Matthew 16: 21-28
August 28, 2011
“Followers must Follow”
The other day as I was clicking around online, I came across a blog written by a fellow Mennonite pastor. I liked what she had to say in her most recent entry, so clicked on the little button near the top of my screen that said “Follow this Blog.”
I follow several blogs. And, I will admit it, a few Twitter accounts. Every once in awhile a news story comes along that I want to follow. Some of you follow specific TV shows, like Dancing with the Stars. (I won’t name names here.) Some of you follow sports teams, or the stock market.
It strikes me that we use the verb “follow” in a pretty passive way these days. Maybe once or twice a week I’ll scroll through the blogs I’m “following” and read the few entries that catch my eye. Following TV shows and sports teams primarily means sitting and watching something. Following the stock market means checking the financial pages of the newspaper and trying not to panic.
Maybe the passiveness of “following” in our culture is what allows us to read about and talk about “following Jesus” without batting an eye. Without making sure we have good sturdy walking shoes and an updated will. We just click the little “Follow Jesus” button at the top of the screen and plan to check in with Jesus once a week or so–probably on Sunday mornings.
If we think about it, though, we know that following Jesus is nothing like following a blog or a team. Before we are even allowed to sign on as followers, we are called to deny ourselves and take up our cross. The “deny myself” button, the “take up my cross” button–these I do not click so readily.
Peter thought he was ready to follow Jesus. He is probably feeling like the teacher’s pet after he accurately proclaimed the identity of Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus had praised him–“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This whole following Jesus thing was working out pretty well for Peter.
Except that, as soon as Peter had been commended as the rock of the church, Jesus started talking crazy. He would go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed. Peter signed on to follow a glorious Messiah, not a suffering servant. “God forbid it!” shouts Peter. “This must never happen!”
For prelude this morning, Bridget sang “If God was one of us.” What if? I imagine Peter thought that God, as one of us, would rule in glory–not suffer persecution and death. Peter did not want to consider that Jesus, as the son of the living God, might actually, really, be one of us. A slob–which may strike some people as offensive, but really how is one supposed to keep one’s toga pressed when you’re traveling along dusty roads all day and sleeping outside most nights? A stranger. A human being who might suffer persecution and even death.
Suffering and death do not fit into Peter’s idea of Messiah. And they don’t fit into Peter’s plan of what it means to follow Jesus. “God forbid it! This must never happen!”
And having recently commended Peter as the rock of the church, Jesus now says to him, “Get behind me, Satan.” People often get caught up in the fact that Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” Which does give the story a dramatic flair. Yet satan means “stumbling block.” I’m sure it was difficult enough for Jesus to accept his fate–Peter’s refusal to accept it could have been a stumbling block for Jesus.
I’m less interested in the fact that Jesus calls Peter “satan,” and more interested in the fact that Jesus tells Peter to get behind him.
You all may have noticed that my son has a lot of energy. Energy that frequently causes him to walk faster than the rest of the family; to end up in front whenever we are out and about. Often, this is not a problem. But once in awhile, the rest of us will stop to do something or will take a turn, and James will still be happily going along in front of us all, getting farther and farther away from where he is supposed to be.
“Get behind me.” That’s what Jesus tells Peter. If you are going to follow Jesus, you have to let him lead–which means he is in front and you are behind.
Then Jesus turns from addressing Peter to addressing the whole group of his disciples. And I know if I had been one of them, Jesus’ words would have stung: “If any want to become my followers . . . ”
Want to become? Want to become? What the heck does Jesus think they’ve been doing for the past months? They’ve left their jobs. They’ve left their families. They’ve worn through the bottom of their best sandals. Step by step by step down the dusty roads with Jesus. They all consider themselves Jesus’ followers.
But he says, “If any want to become my followers . . . ”
“Deny yourself,” says Jesus. It’s not about where you want to go; it’s not about what you get out of the experience–popular self-help theology aside.
“Take up your cross,” says Jesus. Deal with the pain. Deal with the persecution. For reasons beyond our understanding and despite Peter’s impassioned proclamation, God does not, in fact, forbid suffering. Hard things do happen.
“Follow me,” says Jesus. Not once a week. Not if I seem to be headed in the same direction you’re going anyway. Stay behind me and follow. Step by step. Every day.
Hard words for those who have already given up so much to be with Jesus. Hard words for us in our hesitations to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses.
Now because of how Jesus’ teaching here has been twisted by some, I feel the need to interject here–most of you don’t need to hear this little caveat, but a few of you do. Denying yourself does not mean considering yourself worthless; it does not mean letting other people abuse you. Taking up your cross does not mean that you are supposed to feel bad or that it is OK for other people to inflict pain on you. If you are abusing yourself or being abused by someone else, please hear me–God does not want you to be in that situation.
Jesus is not asking any more of his followers than he asks of himself. He is not standing off to the side cheering on their self-denial and suffering. He is leading the way.
Self-denial is what flows from a true and deep love of other people. Because we want the best for everyone, we are willing to live with a little less for ourselves.
The cross–persecution and suffering–is not something to be sought. But often it is a consequence of following Jesus in a world that so often operates in ways that are counter to the teachings of Christ. Sometimes, too, the suffering comes along with the love Christ calls us to.
Here’s what I’ve realized about myself when it comes to taking up my crosses–I don’t like to do it. I want to be a follower of Jesus. And I’m sometimes even willing to take definitive, dare I say self-denying–steps along the path of Christ. But when the crosses show up, I don’t want to deal with them.
I will follow Christ’s call to be a pastor, but do I really have to deal with theological controversy or talk about land easements, or re-schedule that meeting again? I will follow Christ’s call to be a mother, but if I could just sleep through the night, watch a grown-up movie, have a few moments of quiet. I will take a stand for my beliefs about including sexual minorities in the church, but how long will I have to listen and be gracious . . . and be patient?
Sometimes I take steps in the right direction, but I sure do love to complain about the crosses; to feel sorry for myself.
It is true that there are often consequences to following the path of Christ. And it is true that some of those consequences seem difficult to bear.
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow.
We tend to hear these words in a minor key. We see them in shadows; dark colors and jagged edges–the dark side of following Jesus.
We don’t like it, but we listen. We don’t want to be like Peter–denying the reality of Jesus’ humanity and suffering.
Here’s what I wonder about Peter, though. Did he listen to everything Jesus’ said? Peter surely heard Jesus say that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed. Peter heard this and he said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!”
Peter’s response makes me wonder if he also heard Jesus say: “On the third day, be raised.” If Peter had heard that part, why would he have said, “God forbid it!”?
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow.
If we listen to everything Jesus says. If we soak in the whole story. Maybe we can see glimmers of the resurrection promise that shimmers behind Jesus’ words.
In 1961, a group of students in Nashville, TN, decided to participate in a Freedom Ride–a racially integrated ride into places of deep segregation and racial violence. These students knew that previous freedom riders had faced bombing and beatings. And so each young person, the night before they left for the ride, signed their last will and testament.
They were willing to deny themselves and take up their crosses in order to follow the way of Jesus.
Bull Connor–a driving, violent force for racial segregation in the city of Birmingham Alabama and beyond–was heard complaining about these students. Regarding these students who were risking their very lives for the cause of justice, Bull Connor was heard to say, “I just couldn’t stand their singing.”
Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow. And sing!