Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
There was an excellent miniseries on Netflix this past year called “The Queen’s Gambit.” It was the fictional story of a Cold-War era girl in Lexington Kentucky named Beth Harmon, and the miniseries followed her through her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. I hope you got a chance to see it, or that you’ll see it sometime in the future; it’s really very good. Beyond having a Kentucky connection, and it being a compelling story, it reminded me of learning to play chess back in the 1970s when I was young. I was fascinated by the game – I studied it, read books about it, subscribed to a chess magazine, hung out with some good chess players, and even participated in a rated tournament once, and it all taught me a lot. Mostly what it taught me was that I wasn’t very good at it. I think that was because an essential part of chess strategy is understanding the relative worth of the pieces, each of which represents a type of person, and being willing to risk and often to actually sacrifice them in the pursuit of an overall strategy to win the game. In fact, the name of the miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit,” is the name of a particular series of opening moves, a game-opening strategy where the player risks the loss of a particular piece, one of their low-value pawns, in order to achieve getting the game to proceed a certain direction.
And even though I knew it was just a game, I had difficulty with that kind of sacrificing pieces, people, whatever. That was partly because I had some difficulty with the idea of valuing people differently and exploiting and sacrificing them. But I don’t want to sound to altruistic or idealistic; mostly it was because of fear, the unknown risk to myself in the game: would the strategy of sacrificing certain pieces really work? Was it going to leave me in danger? Was it worth the risk to give up the security that having those pieces provided me?
In today’s gospel text, Peter exhibits a similar sort of fear. When Jesus tries to explain to his disciples that he, the messiah – the “Son of Man,” as he put it – would have to undergo rejection and suffering even death, Peter rebukes him: “Don’t talk like this, Jesus; it’s counterproductive. We’re trying to build a movement, we’re trying to put butts in pews. That kind of talk is going to hurt our brand. It’s going to keep people from joining with us, and will probably drive away some people who are here now.”
Peter is just following the very natural logic of the world here. He’s afraid of accepting the sacrificial way of discipleship that Jesus is laying out for them; he thinks it’s contrary to the ways and logic of the world, and in all fairness to Peter, in this respect, he’s right.
Of course, we all know that Jesus rebukes Peter, even calling him Satan. But then, he pulls back from that rebuke a bit, and he explains to the disciples that anyone who would follow him will need to “take up their cross” and follow him. And that by worrying about ourselves, about saving our own lives, we’ll end up losing them; and only when we surrender ourselves, when we live according to the ways of the Kin-dom of God, in loving service and compassion toward others – *that’s* where we really find, and save, our lives. That’s where we end up experiencing the true wonder, the blessing, the glory, of life, and living as a child in the Kin-dom of God.
It isn’t just wonder and glory that we find, either. When we set down our own concerns and fears – which breeds worry about opening ourselves to risk and vulnerability – when we lay that aside, that’s also when, and where we find our real security, our real power, our real strength, through Christ.
Now, to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t supposed to worry about our own security at all. When Jesus talks about not worrying about saving our own lives, he isn’t talking about being willing to tolerate abuse or oppression or injustice. Some have actually used this text to advise people in abusive relationships to stay in them; or counseling the poor to just accept their poverty and the unjust way they’re being treated as simply their ordained lot in life – that’s just “the cross they have to bear.” That is not what Jesus is saying here. He’s talking about giving of ourselves in a spirit of love, to one another. Loving others equally as we love ourselves. Having the courage, the faith, to set aside our fears and excessive self-interest, and to focus on the humanity, and to see the divine, the face of Christ, in others; and coming together in a spirit of love and community. That’s when we most experience the joy of life, and the love of God, and the security found by dwelling in that love.
In our heads, we know that’s true. We do, and I invite you to think about your own lives, and times when you’ve personally experienced times where you felt the love, the togetherness, and the security that came from setting aside your own self-interest, and you served others in a spirit of compassion and love and respect. I’ll bet you can think of multiple times when you experienced that.
We know this reality in our heads. It’s just hard to follow through on it as the norm in our lives. It’s hard because it does really require some sacrifice on our part. It’s hard for our hearts and our hands to make that quantum leap from following the logic of the world to the logic of the Kin-dom, no matter how much we know it in our heads. It’s hard, because so much of what we experience – in the news, in advertising, in social media, in personal interactions with other people, almost all of them are polarizing in some way, set up to emphasize binary opposition, telling us that whatever we have isn’t enough, and even what we have is at risk of being destroyed or taken away by “others” who we’re supposed to fear and hate and fight; and that we’ve got to worry about Us First. This weekend, as we mark the 20-year anniversary of 9/11, and we think about all that’s happened since then, and we look at the current social and political climate in this country, we’ve seen the horrors of living life through that lens.
But the reality is that it’s all a lie. A tempting one, one that offers a comforting sense of security, but still a lie, and fake security.
Worrying about ourselves in this way won’t bring the security, the peace, the satisfaction, that we’re seeking. The only thing that will make us more human, more accepted, more loved – and in the process, more secure – is connecting with others in a spirit of love and service in community.
That will require sacrifice. It will require giving up some of the chess pieces of our lives in order to achieve this greater, much greater, real good. It turns out that the Queen’s Gambit, sacrificing something small to get something far greater, is actually Christ’s Gambit, too. That’s the cross Jesus wants us to bear, and in the end, it’s actually a pretty light one, since when we do make that sacrifice, we end up receiving so much more in return. In the Kin-dom of God, and really here on earth, too, it’s true that the more we give, the more we get; the more we love, and more we’re loved. That’s what Christ has promised us, that’s what his life illustrates, and that’s what his resurrection validates. As far as we’re concerned, we should consider that check and checkmate.
Thanks be to God.