Tomorrow is Labor Day. We will celebrate it, mostly, with a day off. There will be cookouts and horse shoe tournaments and it will be treated as the last day of summertime. That’s fine. We need holidays like that to mark the end of one season and the start of the next. We are humans, and the awareness of time is a big part of who we are. Just don’t forget, on the day off, that it is also a day to remember and honor the people whose work makes leisure possible.
How often we take such things for granted. We like to think that things come easy. We celebrate the talent and skill of a Yo-Yo Ma or a Serena Williams and forget how many hours they spent as children and still spend as adults learning and perfecting where to place their feet and how to move their arms. We read a good novel and never give a thought to how many pages were written and then erased, how many drafts were needed to get it right.
Peter wanted to look at the kingdom of God that way. Jesus told his disciples one day about the work and suffering that he would put into our salvation and Peter almost brushed it off.
“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’” [Matthew 16:21-22]
Jesus recognized the temptation in this, and he responded by calling Peter on it, and even using the tempter’s name
“he turned and said to Peter, ‘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.’” [Matthew 16:23]
There could be no shortcut to heaven that would go around the work and the pain of the cross, as appealing as it would sound.
Jesus had heard that idea earlier. Before he ever set out on his ministry, he had been in the desert where the devil had suggested all kinds of shortcuts and quick fixes and ways for Jesus to reach his goals if – and “if” was the catch – he took a different road. The culmination came when
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’” [Matthew 4:8-10]
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’” [Matthew 4:8-10]
Jesus tried to convey to his followers, who loved him and did not want to see him suffer, that there was no other way. To be faithful to God and God alone means that there will inevitably come the time of choice and of testing and of confrontation, and with it the suffering of a cross.
It’s a hard lesson to learn. In fact people do all that they can do not to learn it. In her memoirs about a particularly difficult time in her own spiritual life, when she was feeling that she had to set aside a lot that had made her life not easy (for she struggled to help her husband with his alcoholism and depression) but easier than it had become, Kathleen Norris writes,
"All of us, I suspect, have times when we're made to suffer simply for being who and what we are, and we become adept at inventing means of escape. ...the pain that grows out of one's identity, that grows out of the response to a call, can't be escaped or pushed aside. It must be gone through."
She had learned from what Jesus had told his disciples. He could not turn away from doing the work that would build the kingdom, and neither could they.
“Jesus told his disciples, ‘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]
Jesus and his followers fell into a pattern over time, where he would teach about what life in the kingdom is like, and they (meaning “we”) would try to modify it, and he would have to emphasize that he meant what he said in the first place. For instance, Jesus taught that we should be forgiving. That seems pretty straightforward but we all know that it is rarely so simple.
“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’” [Matthew 18:21]
or, as some ancient versions say, “seventy times seven.” Either way, it’s clear he means it. Luke has Jesus teaching his disciples,
“If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” [Luke 17:4]
I’ll admit that I hear that and the first thing I do is say to myself, “Aha! They have to repent! And if they’ve done wrong that often, how serious do I think it really is?” I look for the loophole. Yet how often do I ask forgiveness for the same sins, over and over and over? More than 490 times, I guarantee.
So much of what Jesus says seems backwards and upside down and inside out. How should his death be the source of our life? And if we have found life in him, why would we need to have anything to do with a cross of our own?
What would make sense would be to say that you have to work hard to become part of the kingdom of God, then when you’ve made it, you can enjoy the ride. What Jesus says is that the kingdom of God is right at hand, and that anyone is welcome and everyone is invited, but once you are part of it, then the hard work begins.
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” [Matthew 16:25]
It would be as if someone invited just anybody in off the street to a wedding reception and then looked at one of these haphazard guests and said, “What’s the matter with you, showing up at a wedding without even getting dressed up a little?” [Matthew 22:12]
Yet the lives of Jesus’ followers attest that the way he works sees them through to the end. Our common image of William Penn comes from the Benjamin West painting of his treaty with the Indians.
There stands an older, paunchy man in a floppy, brown coat, the negotiator calmly standing between the settlers anxious to take over the land and the natives anxious not to be tossed out. In fact, Penn could and did hold his own in argument and dispute and had been tossed into both Newgate Prison and the Tower of London earlier in his life. In the Tower, Penn was allowed to have paper and ink so that he could write a recantation of his views. He used it, instead, to write a pamphlet he entitled, “No Cross, No Crown”, in which he said,
“God often touches our best comforts, and calls for that which we most love, and are least willing to part with. Not that He always take it utterly away, but to prove the soul’s integrity, to caution us from excesses, and that we may remember God, the author of those blessings we possess, and live loose to them. I speak my experience: the way to keep our enjoyments is to resign them; and though that be hard, it is sweet to see them returned, as Isaac was to his father Abraham, with more love and blessing than before. O stupid world! O worldly Christians, not only strangers, but enemies to this excellent faith! and whilst so, the rewards of it you can never know.”
To be faithful in a faithless world means that sooner or later you will come into conflict with values and practices that just don’t fit with Jesus’ ways. When that happens, hold on tight. The ride will be rough, but the landing will be safe, and you will be home.
 Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1987) 38.
 William Penn, “No Cross, No Crown” 4.xiii. See http://www.gospeltruth.net/Penn/nocrossnocrownch4.htm .