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Self-Denial (Matt 16:21-28)

September 16, 2014

If you ever go to a bookstore you may be able to find a section called “Self-Help,” but not “Self-Denial.” Our economy and the marketing images around us are based upon self-interest. So the idea of self-denial seems like a counter culture in American life. What does self-denial mean? Self-denial is not about self-hatred or self-harm, but it is about learning what is important in our lives and to put God at the center of our lives, even when that costs us (see “Self-Denial During the Lenten Season,” Rev. Tom Pumphrey, rector at The Episcopal Church of St. Peter & St. Paul in East Cobb). Self-denial is not a theme in Lenten season, but it is part of the Christians life. I believe that self-denial is the central concept in which we define what it means to be a Christian and one of the mystical ways to become Jesus’ disciple. But we often forget the significance of self-denial, and we are once again reminded of the meaning of self-denial from today’s gospel passage.

When Jesus says that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, be killed, and be raised,” Peter rebukes Jesus, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matt 16:21-22). In early Christian and rabbinic tradition, the Messiah refers to a royal figure who will bring victory over evil in the last days. So Peter’s confidence in this response depends on this concept of the Messiah (Don Hagner, Matthew 14-28, WBC). The problem is that his confidence comes out of his self-interest. Jesus rebukes Peter’s rebuke, saying,

Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (Matt 16:23).

Rebuke is a very strong word that was used to drive out demons. Jesus speaks to Peter addressing him as “Satan.” It doesn’t mean that Peter’s response was inspired by Satan, but Peter’s response itself expresses the temptation of Satan. Now Peter, “the rock” (Matt 16:17) becomes in effect a “rock of stumbling” (Matt 16:23) by addressing self-interest as we hear that Peter set his mind on human things.

Peter’s response reminds us of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Jesus was tempted by the devil three times, and each time Jesus denied his interests setting his mind on divine things. Jesus temptation neither shows Jesus’ triumphant self-assertion, nor it demonstrates his exercise of power and authority, but it highlights the “paradoxical divine way of love” which is self-denial (Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC, p. 70).

Jesus invites Peter, saying “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24, CEB). So to deny yourself means to say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God. Jesus himself shows us his obedience to the divine will when he was praying in the garden, “Not my will but yours be done.” Millions of Christians in the world have prayed for centuries when they repeat what we call the Lord’s Prayer, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10). In Jesus’ time, the cross was a symbol of pain, shame, and death, but Jesus changed this concept of cross by showing God’s love on the cross. You have probably heard people say “we all have our own cross to bear.” I have friends going through some heartbreaking life situations. We live with difficulty of marriage and family. The concept of bearing one’s cross seems to be a way of describing any form of suffering. But that is not what Jesus is referring. Jesus invites us to bear the love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus invites us to become witnesses to God’s love on the cross as the cross represents God’s will. So when you bear or pick up the cross, it means you testify God’s love and mercy and take this wonderful message into your life.

When was the first time in your life that you decided to deny yourself and taking up your cross? It may be when you were baptized, or it may be when you experience Jesus’ love, or it may be when you changed your life. Whatever it is, I will call it as a turning point. But self-denial and taking up the cross is not just one time event, but an ongoing happening in your life journey since you are called to become Jesus’ disciple.

Do you remember what you vowed to God when you were baptized? You made vows to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, repent of your sin, and resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Each time in your life focus on God’s will! The path of discipleship is the path of joy, not a path of suffering. Here is the good news that Jesus will “repay everyone for what has been done” (Matt 16:27). Jesus will repay for self-denial and taking up the cross. Do you remember who else said that? The Good Samaritan, “When I come back, I will replay you whatever more you spend” (Luke 10:35). Jesus promised us that if we deny ourselves and take up our cross, your sacrifice will return to you. God gives you back, much more that you could sacrifice. God will continue to overflow his blessings upon you. Amen.

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