesus Christ.  If we envision the scene, we can imagine that the twelve are sitting around Jesus, out in a field or garden, where they can gather and hear what Jesus is saying with genuine intent.  They are lounging around Jesus, it is peaceful scenery where they are away from the people, the crowds, those interested in seeing Jesus perform miracles and investigating his character, they are away from the world.  And all that surrounds them is God’s creation. The birds are singing a melodious song in the background, and there is a gentle breeze surrounding them bringing such cool comfort, and the beauty of flowers and vegetation surrounds them, there might even be a tiny brook nearby that brings amazing tranquility and the sound of calming streaming water.  The disciples are sitting at the Messiah’s feet, waiting for Jesus to teach them the ways of God, away from the chaos of the world.

So, Jesus begins to share the word of the Lord – the information that they must know if they are going to continue on this journey with him. He begins to share things with them that make no sense.  He says he will be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.  Strike One. Wait a second, you mean all of the religious leaders will turn against you, they will hate you, they will turn from your ways and your teaching.  But hold on a minute, aren’t you the messiah, the Son of God, the one who comes from the Lord.  If that is true, then why would the holy men, the people who work on behalf of God reject you?  Don’t you bring the fulfillment of the law endowed to you by God, don’t you bring the true essence of God with all that you have taught us?  Then Jesus continues, by saying that he was going to be killed. Strike two – wait a second Jesus you are the messiah, you are the one we have been waiting for, you are the one who has come to liberate the people, you are supposed to come and respond to the needs of the people.  How can you do this by dying? How will the people be saved if you die? Jesus then says that in three days he will rise again.  Strike Three – such a cryptic statement, what does this even mean?  We in the here and now understand what this meant, because we stand on the other side of the resurrection.  But to the disciples this doesn’t make any sense.  You will rise again in three days? What does that even mean Jesus?

 IV. What Jesus Says Makes No Sense

The disciples were confused, concerned, and perplexed.  They had dedicated their lives to following Jesus, he was the Messiah, he was the Son of God, he was the one they had sought to learn from, the one whose feet they purposely sat at, the one they expected to grow and learn from, the one they had left their families to follow, the one who was bringing salvation, he was God here on earth.  But now he is saying things that make no sense – is he the messiah or is he not?  The messiah is supposed to save with a mighty sword, like a soldier who brings redemption to the people in the midst of occupation.  He is supposed to restore the people of Israel to glory, while tearing down the oppressive reign of the Roman Empire.  He is not supposed to die, nor be at odds with the religious officials, because he brings the true word of God.  Their understanding of faith was ripped from under them, what they knew to be true did not coalesce with what Jesus was saying.  Had they wasted their time by putting all their faith in this one man?  Had their conception of God and the teachings of Jesus all been wrong?  They likely all felt this way, but Peter was the one who vocalized his feelings in the moment.  Peter was so rocked to the core that he could no longer remain silent.  Surely what Jesus was saying was not true because it makes no sense.  So, Peter rebukes Jesus saying that he clearly does not know what he is talking about because Jesus is the Messiah and he has come to save the people.

It is interesting sometimes, how we turn to God looking for the answer and then when we hear God, we convince ourselves that you must have misunderstood God or somehow convince ourselves that we somehow know more than God.  The reality is that sometimes what we hear from God may not make complete sense or even be what we want it to be, but God knows and understands the larger picture that we cannot even begin to fathom.  I was reminded of how we as human beings respond to God, when God is sharing a message with us.  I was reminded of all this when I was getting up to take care of my dog, Ella B.  You see, every morning, me and Ella B. get up – I brush my teeth and throw on some clothes, we then head downstairs so that I can feed her, and then we go outside, for her to go to the bathroom and for me take her for her walk.  It is like clockwork, we do it every day, it doesn’t change.  And yet it never seems to fail that once she is finished her food, she runs to the front door and begins to whine and fret because she is not outside.  She begins to be in a panic that she is not outside and that she has no pathway to getting there because the door is closed.  She jumps at the door, but it does not open, she runs back to me and I have not yet opened the door, she looks around for another path and finds nothing, so she whines and does all of this over again. But again, we do our routine everyday like clockwork, so as I put on my socks and shoes, as I throw on my coat and grab her leash, which I do every single day – she is more worried about getting outside than looking to me for direction. But if she only took the time to pay attention to me and what I am saying and doing in the moment, she would realize that she will get what she needs.  We too are like that when we think we know more and try to do things according to what we think and believe, we even fret when things don’t seem to go our way or when things don’t make sense, but if we focus on what God is saying, we might learn something, even if we don’t understand or it doesn’t make sense.  We have to listen and trust that God will explain just as Jesus did with the disciples.

