Ashes, Peyton Manning, Taking Up The Cross, and a Restroom in Venice

Several years ago, before our oldest child was born, my wife, Amanda, and I went on a “let’s use up all of our savings account to go on a trip because we’ll never get to travel again after we have kids” trip. We spent ten days in Italy, traveled on a train through Switzerland, and ended up in Paris. Sometimes when the kids are melting down about their supper or their blankies or any number of other things in unintelligible sounds, I think back to that trip and try to imagine that they’re Parisian street vendors calling out about their wares. Sometimes it works.

On about the 7th day of our trip, we were walking through Venice when suddenly I was hit with the realization that I needed to find a restroom. Quickly. Public restrooms are not always easy to come by in Europe. So, after walking for an hour looking for somewhere, ANYWHERE, we found one. It’s not uncommon in European cities to find restrooms where you have to pay a toll and walk in through an amusement park-like turnstile in order to use the facilities. Apparently going to the bathroom in Italy is a privilege, not a right.

So, I walked in to an open room that opened up before me with two rows of doors, one to my left and one to my right, with a row of sinks between the rows of doors on the back wall. The doors on the left side all had a sign for “women” on them, and the doors on the right side were all blank. I chose one of the doors on the right, spent a few minutes in the stall, and when I came out to wash my hands, Amanda was waving me down furiously to walk toward her. I motioned that I needed to wash my hands. She motioned in an even more furious and slightly panicked way for me to come to her. Now. Apparently, while I was in the stall, and during a time that the restroom suddenly filled up with women waiting in line, she had noticed a staircase off to the right and a sign that said, “Men’s Restroom Upstairs.”

There were two stories happening at the same time. I was only concerned with my own, small part of the story and I was completely oblivious to the bigger story that was happening around me, the one that Amanda was able to see, because I was so focused in on my own part of the story. I couldn’t see the bigger story that was right before my eyes.

In the life of every follower of Jesus, there are two competing narratives. Two potential plot lines that our lives follow. In one of those narratives, you are the main character. You are the star. In the story of you, everything revolves around you. Your life, your story, your desires, your needs. It’s a story where all the fame and all the glory is yours. It’s a story of achievement. It’s a story of making a name for yourself. It’s a story of wanting to be remembered for generations to come.

I could think of no better example of this kind of story playing out before our eyes than what happened with Peyton Manning at the Super Bowl this year. I feel like almost everybody wants to go out like Peyton Manning in some way. Winning the Super Bowl. Holding the Lombardi Trophy. Confetti. Standing at the 50 yard line, surrounded by the press and adoring fans and other players telling you how great you are.

The problem with the story of ourselves, although it seems at first glance to be amazing, is that it often keeps us from seeing the story of God that’s unfolding all around us. You see, there’s another story that’s been going on since long before we were born and it will continue on long after we die. And in that story, God is the main character. The more we hone in on our own story, the one where we’re the star, the more we miss this grand narrative of the creator of the universe.

This isn’t at all to belittle the importance of your story. Your story is incredibly significant. However, and this is maybe counterintuitive, but the more we focus our lives on our own story, the less significant our lives and our stories become.

And so as people who want to be followers of Jesus, we find ourselves at this decision point over and over and over again as we have to repeatedly make the choice about which of these stories we want our lives to ultimately be part of, which of these stories we want our lives to tell.

There’s a story in the Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus and the disciples have an important conversation in a region called “Caesarea Philippi.” This isn’t just a throwaway line.

In about 20 BC, Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, gave a settlement known as Panias, about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee, to King Herod the Great. In gratitude for the gift, Herod built a temple to Augustus here. When Herod’s son Philip became ruler of the area after Herod’s death, he expanded Panias into the capital city of the region and renamed it Caesarea. Actually, because Philip was a modest guy, to differentiate it from the Caesarea that already existed on the Mediterranean coast, he renamed it Caesarea Philippi.

The reason Herod built a temple to Caesar Augustus and the reason Philip expanded the city as a tribute to Augustus was that Augustus had given himself a title that the Roman Senate affirmed in 27 BC: Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, which translates Emperor Caesar, Son of God, Augustus. Augustus was worshiped throughout the Roman Empire as the Son of God.

And so Jesus and the disciples come to Caesarea Philippi, one of the hubs of Caesar worship in the region, and he asks them this question, “Who do people say that I am?” They replied to him, “Well, some people say you’re John the Baptist come back to life, some people say you’re the prophet Elijah, and some say you’re Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.”

And then Jesus asks them this: “But what about you. Who do you say that I am?”

This is one of the most important questions that every follower must answer, every follower must come to grips with this question for themselves. Who do you say that Jesus is? Every one of us has to answer this crucial and critical question for ourselves.

And in this moment, in the shadow of Caesar’s temple, Peter gets it right when he says to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus responds to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood but by my father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”

When you’re the Son of God in the first century culture, it has some implications. If Caesar Augustus is the example of what it means to be the Son of God, then that’s great news for Peter and for the disciples. It means there are palaces in their future. Temples where people will stand and worship them. All the chariots they can imagine. Vacation homes at the beach. This is great news for Peter and the disciples, right? Well…maybe…

The story goes to say, “From that time on, 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.'”

Peter, who just a few minutes ago had been lifted up as the rock, thinks Jesus has lost his mind, takes him aside, and begins to rebuke him. “You just told us you’re the Son of God, Jesus. Why are you talking about suffering and dying? Have you lost your mind?”

But Jesus is talking about a different kind of kingdom. Jesus is a different kind of king.

