If you think that it is difficult at times to understand Jesus’ teaching then imagine what the disciples must have been thinking in this exchange that we heard today. Jesus had just finished telling them that He was giving them the keys to the kingdom and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven and whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven. And now, three verses later, He is telling them that they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. First the keys and then the cross? What? If I was one of those disciples I would be saying to myself, “Which is it Jesus? Is it going to be the keys or is it going to be the cross?” I believe that Jesus is teaching them that it must be both, and I will explain why I believe that, but first I have to touch on good old Peter. Is he a piece of work or what?
Peter had just been praised by Jesus and called “Blessed” because he recognized Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Then just a few verses later Jesus calls him “Satan” and tells him, “You are a hindrance to me.” Can you imagine the Christ, the Son of the living God calling you a hindrance to His ministry? And Peter’s faux pas will not stop there. In six days Jesus will take two others with Peter to the Mount of Transfiguration and Peter will wrongly suggest that they make three tents and stay there, in spite of the fact that Jesus has been telling Him that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and be raised on the third day. Next the disciples, presumably including Peter, will get into a discussion about who is the greatest. Then Peter will ask if he really has to forgive more than seven times, only to be told seven times seventy. Then it really goes down hill. Peter will fall asleep in Gethsemane while Jesus is praying, cut off a servant’s ear at Jesus’ arrest and deny Jesus three times. Daniel Powter had a catchy song that had he line, “So you had a bad day….” This could be Peter’s theme song.
But I also find Peter’s story refreshing. First it demonstrates the reliability of the Scriptures. If the Apostles were making this story up they would have made themselves look a lot better than they do. There are points in the story where even Jesus gets frustrated with how dense they were.
But Peter gives me hope for my own journey. He is an example that the real issue is not how many times you fall down or get knocked down but rather how many times you get back up. Or to be even more precise, how many time He gets you back up. And you know how this story ends. After Peter’s denials he returns to Galilee only to have the resurrected Jesus seek him out and call on Peter to feed His sheep. It’s the story of redemption. That is our story too. But back to keys or crosses or both?
I have seen the damage done by those who only focus on the keys. Everything becomes about how much authority they have and they often end up lording over or taking advantage of others. I have seen a number of groups or churches, including one I was a part of in the 70’s, start out with the best and purest of intentions. But because of an overemphasis on authority they turn very cult like.
I have also seen it where too much focus on the keys, and by extension the church’s authority, turns into a kind of magical thinking. For example I read a blog from a cleric about the recent hurricane in Texas. He said that he was disappointed in the Church because we failed to get together and pray and/or command the hurricane to miss Texas. Where were we supposed to command it to go? Louisiana?
The keys are not given to the Church to turn it into the great and powerful Oz. The expression of binding and loosing was actually a rabbinic expression that the disciples would have understood and it had to do with retaining or releasing someone from their sins. In the Old Testament when the priest laid his hands on the scapegoat to impute the sins of the people, and drove the scapegoat out into the wilderness, he was loosing the people from their sins.
The Church uses the keys in several ways to lose people from their sins. First and foremost is through the proclamation of the Gospel. Jesus as the Truth sets people free, free from guilt shame and condemnation as well as from final judgment. Second we experience the keys when we are absolved after the General Confession in the Mass or in a private confession. I’m sure my brother priests will agree that it is an intensely holy moment to lay hands on a penitent and proclaim Christ’s words of forgiveness and lose them from their sins. I always experience holy fear at that moment but that is followed by the joy of seeing the monkey come off their backs. The third way that we experience the keys is through the Sacraments. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us as we pray, “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by His Body and our souls washed through His most precious Blood.”
On the other side of the coin, I have also seen very bad fruit come from those who only focus on the cross. I knew a bible teacher years ago whose constant message was that we needed to be broken and so he encouraged folks to embrace suffering at every turn. Every time you had a problem or faced a challenge it was another opportunity to be broken.
Not only that but he warned about having too much joy. He even went so far as to warn that if you loved something too much the Lord would take it from you and that included a spouse or a child. Let me tell you this was one guy that you did not want to invite to a party. And yet when you read the New Testament you see how saint and sinner alike loved hanging out with Jesus. Thus we can conclude that the bible teacher was telling a very different story about God than Jesus told. In only focusing on the cross the bible teacher somehow forgot that as important as Good Friday is to our faith, we are an Easter people.