Because even though the disciples were confused and distraught by the words they were hearing from Jesus, there was more that Jesus understood and could teach them.  They just had to be patient and listen.  What the disciples did not understand was that the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes were more concerned with hanging on to ritual tradition rather than really hearing what God was saying in that moment, and  they would rather hang on to tradition that keeps them in  a role of hierarchy in the Jewish community rather than following God’s direction in their present age.  They were more interested in maintaining the status quo of Roman rule, so that they would be able to maintain their role of leaders within the oppressed Jewish community.  So, their mind was not focused on things of heavenly focus.  Therefore, the work of Jesus was likely to rebel against the “holy” ones in power because they were not focused on the real desires and teachings of God.  What the disciples didn’t understand was that Jesus was the Messiah, the one they were waiting for, but the Messiah was not meant to be a soldier or King, coming back to start an upheaval of the Roman Empire, bringing sword and flame to restore Israel to a point of hierarchy as the people of God.  However, Jesus was the messiah, that taught love, peace, and mercy but who in his death brought redemption and salvation to the entire world, not just saving the Jews but everyone in the process.  They did not know that because Jesus will die, he will grant new life and salvation.  What the disciples did not know was that even though Jesus would endure the beating, the bruising, the struggling to breathe upon the cross – even though he hung his head, breathed his last breath, and died , Jesus would be resurrected on the third day granting power over death and granting new life.  And while they may not have known all those things, they heard it first, from the mouth of Jesus in the intimate setting of Christ’s teaching, away from the world.  We too must listen to what God is saying in the moment as we wait for a word from the Lord.

Jesus then tells his disciples if they want to follow Christ that they must take up their cross and follow him. This is another direction that is jarring to those who hear it.  Crucifixion to say the least was a form of execution that provides a significant amount of torture to its victim.  The person being crucified has their body stretched out across the cross as their arms and legs are tied or nailed to the cross.  What brings the most torture is that the person has to push themselves up using their arms and legs just to breathe.  When the person was exhausted from gasping for air, their legs were broken so that they would suffocate in death.  But the torture continued beyond death, most people who were crucified were placed on display and left to hang on the cross to rot and for the dogs to feast on their bodies, as a warning to all the world to not do whatever that person had been accused of.  They were humiliated even beyond death.  So, the words, take up your cross and follow me, was a jarring statement, something that would bring extreme discomfort to the disciple.  Crucifixion was reserved for the worst, criminals, the ones who were rebellious of the Roman Empire, who were a treasonous threat to the Emperor.  Jesus is saying that sometimes following his teachings will rebel against societal norms and push against some of the cultural standards of the time.  And of course this is the case when Jesus fed the hungry – making it known that all people are entitled to basic human needs, Jesus spent time with the social outcasts – the tax collectors, lepers, the poor, women – tearing down the hierarchical structures of Roman society, Jesus taught love in a world where many were sticking to the normal of dismissing one another, Jesus even proclaimed that he was the Son of God and the Savior of the world  directly challenging the direct seat of power, the Emperor. 

 V. Following Jesus Is Counter-Cultural 

As we are waiting on a word from the Lord in this Lent season we must remember that following Jesus causes us to take up our cross and follow Jesus – an action that just may challenge the status quo of the society we live in.  Following Jesus is not easy, so we must remember that what Jesus is saying to us in this moment may not be easy to follow and it may rebel against the status quo.  Because we are called to love one another in the midst of a society where we often are divided by the variances that create our differences such as political thought, skin color, gender, sexuality, economic status, and so much more.  We are called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, when the rest of the world would rather ignore that the hungry and naked exist.   We are called to be a place of comfort for those who are suffering when the rest of the world frets. When politicians seek to ignore the needs of the people, we are called to vocalize how God calls for their justice and peace.  God calls us to visit the imprisoned, when the rest of the world dismisses them as animalistic criminals rather than human beings intricately designed by God, seeking rehabilitation and reformation from the wrong they have done. Sometimes what God calls us to do is something that pushes against what the world would have us to do.

Another thing of note within our scripture is this: Jesus says, “What will it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  The strange thing in this statement is that Jesus is telling the disciples that they must take up their cross, which means that the work of God could bring them to death’s door, and yet he is saying that if they do not take up their cross, they are forfeiting their lives.  A cryptic statement indeed.  Therefore, what Jesus is saying is that this work of Christ that is its own cross to bear, brings on a whole new concept of life. Because following Jesus brings new life.  Because Jesus shows us how to love.  Jesus shows us how to bring peace within the world.  Jesus shows us to work for justice.  Jesus shows us how to lead transformational lives.  Jesus brings a new sense of life in a world that is continually dying. Because Jesus made the ultimate gesture of love that offered his death so we might find new life. 

As we sit in this Lenten season, we are waiting and listening for a word from the Lord, that we might grow in relationship with Jesus Christ and grow in our faith, standing firm as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But as we listen for the word, we must remember that it might not always be the logical action and it might be countercultural to societal standards.  But we must know that God sees the larger picture and knows far more than we do, and it is within the teachings of Christ that God’s love, peace, and justice is realized within this world.  So, we come into this season seeking God’s direction and vowing to take up our cross and follow Christ, because it brings growth in our faith.