This month I was invited to preach at my dear friend Kyndall Rae Rothaus’s church. Grateful for the opportunity, I got to share a sermon at Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio while she was away on a retreat. Their church uses the lectionary, and so I preached from Matthew 16:21-28. You may listen to the sermon here: http://covenantbaptist.
What Entails A Follower
Love is such a beautiful word. We Christians tell people that God loves them. And I am glad. Because that is true. God loves us.
Not too long ago I was sitting with a new acquaintance, and our conversation got onto the subject of God. He said he knew that God loved him, and then he proceeded to talk about a new-agey kind of faith – one that didn’t require much of him and one that didn’t seem to take into account Jesus or the Bible at all.
Apparently that’s not uncommon. Kenda Creasy Dean wrote a book called “Almost Christian” wherein she describes the faith of many in America as not actually being Christian but being – what she terms – a faith in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Big words. Basically, it is faith in a god who simply wants us to be nice and happy. The goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. So love means making the one you love happy … and being happy means being free from pain and struggle.
It sounds nice, but Jesus didn’t see love that way. To him, love means enduring pain and suffering for the sake of the ones you love. Love means giving up our own ideas of what is good and submitting to God’s plan for what is right. In Matthew 16 we read about a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples and with Peter. And from it we learn …
Disciples follow Jesus, no matter what.
Christians follow Jesus – even when God desires us to be uncomfortable. And that’s our first truth:
Sometimes God desires for us to be uncomfortable.
Verse 21 says – From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering … This was a turning point in the story of Matthew. Before this point Jesus had focused his
teaching on the kingdom of heaven. But now, Jesus begins to emphasize his death and resurrection. He would go on several more times to predict his own death. The suffering was a necessary part of God’s plan. Our English word “must” falls short of expressing the degree of intensity Jesus used. He was saying that this process of events absolutely had to happen. He must go to suffer. It was nonnegotiable and inescapable. God was the one at work here.
Jesus told his followers that being united with him would mean they would suffer, too. They had crosses to take up. They had a God who was telling them to deny themselves. People who think they are Christians but who believe in a God that only wants them to be happy and pain-free. Well, they are mistaken.
I’m 27 but I have already been to the chiropractor. Have you ever gone? I used to think it was only older people with had back pain who had need for a chiropractor. But earlier this year I had to go. I guess I’m getting older. After complaining long enough to my husband about my back, he insisted I go see Dr. Quang. And you know what I learned? Going to the chiropractor hurts! Dr. Quang had me lie face down on his table, I stuck my head in that little circle, and before I knew what was happening, he pounced on me! I couldn’t breathe for a second. Then he told me to lie on my side and position my leg, just so, and wham! He adjusted me. It is amazing how much pain you have to go through sometimes in order to come out better on the other end.
To say that God desires us to experience suffering is not a blanket statement we throw on all circumstances. In fact, in most cases, God does not desire for the painful episodes that come into our lives. Betrayed by your friend? Lied to by your spouse? Swindled by a stranger? No. God would rather the sin of others – and the sin we bring on ourselves – never to happen. It’s why we have the Ten Commandments and why God told us to humble ourselves and turn from wickedness.
The kind of suffering God does desire for us is the denying-of-yourself kind of suffering. When you give up privileges for others, when you forgive someone who doesn’t even want forgiveness, when you say no to sexual sin, when you sacrifice your vacation money and instead give it to a neighbor in need, when you show kindness to the people in your path when all you feel inside is anger, or boredom, or crabbiness. . . To deny ourselves means that in every moment of life we say no to self and yes to God. We make God the ruling principle and passion of life.
Indeed, if God would not spare God’s own Son from discomfort – but instead saw the greater picture and the greater need – God will neither promise to keep us free from pain. No. In some cases – God says the pain is necessary.
Pain – that’s a hard reality to swallow. … But Christians follow Jesus, even when our ideas are at odds with God’s. And that’s the second truth today:
Sometimes our ideas are at odds with God’s.
Immediately before this passage in Scripture Jesus asks the disciples who they believed he was. Peter stood up and declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus was pleased. Peter got it right. But then – just sentences later – Peter gets it so wrong. When Peter heard Jesus’ prediction about being killed … that idea went straight against his idea of who the Messiah was to be. Jesus told the disciples the religious leaders were going to kill him, and Peter rejected that idea. He took Jesus aside and rebuked him. The words mean Peter took hold of Jesus – it’s like he swung a protective arm in front of Jesus – and with a prayer-like exclamation, he said, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Through his choice of words, we can tell that Peter believed he represented God’s will. And he intended to drive such a morbid idea out of Jesus’ mind. He didn’t want Jesus to even speak like that. Peter thought he knew what the Messiah’s victory would be like, and death was not a part of it. To him – death would be the end of it. Peter had a theology of success. He believed the Messiah would be a warrior king, one who would sweep the Romans out of the way and lead Israel to power. Peter knew and loved Jesus, but his ideas were at odds with God’s.
