[Matthew 16:21-28] From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. 28Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Glass Mostly Full
“Is the glass half empty or half full?” You know how it goes. If the glass is half empty, you are pessimistic – negative outlook. If the glass is half full, you are optimistic – seeing things in a positive light. Seeing the good in your situation sooner than the bad.
Of course, another option is “unrealistic”. Positive or negative, you may be seeing good or bad that isn’t even there. We often have a very limited view of any given situation in life, and much of what we think of it – good or bad – is actually just what we are imagining about it. Our imagination goes on and on, but imagination is not reality.
A true alternate option to blind optimism or cynical pessimism is faith. Faith in God’s promises.
Christian optimism is not a blind hope. It’s the natural result of believing who God is in Christ. The new man of faith born in you from your Baptism knows God your Father as one from whom we expect every good. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”[Romans 8:32]
And, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” [Matthew 7:11]. And, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8:28]
Our daily bread. Care for our body and our souls. The forgiveness of our trespasses. Every mercy. Every second chance. Every seventy-seventh chance. Out of His fatherly, divine goodness, without any merit or worthiness in us.
Pessimism about the life of the church – or that wild imagination that all is going wrong – and our tendency to have an inflated view of the things going wrong – instead of a confident trust and expectation that God is good to us sinners – comes from our old, unbelieving nature – the old man of the flesh in us – that doesn’t believe God has forgiven our sins and intends to do us good.
Another reason for a negative outlook on the life of the Church in the world is that we are too often setting our minds on the things of men instead of the things of God.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord Jesus tells Peter of the things of God when He speaks to Peter about His cross. “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Peter responds: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Why this outburst? “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
In regards to the Messiah’s role in this world – the role of the Christ, Jesus – Peter had expectations that did not align with God’s purpose. Peter expected the Christ to be a Lord of influence in the world, a Lord of power, a Lord that – in a this-life-centered way – would exercise the greatest dominion, over and above all others.
This is often our same expectation for the Church in the world. That the Church will dominate the culture. That the Church will wield great influence. That the Church will have a place of prominence on the world stage. And when this isn’t the case – or when these realities are in decline – the glass is half empty.
In our own situation, as the Church in this nation, there are two things to consider. The first is this: that the cup is not nearly as empty as we sometimes think it is. There are some serious and negative changes in our world – a rejection of things that truly are of God – and a decline in the Church’s prominence – this is true. Yet, our imagination tends to run wild.
In truth – even with the wrong turns our culture has taken – there has likely never been a time or a place where Christians have enjoyed as much unhindered freedom to speak the things of God – even in regard to all things moral, and especially in regard to the saving Gospel of salvation by faith alone in Christ – as you enjoy even today.
More than likely, most of you, could spend all the time you could find and take advantage of all the opportunities you could – within your vocations and neighborly relationships – and within the life of your church – to speak of the things of God without ever being imprisoned, stoned, starved, or killed. You have freedom that many of your brothers and sisters do not have.
In other words, though there are new wrongs in the world around us, and new difficulties, the Church’s cup in our part of the world is still mostly full. Our pessimism, our over-active focus on the negative, paralyzes us. Our belief that the world is stopping us stops us more than the world actually stops us. If the assumption that our neighbors won’t be receptive to the Word of God stops our mouths from ever speaking, then how will we know how many ears may have actually been open?
Christian optimism believes the promise of God that He is effectively calling sinners to repentance, that He is delivering the lost out of darkness, that Christ’s sheep do hear His voice and will be led home [John 10:3,14,27-28], that God’s Word does accomplish the purpose for which He is sending it [Isaiah 55:10-11]. Faith in God’s promises knows our cup is always full, even under the cross.
And that’s the second thing to keep in mind. Christ’s purpose in the world wasn’t glory. His purpose was not to be exalted on an earthly throne but to be lifted upon a bloody cross for the sins of the world. This won for the guilty a heavenly kingdom. New, eternal life.
Just as Christ’s purpose was the cross, not the throne, so also the Church’s role in this world is a heavenward role, not a role of worldly prominence and earthly influence. The church – the believers in Christ – is a flock of sheep following the voice of their Shepherd and also suffering the cross for His name and for the sake of their neighbor, so some of them can know Him too.
If the Church’s role is glory and a throne in the world, then we are right to be stressed out that her cup isn’t fully full. But if the Church’s purpose is that of the Cross of Christ, then her cup is more overflowing the emptier it gets from a worldly perspective.
That’s easy to say – but the cross is not easy to suffer. We haven’t suffered it much yet. We are still very much like Peter – “Far be it from us!” But that same Peter would later rejoice, in the book of Acts, that he was found worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. By the Holy Spirit’s power, which can subdue our worldly flesh, may we also become men and women of such love for Jesus and His heavenly purposes.
In other words, may God grant it – as only He can – that we would set our minds more and more on the things of God, and less and less on the things of man which are passing away. And may we live with holy optimism, knowing that in Christ our cup is overflowing [Psalm 23]. Amen.
Pastor Curtis Stephens was born in Flint, MI. He completed his M.Div. at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and has served congregations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Pastor Stephens began serving at Trinity in July of 2023.