13th Sunday after Pentecost

  1. Pentecost 13.20 “Loss and Gain” Matt. 16:21-28

From the Rock of the Church to Satan all in about… 20 minutes, maybe an hour or two? Quite a turn-around! This is why we said last week that faith is like jumping off a bridge onto a giant spinning ball in the back of a pickup truck going 60 mph down the highway and sticking the landing like a prima ballerina. It’s not for the faint of heart. It involves a lot of ups and downs, extreme shifts. It’s not something flesh and blood can accomplish (as the Master Himself says). It’s something that has to be gifted to us from above, by God Himself as a divine miracle.

It is one of the great (and popular!) misconceptions about Christianity (there are a lot of those floating around in the modern world!) that becoming a Christian is a nice, linear, stable process like learning to ride a bike. You get some training wheels at the start, (confirmation class) perhaps an instructional video on YouTube, wobble a bit, fall a few times, then gradually get the hang of it, lose the training wheels, and go spinning along like a pro. With riding a bike, as they say, you never forget how! Even years away from cycling, you can always hop on a bike and ride away, easy peezy lemon squeezy. Falling off is a very rare occurrence and usually from some malign outside force, not a lack of skill on the rider’s part. Once you learn, you never forget.

But it’s not that way with Christianity at all, as we see today in our Gospel. Christianity, as someone (Nietzsche?) once said, is not like riding a bike. It is like jumping off a bridge onto a giant spinning ball in the back of a pickup truck going 60 mph down the highway and sticking the landing like the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Company. Or was it Kierkegaard who said that? Whoever it was should copyright it. That’s a really good saying, it seems to me.

The Christian leap of faith is not something that looks safe or sane to most. I get why you want to learn to ride a bike. Practical, fun, and great for the environment. Manageable risk. But why would you want to jump off a bridge onto the back of a giant spinning ball in the back of a pickup truck going 60 mph down the highway? Because it’s there? Because it looks awesome when you stick the landing? Because Jesus double-dog dares you? D) Yes!?

I’m going to say that you can’t really explain why anyone makes the leap of faith. All of those answers are right, yet none of them are adequate. God the Father just kind of grants it to us, plants the will and the yearning and the wild, yeah-saying Joy in us, so that, without thinking about it, suddenly we’re leaping and landing and going “this is awesome!” Yes!

But, the next minute, we’re tumbling down the highway in a ball at 60 mph—in a way that ends in tears. A way that is not survivable. Will we get up? Will we make the leap again? If so, why so?

It’s a tricky, risky business, this leap of faith into Christianity. Don’t let anyone fool you! Many have tried, yet all have failed spectacularly.

Take Simon Peter, for instance. He’s had a pretty eventful few weeks in our Gospel readings lately. He was caught in a storm in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, sees Jesus come walking to them on the huge waves and wind and while everyone else in the boat was terrified, screaming “it’s a ghost!” Peter was like, “I want to do that. Command me, Lord.” So Jesus does, and Peter did, and for a few glorious minutes, he walks on water, on a stormy sea. Till he thought about what he was doing, realized it was impossible, and sank like a Stone—thereby getting a cool, rock star sorta nickname, Cephas (in English, “Stone”) hung on him by Jesus. And Jesus saved him.

Last week, Jesus sprung a pop quiz on the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” (weird answers ensued) then “who do you say that I am?” And   Peter goes “The Christ, the Son of the Living God” and Jesus praises Peter to the heavens for this; calls him a Rock, built on the Rock, keystone in the Church, says the keys of the Kingdom will always be in Peter’s pocket because of this, so that he can unlock or lock the door anytime the Spirit moves him. Pretty great, huh?

Peter has done some cool stuff in the last couple weeks. Made the leap from the bridge onto the giant spinning ball in the back of the pickup truck racing 60 mph down the highway and stuck the landing like a Bolshoi ballet star. Hidden talents! Extreme sports! All angels singing and dancing…

But today? “Man down!” Peter goes tumbling out of the back of the Speeding Truck of Faith like Evel Knievel jumping all those buses at Caesar’s Palace ’72, missing the landing, breaking every bone in his body. It’s like Kierkegaard famously said vis a vis love: “Love is like… a snowmobile, racing across the frozen tundra. Suddenly, it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.” Not a pretty sight. Worse, Jesus does not even think Peter’s wipeout looks cool at all. Laying there in a busted-up heap, groaning in pain, Jesus rubs salt in the wounds by going, “Man, I don’t even know who you are, anymore. I’m calling you Satan. You’re really bringing Me down…”

Maybe this is the toughest part of Christianity, to me: not only is faith a pretty up and down, risky business; but Jesus is tough to read, too! One minute, He’s gentle Jesus meek and mild, and the next He’s got a whip in His hand going all Rambo on us, all “Get behind Me Satan!” and stuff. Talk about a moving target, tough to hit! This is not like riding a bike at all! It’s much more like jumping off a bridge onto a giant spinning ball in the back of a pickup truck going 60 mph down the highway, and when we miss the landing, go tumbling down the highway, breaking every bone in our body, Jesus stands over our crushed corpse and goes, “Loser. You call that a leap of faith? I call it lame-o. I call you Satan, big trip hazard for Me. Pull your head out of… uhm, er, well: keep your eye on the ball, man.”

Talk about the agony of defeat!

So, now that I’ve got you pretty much talked out of Christianity, here’s the Big Finish that will get you back up on the bridge, looking for that speeding truck with the giant spinning ball in the back, going “This time, I’ve got it!”.

This all started with Jesus telling us how He had to go to Jerusalem and (as the Biggest Loser of All!) suffer many things, be killed, and the third day, rise again. Talk about a spectacular wipe-out! Check out Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday! And when we say “no, no, Jesus! The cross is not for You, not for me, because it looks just a bit harsh…” Jesus goes, kindly, gently, with a little twinkle in His eye: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up the cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”

Loss and gain. It’s only losing ourselves that we find a new self in Jesus. It’s only dying, only wiping out spectacularly with Him, that we stick the landing—perfectly balanced on that giant spinning ball, uhm—on the Rock that is Christ’s Holy Church. And so we find ourselves perched on the bridge, leaping… into Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.


About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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