“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” You know, when we read these words for perhaps the first time, it doesn’t sound all that attractive. I mean, deny ourselves? Take up our cross? I don’t know if I would want to not have the stuff I want. I don’t know if I want to pick up a cross, the ancient symbol of shame and death. I don’t even know if I want to admit that I even have a cross, because then it would mean that I am on the road to a shameful and humiliating defeat. Really, that is just a bit too much.
Even just the following part is hard. Sure, Jesus’ promises sound pretty good, freedom from oppression, triumph over our enemies, everlasting peace. All that sounds pretty cool and maybe something we could buy into, but then Jesus goes and says he’s going to suffer and die. Basically, he’s saying he’s going to lose the battle. Who would want to follow someone who loses? Would anyone want to follow someone who admits they can’t win? How could anyone put their faith in someone who promises defeat?
As it was in Peter’s time as well as ours, pretty much no one. Pretty much no one wants to lose, or looks forward to failure, or would even want to follow someone who doesn’t somehow command leadership. People want to follow someone who has a proven track record of good leadership decisions, or someone who is highly successful in their field, or just someone who can really kick butt.
This reminds me of a scene from Marvel’s 2012 smash hit movie “The Avengers” where they are just introducing the idea of this superhero team to the world, just in time to protect the world from a full-scale alien invasion:
Why wouldn’t that cop follow Captain America’s orders? Cap clearly knows what he is talking about with the way he defeated his enemies with such style and finesse and overall rugged heroism. The thing is, when the chips are down, when we are at the ends of our ropes, when the going gets tough, the world tells us that we better follow the toughest mother bucket out there if we want to make it out on top. And we listen. I mean, “we” as in North American folk in general, not “we” as the people sitting in this room because honestly I’m no tough mother bucket. But we listen to that mentality. We look to the strongest, the most successful, the ones who promise us the most gain. So we follow people like Captain America who can beat Chitauri invaders up. We elect people like Donald Trump who promises to make America great again. We fill up the chairs of churches like Joel Osteen’s because he tells us that our faith can make us rich like him.
See, this mentality of following the powerful, the strong, and the rich winner is what Peter fell into. It is what any of us would fall into, perhaps, wanting to follow that alluring scent of victory or that sweet siren song of the Pied Piper. Maybe we wouldn’t attend Joel Osteen’s church or vote for Donald Trump or even follow Captain America’s orders (because you know, he is a fictional character), but maybe we might look into a new coach when we haven’t been winning enough games, or we might look for a new job when our bosses seem like they don’t know what they’re talking about anymore, or we might voice our concern if Jesus tells us directly that he is going to die at the hand of our enemies.
“God forbid it, Lord!”
In a world that tells us that winning is everything and only the powerful win, in a world that shows us that the best way to show your power is through the threat of violence, in a world that tells us only the strong survive, we too, wouldn’t want to see our leaders fail. We too, wouldn’t want to put our faith in what isn’t real. We too, wouldn’t want to follow someone who not only won’t, but admits that they cannot lead us to victory.
But I guess what Jesus is doing here and maybe Peter’s lesson is to redefine what “victory” is. So far Peter has been defining is as we all do, as the world does, as winning, defeating the enemy, coming out on top as the strongest, the most powerful, and the best. But here Jesus tells Peter that his victory will be in suffering, defeat, and death. The two just don’t seem to line up.
And we know Jesus’ response to Peter when he doesn’t get it. “Get behind me, Satan! …for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Can you really blame Peter for having his mind on human things, though? He is human, after all. He was born and raised in the world and he learned what the world taught. He was surrounded by how the world works and inundated with how the world thinks. Can you blame him for having his mind on human things? What else would he know? How else could he think? What does Jesus expect of him?
Well, I guess to just set his mind on divine things. To have his mind transformed by the gospel. To open his mind to this new way of thinking, living, and loving. But it is easier said than done. We can talk about it all day, and we still might not be able to get it. We can train ourselves, discipline ourselves, and even force ourselves to follow and have faith and pick up our crosses, but we still might miss the mark. We can learn and pray and even spend ordinate amounts of time with Jesus, but we might still be adverse to the ways that Jesus talks about.
I guess I’m not selling it too well either, am I?
Because now it sounds like I’m telling you that we can do everything we can to be right, but we still might be wrong. We can follow Jesus all we want, but we can still fail. We can set our minds on divine things but still end up having them set on human thing and be called Satan, the adversary, the one who goes against what is good and pure and true. No, it doesn’t sound like a good sell at all.
But that is ok, because this isn’t about a good sell. It isn’t about convincing you that this is a good path to take. It isn’t even about us learning how to pick up our crosses to follow the one that makes the most sense and gives the most promises that we can dig or makes the most claims to power and strength that we can get behind.
No, because this is about grace. This is about mercy. This is about the love of God that surpasses all understanding and grants us forgiveness, welcome, and peace. See, right before Peter is called the satan he is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Right after Peter is called the adversary Jesus leads him up to the mountain to witness the transfiguration. Even though Peter does not get it, even though Peter cannot seem to understand, even though Peter’s mind was set on human things and not divine things, Jesus still loves him. Jesus still welcomes him. Jesus still forgives him for all that he has done, is doing, and will ever do.
Following this suffering saviour isn’t a sentence to failure, but it is imaging a new and different kind of victory. Picking up your cross isn’t about falling into death, but it is about embracing new life in resurrection. Learning to live like Jesus isn’t a denial of power, but it is the realisation that there is a power in love.
Paul urges us in his letter to the Romans, let your love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection and outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
This world wants to tell us that the only way we can beat violence is with more violence, the only way we can defeat our enemies is to show up with bigger weapons, the only way we can stop others hating us is to hate them even harder. But Jesus says no, don’t get caught up in the endless cycle of hatred and violence, but instead learn to love those who hate you, forgive those who hurt you, and welcome those who are simply just in need of a saviour.
I know, all this seem so counter intuitive and against the grain. It is like everything we’ve be taught and learned and known to be true our whole lives just don’t make sense anymore.
And that is the point.
That is what Jesus is saying. We can give up that old way of thinking. We can be free from that need for power. We no longer have to believe that the only way for peace is with authority, intimidation, and threats. Instead, we can pick up our crosses to follow Jesus in imagining a new world in which we can bless those who persecute us, where we can learn to live peaceably with each other, where we can confidently repay evil with good in feeding, serving, and loving.
See, this is the glory that Jesus was talking about. When he said that some won’t die before they see him entering the kingdom, this is the kingdom, heaven on earth, where Jesus enters the lives of the hurting, the downcast, and the lonely and lifts them up to see the joy and peace of God. This is the kingdom is all around us, in the feeding of the hungry, in the welcome of the stranger, in the love and forgiveness of the enemy.
The cross that Jesus asks us to take and the self we are called to deny is about imagining this different, counter cultural, against the grain kind of living. Knowing that defeating hatred with love and evil with good allows us to give up that need to follow the obtusely powerful and walk the path of humility, grace, peace. This is the path that Jesus walked and asks us to follow suit. This is the love. This is the forgiveness. This is what we can all get behind.
As we continue on in this time after Pentecost and look forward to what this new school year brings, may we be humbled and strengthened to pick up our crosses to follow our Lord Jesus into imagining the victory of love and mercy. Thanks be to God. Amen.