Jesus responds to Peter with his sharpest rebuke yet and says, “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. Those words have been in my head on repeat this week: “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” I wonder how often that can be said of me.

In other words, Jesus says, “You’re focusing on the wrong story, Peter.” Just a few verses earlier, Jesus called Peter, “the rock on which I’ll build my church,” and here he calls him a stumbling block for the purposes of God.

Jesus goes on to clarify for Peter and the disciples where they’re headed together. 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. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?”

Interestingly, the Greek phrase translated “Get behind me,” is the exact same phrase translated as “follow me” when Jesus very first calls the disciples to become his followers. When Jesus says, “Get behind me,” this is an echo of the original call. “Behind me” is not a mere location, but the posture of a disciple. This is a reminder that this is a life-sized game of follow the leader. Jesus is going to the cross, the disciple is to follow.

This is kind of where the rubber meets the road for disciples and I think the question at the core is this: who’s following whom? Are we following Jesus, or are we trying to get Jesus to follow us? Are we willing to follow Jesus even when we don’t understand and even when we don’t agree? Are we willing to follow Jesus to the cross, are we willing to lay down our own lives for his sake, are we willing to sacrifice our own story so that we can be part of his story, or are we only willing to follow the version of Jesus that fits best with who we are or who we want to be?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about a couple of things, and I’m becoming more and more convinced of a couple of things about my life.

The first is my own mortality, my own limitations. I feel like I’m becoming more and more aware that I don’t have an endless amount of time that I’m going to live on the earth. And I’m becoming more and more aware of the fact that no matter what I accomplish in life, I am just a blip on the radar screen of the universe. Let me put this theory to the test for a minute. Can you list the names of all of your Great Grandparents? Great-great grandparents? Think about that. In 3-4 generations there will be people who wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for you, and most of them will not even know your name. That’s a sobering thought.

The second thing of which I’m becoming more and more convinced is that if I’m going to go eventually, I want to go down swinging. If my life is short, then I want it to mean something. I want it to make a difference. I want it to make an impact. And I’m more and more convinced that the only way for my life to make a lasting impact is if I put it all on the line for the Kingdom of God.

Even more than that, I want to be part of a church, a community of people who put it all on the line to follow Jesus together. I don’t want it to be said of me when I die, “Oh, he was Christian-ish,” but that I was willing to risk, willing to dream big, God-sized dreams and committed to living them out for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. And I want to spend my life as part of a community of people who are willing to do the same. That’s what we’re trying to build at The Village, and I hope it’s what you’re trying to build in whatever community you find yourself.

In the church, for hundreds and hundreds of years, we’ve recognized something that’s become known as Ash Wednesday, a day where Christians are asked to stop and think about their own mortality and what that means in the light of their faith.

I came across a quote this week from a pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber, and I love the imagery she uses to understand Ash Wednesday.

“The promises of baptisms and funerals, the promises of birth and death, are inextricably wrapped up together. For we come from God and to God we shall go. There is so much that gets in the way of that simple truth. And it is times like funerals and births when all the other BS just doesn’t matter anymore. Here’s my image of Ash Wednesday: If our lives were a long piece of fabric with our baptism on one end and our funeral on another, and we don’t know the distance between the two, then Ash Wednesday is a time when that fabric is pinched in the middle and the ends are held up so that our baptism in the past and our funeral in the future meet. The water and words from our baptism plus the earth and words from our funerals have come from the past and future to meet us in the present. And in that meeting we are reminded of the promises of God: That we are God’s, that there is no sin, no darkness, and yes, no grave that God will not come to find us in and love us back to life. That where two or more are gathered, Christ is with us. These promises outlast our earthly bodies and the limits of time.”

What I think is significant is that at the core of Ash Wednesday is this reminder – “from dust you came and to dust you will return.” That phrase, at the heart of an Ash Wednesday service, is a reminder of our own mortality, our own limitations. Traditionally, someone smudges ashes in the form of a cross on your forehead as they say these words, as a sign of your willingness to follow Jesus, to lay down your own life, to lay down your own story, in order to participate in the story of God.

There’s nothing particularly magical about the “Wednesday” part, and in fact, we had an “Ash Sunday” service this year. What is significant is wrestling with your own limitations and mortality in the light of eternity. And so wherever you are today, think about this: if you gave yourself fully to God’s story for the rest of your life, rather than honing in solely on your own story, what would people say about you at the end? If you gave away the pursuit of your own glory and lived instead a life filled with the love, grace, justice, forgiveness, compassion, mercy, peace, and joy of God, what would be said of you? What would your family say? What would your friends say? Neighbors, co-workers, random strangers?

The truth is, the story of greatness that we create for ourselves is really an illusion. It’s kind of morbid, but they say that from the moment you’re born, you start dying. Every day on this earth is one day closer to your last day. Every breath is one breath closer to your last breath. Every heartbeat is one heartbeat closer to your last heartbeat.

But there’s another story. There’s a cosmic love story that’s happening all around us and often we don’t even know that this story is going on, but we actually find ourselves right in the middle of it. It’s fitting in this season of Valentine’s Day that in this cosmic love story we begin to see what true love really looks like. True love is the story of the God of the universe giving up everything for us. It’s a story that requires commitment and sacrifice. It’s a counterintuitive love story. But what we find at the end is life that we never could’ve found on our own. And what we find at the end is a love that never ends. When we get to the end, this love keeps going.

I have some great stories to tell, but this is the story I hope I tell with my life. This is the only story that matters in the end.

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