Our reading from James this morning always causes me a pang of guilt – I know that I have showed favoritism in the past – that I have not been partial. It’s hard not to. You are naturally drawn to people who are like you – those with whom you have much in common. Those who are different to you – both socially and physically cause us to withdraw. But James is very clear, is he not, partiality is a sin.
Now, partiality can be shown in many different ways. James’ example is with regards to a poor man and a wealthy man. Remember that James is speaking to a Christian Church. This obviously has happened and James is warning them that this is not acceptable in God’s sight. We can show favoritism or partiality even unconsciously in many different ways.
But our gospel reading shows another type of partiality or favoritism.
Jesus has asked the disciples who he is. They have responded with various reports of being Elijah or a prophet but Peter, by revelation, proclaims Jesus to be the Christ. That is, the one sent from God to redeem Israel. Now, Christ was not a name, but a title. And Peter’s understanding of that word is important. Because by declaring Jesus the Christ he had a vision of what that would entail. Peter would have believed that the end of the world was near and that the great battle, where the nations – the gentiles, would rise up and battle and Israel. But the Christ would take the field and make war and destroy the gentile nations. The Christ would denounce them for their ungodliness and for their wickedness and would display before them their contemptuous dealings – and when he had reproved them he would destroy them. The Christ would be the most destructive conqueror in history. There then would follow the renovation of Jerusalem and the dispersed Jews all over the world would be gathered into the new Jerusalem. Palestine would become the center of the world and the rest of the nations would be subject to it.
This is what Peter’s understanding of the Christ would have been – violent, destructive, nationalistic and vengeful.
And then Jesus says to the disciples that he would suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Can you see why Peter reacted to Jesus’ words so strongly. This did not sound like the Christ he thought would come and so he tells Jesus – no you’re not going to die.
Peter is showing favoritism here – the Christ cannot suffer like this – that’s ridiculous – his status can not allow such a thing.
And Jesus’ response to Peter’s rebuke shows the battle that was going – “Get behind me satan.” After Jesus had faced the devil in the temptations we are told that the devil left until another time. Here was another time – the devil using Peter to tempt Jesus off the path. No, you Jesus should not go down such a road – you are too important, too great too powerful to be killed – you’re life is too valuable.
It is to this that Jesus teaches in the rest of our gospel reading.
And what he says is hard.
Do NOT show partiality or favoritism to even your own life.
This concept is probably the hardest for the world to grasp about the Christian faith – in order to have life you must die, and if you try to live, you will instead die.
And it is one of the hardest things for us as Christians to grasp too!
One theologian has written: God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort and security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time.
Now, notice, he does not say live recklessly. This is not about giving everything away to the poor or never having anything or being embarrassed by success. The point is that as followers of Jesus we must give up favoritism to our own life, or lifestyle – that we say to God that it is his and he can use it as he sees fit – and when we do this we receive real, eternal and glorious life.
If we say to God – I want to SPEND my life for you Lord – for others – for your kingdom, we are winning life.
Jesus never sugar coated the Christian life. He never tried to bribe anyone by the offer of an easy way. He did not offer peace in this life: He offered GLORY!
Also Jesus NEVER preached something which he himself was not willing to show. On one level Peter was right – the Christ, being arrested, tormented and killed – that is outrageous. And it is outrageous. And yet Jesus does not just SAY that you must DIE to yourself; he SHOWED us, modeled to us HOW we die to ourselves.
Jesus does not show favoritism to his own life. He lays it down willingly. Jesus has known this was coming since the beginning of creation. Isaiah prophecies this in our Old Testament reading – notice what God says I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. 7 For the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
This suffering servant – Jesus – will be smitten – and yet will not suffer shame because God helps him! John’s Gospel speaks of the cross as Glorification for Jesus. Jesus never holds onto his life but gives it completely into the Fathers hands knowing that whatever happens to Him will end with Him in God’s presence.
And that is what Jesus asks of us. When Jesus says “take up your cross and follow me” – he was speaking of death. When ever you saw a man carrying a cross you knew that he was going to die.
Jesus says – we must die and follow Jesus. We must not show favoritism or partiality even to our own life.
Deny yourself – that is, say no to self. Gal 2:20: 20 I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
The biggest temptation we face is to regard our life with favoritism. We may be able to give up many things us – some money, some comfort, even careers for the Lord. But we lay down boundaries don’t we, when it comes to the possible impact on our life. But God asks of us everything – even our very life for the truth of the gospel.
One of the results of Christian maturity, of sanctification, is that we begin to stop regarding our own life with favoritism. That we truly begin to give it over to God, that God would use our life for his purposes and that we would be willing to put ourself in any situation God asked of us.
Telemachus was a Christian monk in the later 4th century. He went to Rome. At this point in history, Rome was Christian. No longer were Christians killed in the arena. However, in this ‘Christian’ city, there were still gladiatorial games. Instead of Christians, prisoners of war, those captured by the Roman army in their battles, were used to entertain the Christian crowds. Telemachus went to the arena and was appalled at what he saw. Foxes Book of Martyrs says this:
Suddenly there was an interruption. A rudely clad, robed figure appeared for a moment among the audience, and then boldly leaped down into the arena. ….These were his words: “Do not requite God’s mercy in turning away the swords of your enemies by murdering each other!”
Angry shouts and cries at once drowned his voice: “This is no place for preaching!–the old customs of Rome must be observed!–On, gladiators!” Thrusting aside the stranger, the gladiators would have again attacked each other, but the man stood between, holding them apart, and trying in vain to be heard. “Sedition! sedition! down with him!” was then the cry; and the gladiators, enraged at the interference of an outsider with their chosen vocation, at once stabbed him to death. Stones, or whatever missiles came to hand, also rained down upon him from the furious people, and thus he perished, in the midst of the arena.
The few who knew him told how he had come from the wilds of Asia on a pilgrimage, to visit the churches and keep his Christmas at Rome; they knew he was a holy man, and that his name was Telemachus. His spirit had been stirred by the sight of thousands flocking to see men slaughter one another, and in his simple-hearted zeal he had tried to convince them of the cruelty and wickedness of their conduct. He had died, but not in vain. His work was accomplished at the moment he was struck down, for the shock of such a death before their eyes turned the hearts of the people: they saw the hideous aspects of the favorite vice to which they had blindly surrendered themselves; and from the day Telemachus fell dead in the Colosseum, no other fight of gladiators was ever held there.
The last known gladiator fight in Rome was on January 1, 404.
Another story i want to tell you is of Nate Saint. He was an evangelical Christian who was one of five missionaries killed while participating in Operation Auca, an attempt to evangelize the Waodani people of Ecuador.
Just before he left on his final mission his young son asked him if he would use his gun to protect himself against the Waodani if they should attack. His response was “ Son, we can’t shoot the Waodani – they are not ready for heaven. We are.”
The point of these two stories, and this sermon as a whole is not a guilt trip, or a call that we must go and do something life threatening if we want to be real christians – but that we understand that Jesus’ words, ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ and ‘Deny yourself’ are not metaphorical, or illustrative but a real request – that Jesus asks that we no longer hold onto our own life with partiality or with favoritism and that we really do want to say to God:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
*Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.
What does taking up our crosses and following Jesus look like in our society today? What does it look like to say “Lord, I will not show favoritism even to my life?”.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? 20 For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body[a] and in your spirit, which are God’s.
It is a willingness to stand up for truth, justice, righteousness and to glorify God in our actions regardless of the cost to us. It is about never shying away from an action which we know is right and true because the result might appear to impact us negatively.
We don’t need to worry about what happens to us. We are ready for heaven. So many are not!!