Who to believe?

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2020
Matthew 16:21-28

It all started in our backyard when I was a kid, whacking a little plastic ball around with a plastic club. Golf, that most maddening of games, had its claws in me. I grew up and went from plastic clubs to a junior set. Then from a junior set to my first real set of clubs. And when I graduated from seminary my family asked what I wanted as a gift. I didn’t want another bible, or another cross – I wanted a new set of golf clubs. 

After all this time with this silly game, you would think I would be better. But I’ll go out there and still, after thirty of this game, I’ll hook it, top it, duff it, skull it, and worst of all, shank it. Desperate to get better, in a Don Quixote search for consistency, I read golf magazines, I read golf books, I listen to golf podcasts, I’ve even read books about golf psychology. But worst of all, worst of all, I’ll look on YouTube. So, say I’ve developed a nasty hook – that’s when the ball pulls hard right to left. I’ll search on YouTube, “fix golf hook,” and thousands upon thousands of videos show up. And the crazy thing, the absolutely maddening thing, is that no two videos have the same remedy. There is no consensus. One video says to do one thing and the next video says to do the complete opposite thing. It’s all so terribly confusing and it usually means that I wind up playing even worse. There’s just too much conflicting information.

There’s just too much conflicting information. Not just about the silly things like golf, but about the big things in our world. It’s all so terribly confusing when we hear such diametrically opposing information. And in this world of curated social media content, in this world of news channels designed to please this section of the population or the other, in this world of so much conflicting information, how do we make sense of it all? How do we tell truth from fiction from exaggeration from misleading statements from outright falsehoods? Who do we trust and who can we trust? Like any hack golfer scouring YouTube for some tips, we all desperately want to know the truth but we’re overwhelmed by all the conflicting answers.

It’s maddening for us, and it must have been maddening for Peter. Just last Sunday Jesus tells Peter that Peter is the rock upon which Jesus will build his church (Matthew 16:8). And then today Jesus tells Peter that he is Satan. Just last Sunday Peter confesses the eternal truth – that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And then this week, Peter rebukes Jesus for all of Jesus’ talk about suffering and the cross. What in the world is going on? It’s like the next YouTube video pops up, you scroll to the next article on the internet, and everything that you just saw has been called into question. Who is Peter? What should we think about him? How do we deal with this conflicting information? 

We stand there confused with Peter. Peter is desperate to understand what it means to be the Messiah. He’s got that part right. Jesus is the Messiah. But what does it mean to be the Messiah? One answer is that a Messiah is here to conquer the Romans. To deliver the people of Israel from their pagan overlords by an armed uprising. Jesus offers another answer – that the Messiah is to die at the hands of those very pagan overlords on one of their crosses. Peter is confused with all this conflicting information. The YouTube videos offering all their different thoughts on who the Messiah is are just flying by. 

What to believe? Who to believe?

Well the answer, the answer to this question and to all the questions we have about all this conflict information is right there in the passage from today. And like the game of golf, the answer is simple, but it’s not easy. “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 will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26). The answer is the cross.

Simple, but not easy. Because the truth, the answer to all our questions, is found in self-sacrifice, in service to others, and in service to God. This, I think, is how we ought to test the many voices and their conflicting information. This is how we ought to know right from wrong. We must measure everything against the cross. Wherever you see self-sacrifice, service to others; wherever you see love, and charity, and compassion – you are seeing the work of the gospel. And wherever you see self-aggrandizement or selfishness, turn away. For those who try to save their lives will lose it. Those who seek to gain the world will forfeit their life. This is exactly why Jesus rebukes Peter. Because Peter thought that Jesus should go march into Jerusalem with an army and soldiers and swords to set himself up as the new king. But that was not the answer then, and it’s not the answer now. The cross of self-sacrifice is how we Christians are to sort out who or what to believe.

So when you hear all that conflicting information, when you feel the internal turmoil with what to believe about yourself, about the world, and about God, listen for those simple words from Jesus about the cross. The cross will be your guide. It is not an easy answer, but it’s the right answer.

Eventually, this is what Peter learns. Eventually, Peter also dies upon a cross. Even though he had been terribly confused at this point in the Gospel of Matthew, we can imagine that later on he gained a sense of clarity about God and about himself. That amidst all the conflicting information, he denied himself, took up his cross, and followed Jesus.

It’s what I still haven’t learned in all my years of playing golf. Instead of looking for a quick tip here or there, I should just go ahead and learn from a pro. I should take the time to hone the craft, to listen deeply to someone who knows what they’re talking about, to practice, practice, practice under the watchful eye of a teacher. Because the more YouTube videos I watch, the more conflicting information I hear, the more confused I become, and the worse I play.

In your journey of discipleship, in your quest to know the truth among so many competing voices, don’t look for the quick tip. Don’t settle for the convenient answers. You can’t live off sound bites. You can’t live off people who only tell you what you want them to say. It’s time to pick up the cross. Find yourself a spiritual director, a spiritual companion, a small group, others to help guide you to the truth. Find someone who will tell you the truth – find someone that will tell you with love and compassion that what you’re doing isn’t right; just as Jesus corrects Peter. With all these competing voices, with all this conflicting information there is only one thing to do – pick up the cross of self-sacrifice. I’m not saying that this part of your discipleship will be easy – no one ever said that the cross was going to be comfortable. At the end of your days, what will it profit you if you have gained the world but forfeit your life? For those who want to live by their own ways will lose their life, but those who give their life for Jesus will know the truth. 

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