Restless hearts

Pentecost 11 2011

Matthew 16:21-28

Marian Free

 In the name of God who calls us into being, and into being in him. Amen.

For those of us who grew up with the 1662 prayer book, the words of the Collects that were repeated on the same Sunday year after year both formed the pattern of our lives and formed our spirituality. I know that many of us developed the habit of making our Christmas cakes and puddings on the feast of Christ the King. On that day the collect included the words “stir up your hearts”  – words that became so familiar that the Sunday became known to the cake-makers of the English world as “stir up Sunday”. The collects also formed us spiritually because the language that we heard each year was rich and beautiful and tapped into the deep places of our hearts.

These collects have not been discarded entirely but continue to form part of the menu of our daily worship. The collects used during the week for Morning and Evening Prayer and for the daily Eucharist come from the Book of Common Prayer. They not only bring back memories of the time in which the faith of many of us was formed, but they also reveal profound truths that inform and shape the way we understand our faith.

Take for example, the collect that is now set for the second week of Lent: “Remember, O Lord, what you have wrought in us and not what we deserve, and, as you have called us to your service, make us worthy of our calling; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Or one of my favourites which was the Collect set for last week: “Creator God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you: teach us to offer ourselves to your service, that here we may have peace and in the world to come may see you face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The words, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you” express the deepest longing of the soul that cannot be content so long as it is separated from the one who created it. It recognises the truth that we do not really belong in this world, but in the world to come.

Today there are many people who experience a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world and with their place in it.  Failing to understand the true reason for their restlessness, they seek to fill the void in their lives with the pursuit of prestige, of wealth and even of relationships instead of exploring the reason for their distress. They live life on the surface, seeking contentment in superficial, material, transient things. These people measure their lives by what they achieve, by what they accomplish, by what they own or by how many friends they have. [It is impossible for these people to conceive that there is any value in failing to achieve, in not reaching the standard they have set for themselves. ]

Suffering and failure have no place in a life focused on getting ahead – or even in a life concerned with maintaining the status quo. Every ounce of energy is focused on reaching out for more or, at the very least, holding on to what one According to this world view, growth can only be measured in physical, material terms. There is no comprehension of the sort of inner growth that comes as a result of learning from one’s mistakes or from overcoming adversities. There is no recognition of the deeper, spiritual values that are honed in the fires of experience and won through taking risks and facing difficulties head on.

This is Peter’s problem in today’s gospel. He has thrown in his lot with Jesus and while it is true that he has given up a great many things to do so, it also appears that he has no real understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus or what Jesus’ real purpose is. In his eyes, as indeed in the eyes of many, Jesus’ death at the hands of the scribes and Pharisees would signify the failure of Jesus’ mission. Everything that he, Peter, had expected and hoped for would come to an undignified end. “This must never happen to you,” he says.

Jesus’ response to Peter’s cry is the most stinging rebuke in the New Testament: “Get behind me Satan!”  Peter is firmly identified with the world and its values. He has demonstrated that despite his recognition of Jesus, he is still measuring achievement and failure by earthly standards. His focus on worldly success has blinded him to a different way of evaluating growth and accomplishment. It is impossible for Peter to understand how Jesus’ death can, in any way, be viewed from a positive point of view – to him it is utter foolishness.

It is in this context that Jesus says: “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.” In order to find true contentment, to ease the sense of dissatisfaction and to quell the restlessness of our souls, we have to learn to measure our achievements according to different values. We have to let go of those things that give up value in the eyes of the world, to give up our striving for worldly success and material possessions and place ourselves completely in the hand of God- to let God determine our future.

Peter wants to remain in control, to determine Jesus’ – and therefore his own -fate. If everything stays the same, he can feel safe and secure – he can ignore the restlessness at his core and continue to believe that he is achieving what he is meant to achieve. Jesus demonstrates in both word and action, that it is only by letting go of everything that this world holds dear, that one truly lives, and that success and failure are measured differently in the kingdom.

Taking up our cross, seems an unlikely way to achieve life’s goals. In fact it turns upside down everything we know and believe about success. However, Jesus knows that without the cross, there is no resurrection, that unless one is willing to give up everything, one will achieve nothing. For this reason, Jesus is urging us to have the courage to surrender our ego and acknowledge the Creator’s greater wisdom, to risk everything in the belief that the one who made us knows us better than we can ever know ourselves, and to recognise that it is only by placing ourselves completely in God’s hands that the deepest longings of our souls will be met and the restlessness that drives our existence will find itself at peace.

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