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By David Howell

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Preaching Matthew 16:21-28


It all seemed to be going so well. Jesus had been teaching, healing people, and performing miracles. Word about him had spread and crowds were following him. As many as 20,000 people gathered by the sea and were miraculously fed with five loaves and two fish! It must have been an incredible experience for the disciples to be part of something so amazing.  Just before this passage, in the text that was our focus last Sunday, Peter proclaimed to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” Jesus affirmed Peter for his confession and said on this will I build my church.
But the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ purpose. They got it right that he was the Messiah, the one Israel had long awaited, but what they did not understand was that Jesus came not to deliver them from Roman rule, but to accomplish a deliverance that was far greater.  
Today disciples still sometimes misunderstand the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. This passage challenges our preconceptions about what it means to follow Jesus. How do we as preachers help the congregation enter into this text?
We can’t really soften the shock of this passage, and we shouldn’t try. It was jarring for the disciples to go from grandeur and glory to suffering and sacrifice, and it should be for us, too. The gospel writer deliberately sets these two passages side by side, the confession and the cross. Our sermons should be honest about the difficulty inherent in this text. If we don’t feel saddened and shocked at the thought of the suffering and death of our Lord, if we don’t wonder and worry at the idea of taking up our own cross, there is something wrong. In fact, it may be easier for those in our congregations without a church background to feel the hard impact of this text. For those who grew up in the church, the passage is familiar enough that it is possible for us to become blasé about it.
We should create a sermon that is as unapologetically countercultural as the passage itself. Pain and suffering have never been welcome concepts, and that certainly is true in our world today. The media message that bombards us is that life is all about having fun, seeking pleasure, crossing off everything on our bucket list. Here in this passage, however, we find the great reversal that is at the heart of the gospel. It is in trying to save our lives that we lose them and in losing our lives that we find them.
That truth isn’t something we readily believe just by hearing it, but instead find to be true in experiencing it. Thus a sermon on this passage would be better served by storytelling than by doctrinal instruction. In a society where people are not being martyred for their faith, we should ask ourselves what it means to lay down one’s life for the sake of Christ and share stories of people who have done that.
Laying down our lives for others may be simple or great, something everyday or something once-in-a-lifetime. I think of those in my congregation who give up their Saturday mornings to volunteer with our grocery ministry. I think of others who spend countless hours visiting in nursing homes, when it would be so easy to say, “I’m tired. I’ve had a long day. I’m going straight home to relax.” I remember the stories of my grandmother, who grew up during the Depression; when a hungry stranger showed up at the door at dinnertime, it was understood that one of the family members would give up her place at the table. Those are simple ways of laying down one’s life, but no less powerful. A more dramatic example occurred at a former church, where a woman became a kidney donor for another church member. The decision was not prompted by an especially close friendship, but by a sense that the donor was being called to make this sacrifice for a sister in Christ.
We all can think of stories of those who live out Jesus’ call to discipleship. Sharing those stories is a way of allowing the congregation to experience the powerful truth that it is in giving our lives that we find them. Yes, there is a cost to discipleship, but there is also blessing and reward.
Jesus, who was God incarnate, laid aside his glory to live a life of humility, not exerting power, but extending grace, teaching that the greatest among us is the one who serves, and giving the supreme example of love when he laid down his life for us on the cross. It is not by accident that immediately following this passage is the story of the Transfiguration, when the disciples were given a glimpse of Jesus’ divine glory. Matthew is continuing the theme that runs throughout this gospel: that what seems small, meek and insignificant is really that which is greatest. The one who sacrifices is not weak, but is following in the footsteps of the Messiah, the Son of the living God. When a disciple lays down her life for Jesus’ sake, the kingdom of God comes.

Dawn M. Mayes


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See Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources. Tom's journal will detail each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached at Lafayette Street. Follow FestHomiletics on Twitter 

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