THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP by Lynn Naeckel + 08/28/11 Proper 17, A Matthew 16:21-28
Last week Sam talked about the important issue of identity: who was Jesus? And who am I, especially who am I as a Christian? She ended her sermon urging you to go out into the world and change it.
Last Thursday we heard the last lecture in the First Light series. Marcus Borg tries to summarize what it means to be a Christian. He says that worrying about right belief is a distortion of Jesus’s teaching, because it leads us to argue about all manner of things instead of being disciples. Christianity is about following Jesus and that means loving God, changing ourselves to be more like Jesus, and changing the world in the direction of God’s dream for the world.
Today’s lesson may well dampen any enthusiasm you came away with last week, because it’s a clear reminder to us that the cost of discipleship can be very high. Choosing to follow the way of Jesus always means change, but it may require even more of you.
When Jesus tries to show his disciples what awaits him in Jerusalem, that the authorities will kill him, but that he will rise on the third day, they don’t even hear the last part. Peter, in rebuking Jesus, is just doing what we so often do, denying the reality of death. Jesus knows what happens to people who stand up and speak the truth to the power of empire and he’s trying to prepare his followers for what will happen. Peter and the others don’t want to hear it.
Jesus responds sharply to Peter’s rebuke. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” Peter is playing devil’s advocate without intending to by tempting Jesus NOT to go to Jerusalem, NOT to put himself in danger, not to defy the authorities so openly. And let’s face it. Jesus could have lived out his days preaching in Galilee, and he might have done a lot of good, but it’s not hard to figure out that his movement would not have lasted.
What gave the movement real momentum were the events of Easter through Pentecost. The empty tomb did not really convince anyone of anything. It was the appearances of Jesus to his followers post-Easter and the work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that sent them out into the world proclaiming the Gospel.
The heart of today’s Gospel comes in what Jesus says to his disciples after he has rebuked Peter. “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 does it mean to deny ourselves? I think it’s learning to deny our own selfish needs and self-interest in order to put other people’s needs first. If a man asks for your cloak, give him also your shirt. If your enemy reviles you, love your enemy in return. Do not seek vengeance. Turn the other cheek. And so on –you can fill in many more.
Then follows another paradox that turns the world around, as Jesus so often does: anyone who wants to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for his sake will find it. So – by trying to avoid the consequences of being a Christian, that is by trying to save my life, by trying to avoid death or change, or by trying to keep it comfortable, just as it is, I will in fact lose it. I think that means that I will fail to live up to my potential, fail to enter into partnership with God to move this world towards love, peace, justice and non-violence.
And what might it mean to “lose your life for Jesus’ sake?”
It might mean to die literally as Jesus and so many others have done – to be a martyr for the cause of God’s dream for the world, to be hung on a cross, eaten by lions, tortured on the rack or the wheel, burned at the stake, investigated by the FBI, crucified in the press,or thrown in jail, etc. Not many of us are called to this extreme of sacrifice.
At the personal level it may mean to die to your old life, to let loose of old ways and take up new ones. These would affect all areas of life, including politics, life style, personality, and religious practice. All of us are called to this path of personal transformation.
This may not sound so hard compared to physical death, but it is still very hard work. For one thing, any time you try to change your ways, you have to put up with backsliding and disappointment in yourself. This is not pleasant!
It means giving up old pleasures, often before the new ones are evident. You have to give up eating to loose weight for quite some time before you experience the pleasure of having a lighter body, wearing better clothes, or feeling good when you look in the mirror. It’s not easy to stick with the program!
When we change our lives, we often experience the displeasure of friends or family, who don’t want us to change. What must Peter’s wife have felt when he gave up fishing and went off to follow Jesus?
Reading the Gospels seriously has changed my political point of view, which has pretty much made me a traitor to my family, and at least in their view, to my class. We still see each other, but cannot talk about it, and I know that my move to the left, the liberal, and the progressive is both a puzzle and an affront to them. It’s an uncomfortable wedge in our relationships. And giving up old friendships, even while forging new ones, is a painful process. This is often the price we pay for growing up.
The earliest name for Christians was “followers of the way.” They understood that they were to follow the way of Jesus, meaning to follow his example, to follow his teachings, but also to follow him in the journey to Jerusalem and through death to resurrection. As Borg puts it, this journey to Jerusalem is a metaphor for the inner journey of transformation that is at the heart of the Christian life. That is, that we work to die to our old ways of selfish self-interest and rise into new life of service to others.
But we are also called to change the world, just as Jesus attempted to do. That means speaking truth to power, and in this country in this time, it means speaking against the power of empire, against greed, against fear, and against violence and injustice.
And finally, Borg suggested that we don’t get discouraged by the size of the problems. Instead, think of the whole world as a patch-work quilt. All we have to do is make our own patch better. We can give our time and energy to improving our piece of the planet in any number of ways. If we are blessed with more than we need we can give money or goods to help others work toward economic justice and peace. And we can all vote for candidates who most closely reflect our desire for a better neighborhood, where everyone has enough, and everyone understands and respects their connections to one another.
God won’t create this kind of world for us, and we can’t do it without God. But working together we can make our patch shine. To quote Sam, “Go forth into the world and change it!”