Matthew 16:21-28

August 31, 2014   The 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Who are you following?

Roy W. Howard

If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take their cross and follow me.” The first thing that that needs to be said is that this is a difficult teaching of Jesus. We should not fool ourselves. It’s better to confess this at the beginning than to pretend ourwise and lose our way in the end. The honesty with which we hold our lives before God is the measure of our desire to be followers of Jesus and not merely religious spectators. The second thing that needs to be said is that it’s the end of our lives that Jesus is concerned about in this teaching. The end not as the last moment, but the end as in ‘the goal’ of our lives. When the old Westminster catechism asks, ‘what is the chief end of man’, it wants us to consider, “what is the primary purpose of human life?” The answer is worth remembering: “the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” What is our primary purpose in life and how will will arrange everything around that purpose? I think this “end” is what Jesus wants us to consider when he asks the rhetorical question, “what does it profit a man (or woman) to gain the whole world and lose his life?”

At point Jesus has come to the moment when he must be as clear as possible with is discipoles about the way of life that is before them. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called this clarity of Jesus the cost of discipleship and cautioned that it was not cheap.

Do you remember playing, follow the leader? Of course, you do! The rules are simple. The leader gets to go wherever she chooses and the followers either follow or quit the game. Followers don’t get to tell the leader where to go, that’s her choice alone. With my gang of friends, we’d march into the woods or down an unknown path, across a new neighborhood, through an alley; the leaders leads and the choice is always there. Every follower continually decides how far he will go with whoever is leader, especially when she goes in way that is scary. If you are following, it’s always a matter of trust and choice.

Christians are playing follow the leader. Only the game is life and it never actually ends, except in death, unless we walk away and refuse to play any longer. Jesus is continually saying follow me, and I will lead you in the way that leads to life. Along this way you will lose what this world tells you is most important, and in the end you will discover your real life, and that’s really important!

We play this game all our lives in one way or another, whether we acknowledge it or not. It’s a game of trust and choice. For the followers of Jesus the choice is always before us. How far will you follow him when the path leads along a way that you don’t yet know or understand? How much do you trust the one you are following? Peter couldn’t fathom that his leader would go the way of suffering. He resisted mightily. His trust was tested by the way of the cross that Jesus set before him.

In the childrens’ game, the leader realizes that if your followers don’t trust you the game will end quickly. They will walk away. The same is true in real life, only the game is never really over until our baptism is made complete in death. The real question becomes, who am I following? What path am I on? Do I have faith in the One whose way I am walking? It may seem irreverent to call this a game because games are fun and silly. But even though this game is not silly it will bring you to the deepest joy of all: discovering God’s purpose.

So we are back at the first confession: this is a difficult teaching. We find it strange to walk in the way of Christ. It leads away from self-preservation to the cross where your life is given away for the sake of others. This is not a path that we ordinarily follow. We follow a way that protects us; Jesus follows a way that leads to vulnerability. Yet he promises that as we develop the capacity to trust him, becoming vulnerable, we will actually find life abundant. Here we might summon our hearts to sing the old gospel song: trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, then to trust and obey.

We have come to the point where we meet the true meaning of the cross, when we might disparately want the game to be over. Can I get back to the normal life where I am in control; the one that I get to lead? Our way is to hold on to the things that we want, while Jesus, our leader, takes a way that increasingly means giving up what you want for the sake of what God wants for your life.

Discovering what God desires and orienting our life in that direction is the way of the cross. It will likely mean personal sacrifice, inconvenience and vulnerability.

Soren Kierkegaard once said that there are more admirers of Christ than followers of Jesus. You can admire Christ easily and still go on with church activities. You can come to worship and feel morally chastised, or pleasantly uplifted and go home satisfied, only to return to life as it always has been with nothing changed; still admiring Christ. The choice is whether we will seek to be disciples being changed by faith decisions, or be content to be an admirer of Christ.

For instance, in a recent New York Times essay on the triumph of sports over kids lives, James Emery White, the pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., who has spoken out widely on the dangers of sports eclipsing family life, is quoted saying to his congregation, “Let’s say this out loud, in front of the mirror, and see if we like it: ‘I will do spiritual things for my child’s sake until sports conflict, then sports win.’ ”[i] For White, and many parents, that uncomfortable choice is a cross moment.

If it all seems confusing and too demanding; you are in good company. The disciples thought the same thing, especially Peter. But Jesus didn’t intend it to be. I think he wanted his followers to know something rather simple. He was going to die so that others may live. This is the meaning of the cross.

It is a paradoxical way where losing means gaining, and dying means living. Becoming vulnerable means becoming courageous.

Following Jesus is a way of life that is shaped by letting go. It is to find life at its most purposeful when you are giving your life away. It is offering your cloak to the man who has none, walking the second mile when one seems enough, or turning the other cheek when it appears so much smarter to retaliate. This is where we get confused; it is by choosing to die to the things that we take as “common sense” that we find joy in this mortal life.

A good leader tells the truth. Jesus says to his followers watch out: you can gain the whole world and lose your soul. It’s a kind word of caution that we need to hear, because we are surrouned by messages that say otherwise. You can gain all sorts of stuff, power and prestige, and realize you are empty, still looking for what satifies the soul.

For the followers of Jesus the way leads to a cross. He tells us that honestly, but he also tells us as we learn to walk in his way we will find life abundant. We can not follow this way in our own strength and if you could you would only end up with the delusion of power and self-preservation, isolated from others.

There is a better way. It’s the way of the cross. It’s a game where the goal is God’s purpose for your life and living into that purpose.

It’s the way of faith, trusting not in your capacity to get it right or always do it well, but trusting in the One you are following.

It’s by following that we learn to follow. We learn to walk by walking. We become courageous by being vulnerable. We find life by letting go of life only to find God’s life given back to us. It’s a strange and wonderful way that Jesus sets before us.

We all follow someone. We all play the game.

In the end it comes down to this: who are you going to follow?

[i] Bruce Feiler, New York Times, August 15, 2014