The Call to Discipleship: Kingston Springs UMC – September 3, 2017
Read Matthew 16:21-28
I am grateful to be with you this morning. I have known your pastor, Adam for many years – first as a student at Belmont University, attending Belmont United Methodist Church. His ministry was integral in discerning my call to ministry, so I particularly cherished his invitation.
Our text this week picks up just after the text from last week – Peter, somehow, is the first person who knows Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. In celebration of Peter’s faith, he is given his new name, Simon Peter, and Christ announces that Peter will be the rock upon which the Church will be built.
For Christmas this year, my husband and I traveled to Europe, and we were lucky enough to be in Rome for Christmas Eve and day. We stood in line for hours and hours with thousands of people, and we actually made it through the stampede of tourists and nuns through security gates and metal detectors and into St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve for Christmas Mass with Pope Francis. It was an incredible evening, but even more incredible than the pageantry celebrating the birth of the Christ child was our morning in the Scavi – the excavations – under the massive church. We, with a group of about a dozen other tourists, wound our way through the layers of pagan tombs underneath the basilica until we made it to the tiny opening in the rock where we could see the remnants of St. Peter’s tomb.
As we walked back to our rented flat after the tour, we laughed about the irony of Peter being the rock upon which the church was built. Peter walks on the water until he…realizes he’s walking on water in the middle of a huge storm, and then he sinks and has to be rescued. In our passage from Matthew this morning, Peter panics again at the first prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. “No! That can’t happen to you, Lord!” Peter will later betray his friend Jesus not once or twice but three different times, all because he’s afraid.
Many of us have learned about the three major responses to stress: fight, flight or freeze. It seems pretty clear that Peter’s a fighter, even if it’s just with words. This leads Peter’s impulsiveness to always get the best of him when he gets frightened, just like many of us. But Peter’s always so eager – you almost can’t help but laugh. My current appointment is as the preK through 4th grade Bible teacher at the Oak Hill School in Nashville, and I can already think of a few students who remind me of Peter. Peter seems to desperately want to do the right thing – he operates on the motto that inaction is always the wrong action. He just tries and tries and tries so hard, but he just can never quite get it together.
Could Christ have picked a more relatable character to be given the keys of heaven? It just reminds me over and over again that God has a sense of humor and that God makes beautiful work of human beings who are afraid and eager and unsure of themselves but just want to say the right thing and do the right thing.
When I re-read the text for today, I was almost startled by the lack of response from the other disciples to Christ’s announcement of the coming violence. Maybe it’s because Peter had trouble letting any kind of lulls in conversation happen, but Peter’s words are the only words we are left with. Can you imagine your friend, your teacher, the leader of the movement you’ve thrown your weight behind telling you that he’s going to suffer, die and resurrected? It’s clear that Christ has lived an incredible life – the life of a teacher and a healer and a friend to the friendless. So, how could this life end in such violence? What would that mean for the good work of Christ and Christ’s disciples?
Admittedly, I am someone who tends to skew a little bit towards anxiety, and I can just hear the questions zipping through Peter’s mind as he tries to piece together what Jesus means and what’s going to happen: Can I go back to “just” being a fisherman when you have been a witness to miracles and holiness? Do I have enough money to buy new fishing gear (because I gave up everything to follow this teacher because I believed in his cause and…I believed in…him)? What will it be like to go back home? Do I have a home anymore?
Reading Jesus’ rebuke of Peter today sounds fairly harsh – “get behind me, Satan! You are a stone that could make me stumble,” and I find myself wondering what Jesus really means with this. Does he mean “snap out of it, Pete!” Or is he truly concerned that Peter’s impulsiveness might actually hinder the work of his mission? I’m not sure that we have a clear answer to these questions.
Because then, Jesus gives one of the strongest calls to discipleship in all of the New Testament: “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Christ asks his disciples to receive the first warnings of the crucifixion and to respond by agreeing to invest in the future. Christ shares his own coming death but then he calls on his disciples to have faith and believe in the future where God’s victory will be the final victory. Because after all, “the Human One is about to come with the majesty of the Father and with his angels. Then he will repay each one for what each person has done.”
In Matthew’s gospel, there are three different announcements of Christ’s coming passion. Reading the gospel in itself entirety, it becomes clear that these announcements serve as carefully articulated warnings. Three different warnings become a clear message to Matthew’s readers that Christ’s death wasn’t a random act of state violence – an act that falls outside of the sovereign domain of God. Douglas R. Hare writes, “Jesus was not a hapless victim but a knowing partner” in his own life and in his own death.
Jesus gives this first warning of the upcoming violence that would rattle his disciples’ community to them all together, as a group. I wonder if this might be the moment when the community who will grow to call themselves Christians truly begins. Christ doesn’t tell this news to Peter alone and then give Peter instructions on how to move forward. No, the disciples are gathered together, they receive this news together, and they are given instructions on how to move forward together.
“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
That’s not exactly a lot of instruction to go on, but the one instruction is clear – you’ll take up your cross and go together. That must be a little comforting to the disciples – the immediate future doesn’t look exactly great here, but you will have each other, and you will follow after my example. The Human One will come with the majesty of God, the Father, and you will be rewarded for your faithfulness.
But, other than that, there aren’t many specifics for this plan of what to do next. There’s just the expectation that the disciples will have each other – they will bind together as a community – and that they will get to work. They’ll pick up their crosses and get moving. Eugene Boring, an emeritus professor at Brite Divinity School writes, “The meaning of discipleship is learned along the way. The disciples in this story have been disciples for some time, called personally by Jesus, sent by him to preach and heal. They now learn the meaning and cost of discipleship, which cannot be explained in advance but must be learned en route” (New Interpreter’s Bible).
This experiential learning strategy reminds me of my favorite story of John Wesley, our founder of Methodism. John was on a ship to the United States, to begin mission work in Georgia, when his company ran into a large storm. He was very reasonably frightened, but another group of Christians on the boat sang praises to God, prayed and calmly waited out the storm. John Wesley was concerned by his own personal lack of faith, and he wrote to a friend to get a second opinion on how he would know if he had faith at all. His friend, Peter Boehler, wrote to him “Keep preaching until you are sure you have faith.” A ‘fake it ‘til you make it!’ of sorts. Do something.
That seems to me to be the same call that Christ makes to his disciples – take up your cross and follow me. We’ll learn together on the way. Have faith, and you will be so rewarded for your labors.
This is the same call that is still being given to God’s people. To say these are uncertain times might be a gentle understatement. Some of us are worried about physical safety, some of us are worried about financial safety, some of us are trying to rebuild from horrible flooding and some of us just don’t know what we’ll do next. But, God has blessed us with a community, God’s people who are bound together to care for each other and to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
So look around you. These are the people who are taking up crosses and following after God. These are the people who are renewing their baptismal vows to resist the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil in this world. These are the people who are working against the forces of racism in our communities. These are the people who are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. These are the people who are embracing the little children. These are the people who see God’s light shining within all people in God’s world, and these are the people who will cherish and nourish that light in themselves and each other.
Take heart, friends, because one of God’s first gifts to us was each other.