What I am suggesting therefore is that when it comes to the keys and the cross, it is not an either/or proposition. It is a both and. And as you have likely already deduced, they are the perfect balance for one another. If you only focus on the keys you end up with televangelist theology. But if you only focus on the cross then you drag around through life like a living martyr filled with self-contempt. Jesus does tell us to take up our cross but He also says that He came to give us an abundant life and they are far from mutually exclusive. As the beautiful collect for Fridays in Morning Prayer puts it, “Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”
The next question that presents itself is to ask how we take up our cross. There are many ways that question could be answered but you would be hard-pressed to surpass St. Paul’s command that we heard in Romans. “Present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” The cross is an instrument of death and to sacrifice oneself is to die and so we take up our cross when we become living sacrifices to God.
As He is in all things, Jesus is our model here. Jesus was a living sacrifice. He made it clear that He came to do only the Father’s will. He even said, “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.” And you will recall Him praying in the garden, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” He was a living sacrifice before He became a literal sacrifice, the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world.
But let’s take it a step further. How do you present you body as a living sacrifice when you have kids to get to school and flights you have to catch and doctor’s appointments that you have to meet? It was pretty clear that Mother Theresa was taking up her cross and being a daily sacrifice but none of us are not Mother Theresa and likely never will be. I believe it begins with the attitude of your heart. As you begin your day do as Jesus did and proclaim that you have come to do His will.
I have boiled it down to a child like simplicity for myself. I pray the daily office but I also pray this simple prayer. “Lord I want to be your servant today. Help me to go what you want me to go, meet who you want me to meet, say what you want me to say and do what you want me to do.” And then I go about my normal day looking for ways that He answers that prayer. Someone once said that it seems the more he prays the more coincidences happen to him. I like to think of them as divine appointments.
The beauty of this approach is that you don’t have to go through your day wondering and fretting if you are doing God’s will. As a living sacrifice you have presented your day and yourself to Him and then you trust that if He wanted you to be doing something else He would let you know. After all He is mindful that we are but dust.
One other practical suggestion I would like to offer to you that you might find helpful. I had an Uncle Bubba who was convinced that clergy only work one day a week. But most folks know that we are on call 24/7, so my concern was how to know when my day was done. How can I tell when it is time to put today’s cross down in order to prepare to take up tomorrow’s? I felt that the inability to discern that was a major reason the 80% of ordained clergy do not last more than 5 years and I didn’t want to be a statistic.
Through prayer it came to me that I should measure my day by deeds and not time. I decided that I could lay down my daily cross after I had accomplished a minimum three significant good works that in some small way furthered the kingdom. (I think I chose three because of the Trinity.) For example if during the day I meet with the clergy to plan for the Church, I did some individual counseling and then take the Sacrament to someone in the hospital the day is a success. I would of course do other things through out the day like answer phone calls and emails and meetings and daily administrations. But because I had fulfilled at least three good works I could take off my spurs without any guilt.
If that is something that would be a practical way to take up your cross give it a try. But know that because no one’s life is the same, you will have a different standard than others. With family, jobs, football practice, etc. etc. You may find that you would do well to accomplish one significant good work in a day. That may not sound like much but if you are doing it for God’s glory and if you do it 7 days a week, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, you will have had an impact on this world. And none could doubt that at the end of days you will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.”
The second part of St. Paul’s call to be living sacrifices is his command “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Thus we take up our cross by not being conformed to this world. And by this he is not calling on us to create a list of legalistic rules and things to avoid. Rather he is calling on us to think and to act differently than the world. For example he will say later in the chapter that we are not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think and we are not to repay evil with evil. The recent insanity of Antifa thugs fighting the neo Nazis and KKKers is proof right before our eyes where pride takes you and that evil fighting evil accomplishes nothing. We succeed in not being conformed to this world when we think and act like kingdom people. St. Paul says, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
Jesus gave the Apostles both the keys and the cross. He does a similar thing to each of us when He gives us His Spirit to be His coworkers and at the same time calls on us to die to self. He does so because He above all knows that the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. Amen.