The Way of Discipleship - A Sermon for Pentecost 16B
Who am I? That’s the question Jesus posed to Peter, the rest of his disciples, and us. It really doesn’t matter what other people are saying; “who do you say that I am?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus asked this identity question in the region of Caesarea Philippi. That’s because it’s not only an identity question; it’s a question of allegiance. Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord? That’s a question that continually confronts us, because it’s so easy to confuse our allegiances. Allegiance to country isn’t the same as allegiance to Jesus!
Peter makes the good confession – you’re the messiah – but I’m not sure that Peter completely understood his confession. That might be one reason that Jesus told him and the disciples to keep this under their hats. You see it seems as if Peter thought in political and maybe military terms. He thought of power in terms of the ability to coerce. Maybe he was even hoping to get a cabinet post in Jesus’ new administration. But Peter totally misunderstood Jesus’ vision of God’s realm, and he got so upset with Jesus that he rebuked him. Peter told Jesus that he had gotten things totally wrong. So, until they got these issues settled, there wasn’t any reason to say anything publicly.
Peter didn’t like Jesus’ definition because it involved rejection, suffering, and even death. That’s not the model most of us would choose as the model of God’s realm. Most of us, like Peter, envision thrones and crowns, not crosses. It’s no wonder that down through the centuries Christians remolded Jesus’ vision so that we could create what became Christendom.
So here’s the question for us: are you with Peter or with Jesus? Do you like Peter’s vision of discipleship or Jesus’? Peter was hoping Jesus would see things his way, but Jesus refused to take the bait! Instead, Jesus invited Peter and us to take the way of the cross and in the process lose our lives so we can find them again in the kingdom of God.
I think that the key to understanding Jesus’ vision is to connect the cross with the resurrection. It’s not that if you experience a bit of suffering you’ll receive a crown of glory. No, it’s that we have to die to ourselves so we can experience new life. We have to let go of our need to control our destinies, so we can receive the gift of grace and healing.
Jesus issued an invitation to discipleship: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”
When I was in college, one of my classmates made huge cross and carried it around Eugene on Good Friday. Is that what Jesus had in mind? Does it mean suffering martyrdom for Jesus? Because if it does, what does that mean for Christians in America?
I know there are those who claim that their religious liberties are being impinged on, but even if being a Christian today isn’t as popular as it was a generation or so ago, I don’t think any of us truly experiences persecution. That’s not true, of course, for our brothers and sisters who are fleeing from Syria and Iraq as ISIS makes its presence felt.
So, what does it mean to take up the cross as disciples of Jesus? Could it be this – that we are to give our allegiance to God’s realm even if that puts us in conflict with the broader society? Back before the time of Constantine, empire-wide persecutions were rare, but Christianity was labeled a subversive religion. That’s because “if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.” The Romans were pretty tolerant of the many religious traditions that existed in their empire. They were religious pluralists. They only asked that the residents of the empire tip their hat to the emperor. That meant offering sacrifices to the name of the emperor, who claimed to be a son of God. Christians couldn’t make those sacrifices, because they symbolized giving allegiance to another lord and master. Christians were willing to pay takes, but they wouldn’t call Caesar Lord and Savior. That made them a threat to the empire. So, to whom do you pledge your allegiance?
As I meditated on this passage, I asked myself what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in America. What allegiances do I have and do they come into conflict with each other? I thought about the way I present my faith to the broader community. Do I send a message of triumph and superiority, or one of humility and grace? The growing numbers of people who are telling pollsters that they want no affiliation with religious institutions, including our own family members and friends, want to know what kind of Jesus we claim to follow. Is it Peter’s Jesus who sits on a throne and wields power, or is it the Jesus who embraces the cross?
If the Jesus of the cross is calling you, then what does that mean for your life? What does it mean to lose your life in order to save it? Could it be that Jesus is calling on us to let go of our need to control our destinies? Could it be that Jesus is calling on us to head out on a journey to a place that’s not yet been identified? When Jesus speaks of shame, could he be speaking of trust? After all, if we can’t trust Jesus with our lives, then why should Jesus trust us?
We’ve been binge-watching Star Trek Voyager. In case you don’t know this series, the Voyager franchise tells the story of a Federation starship that got tossed to the far side of an unexplored quadrant of the Milky Way, at least on the part of the United Federation of Planets. They find themselves 70,000 light years from home. Not only that, but the ship’s crew includes both Starfleet personnel and members of a rebel group called the Maquis. To get home, they all have to work together and trust the leadership of Captain Janeway. Now they could have decided to find a nice M-Class planet and settle down, but Captain Janeway believed that even if it took a lifetime, they should take the risk and try to make it home. And this is what they do. They encounter many new planets and species, facing all kinds of danger, but they remain undaunted in their task. Isn’t that what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus? The promise of the resurrection stands out ahead of us. It’s the home we’re seeking, but getting there will take a lot of trust in the leadership of Jesus.
Such is the Christian life. “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home” (Chalice Hymnal, 546). The way of discipleship takes us on a journey into the unknown, but the journey with Jesus helps form us into the people God would have us be. Like the crew of the Voyager, we will not be the same at the end of the journey as we were at the beginning.
Thinking about my own life journey, the course has changed many different times, taking me to places I didn’t expect. I didn’t plan on going to Fuller for seminary, but for some reason that’s where I ended up. I didn’t intend to be a pastor, but look where I ended up. Most certainly, I had no intention of moving to Michigan, but look where I ended up. As I get nearer to retirement, I’ve been thinking about what comes next. I have a few ideas in mind, but life to this point suggests that my plans will change. I can’t predict where the path will lead me. I do know, however, that I don’t travel alone and that the resurrection continues to beckon me forward.
We are disciples of Christ, and no matter how well we plan for tomorrow, life has a way of throwing us curves. The only sure thing in life is change. Not everyone handles change the same way. Some resist and some adapt. Perhaps the way of discipleship involves taking up a cross of uncertainty and risk, giving allegiance to the one who guides us through sometimes perilous places. I want to close with a word from a new book by a UCC pastor named Eric Elnes that speaks to the gift of uncertainty:
Uncertainty teaches us to let go of all concerns but the ones we truly face, giving us the courage and power to face them. In so doing, uncertainty provides the unexpected invitation to live our lives wholeheartedly. [Gifts of the Darkwood, p. 40].
To be a disciple of Jesus is to die so we may live!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
September 13, 2015