I thought I knew what was best when I was a teenager. And staying up late to finish my homework – to me – was a good idea. I knew it was important to get good grades so I could go to a good college. My parents agreed with the grades part but not the staying-up-late part. And thus, I had the earliest bedtime out of all my friends. Even through my senior year of high school, my parents exercised their control over me, and I had the eight hour rule: eight hours before I was going to wake up, I had to put the books – or the phone – down and go to sleep. It made me frustrated more than once. I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t let me take care of things my own way. I was a good kid, after all. But you know what? They were right. I figured it out in college. I learned I did not do well in school the next day after I had stayed up late having packed too many things into my schedule. Some of my friends could swing it, but I couldn’t. So I learned to prioritize and get my eight hours of sleep in each night. To this day I have excellent sleeping habits.
Are your ideas ever at odds with God’s? Sometimes you don’t realize it, but sometimes you do – later. Maybe you had a job opportunity – and despite praying long and hard about it, and feeling God was on your side – it didn’t work out as you had hoped. Maybe you’ve had a vision for your family and your home and you felt God’s peace about it… but the vision is not coming to fruition. When Jesus came to the world, he turned everything upside down. And even those closest to him couldn’t grasp what would happen next. Peter assumed that a living Jesus was better than a suffering and dying Jesus. But our vantage point is so limited compared to God’s. We are going to get some things wrong.
When it comes to many things, we can be certain of God’s will. The Bible is clear about sin being wrong. Scripture is clear about Jesus returning someday. Genesis 1 clearly describes God as the Creator of the Universe. We need to get clear about those things. Some of the specifics, though, are not so obvious. And when considering the way God is working in our lives – we can get confused. Our ideas might be wrong. And that’s okay. We don’t have to be right about everything. What we do have to be is humble. We do have to be a follower and not presume that our ideas are better.
Because Christians follow Jesus. And that is our third truth:
Whatever the situation, we are to follow.
After being rebuked, Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Get behind me … Satan?! Is it just me, or was that a harsh thing to say? How could Peter have been equated with Satan? The words hark back to Jesus’ temptation in the desert. In Matthew 4 Satan tempted our Lord by saying Jesus could be great and could have power over the world – if only he would deny God’s way and do things Satan’s way. So – both Satan and Peter said Jesus could be great without dying. But Jesus’ mission was to instate a new kind of kingdom, a radically different way of exercising authority: a kingdom of peace and love and sacrifice. At different times, both Satan and Peter presented a temptation to Jesus to go against his mission. One temptation was from an enemy. And one temptation was from a friend. Jesus quickly showed Peter the seriousness of his error. “Get behind me!” His words to Peter recall the words to Satan back in chapter 4… after being tempted he told Satan, “Begone!” But with Peter there was a difference. To Peter he said, “Begone, behind me!” This was not a “go away.” Instead of banishing Peter, Jesus was calling him back to discipleship. Do you remember what Jesus said when he first called the disciples? “Come, follow me.” When you follow someone, you follow behind them.
When you were a kid, did you ever play the game called “Follow the Leader”? It’s where one person stands in front while the rest of the group lines up behind the leader. Whatever the leader does, you have to mimic it. So – spin in a circle, leap through the air, shake their booty, make a funny face – however difficult or ridiculous you had to follow. If you failed to do it, you were out.
Jesus says that if we are not following him, we are out. The work of following Jesus may be tough, it may be painful, and it may make us look ridiculous. But that is our calling. You know, the word “Satan” literally means “the Adversary.” And if all it takes to become an adversary is to impose my own ideas upon God – to resist self-denial or distract others from the way of God – well, it’s not that hard to become like Satan myself. Satan is any power which seeks to put human desires over God’s.
Peter was a friend of Jesus, and he wanted Jesus to be spared from suffering. I can understand that. But sometimes our desire for protection and happiness for our loved ones –or for ourselves – is not what God ordered. Imagine if Peter had persuaded Jesus to give up the cross! Peter – who was declared earlier to be a Rock – had become a Stumbling stone. For ourselves – and for others, which will we be? A rock or a stumbling stone? Real love does not hold people at home, but rather sends them out to obey God’s commandments. Real love encourages us to display a kind of courage and conviction that will not necessarily make life easy, but will make life great. Parents and friends and spouses and pastors could – in their effort to protect the ones they love – become a stumbling stone. Because following Christ is a dangerous, uncomfortable adventure.
Our life’s work is to be a disciple. And disciples follow Jesus, no matter what.No matter if it involves suffering. No matter if God acts in a way we don’t think God should act. There was a time – long ago – that people could not talk about the Church without meaning this kind of self-giving love. Whereas once, the church was known for lavish grace, reckless hospitality, utter devotion to Jesus – will we now settle for a Moralistic Therapeutic Deism … an aimless wandering that only seeks comfort for oneself and puts our own ideas above God’s? Please, no! Let us be people who mimic God, following in the footsteps of our Savior – an extraordinary God who took extraordinary measures to woo us back into God’s arms through Jesus. Disciples follow Jesus, no matter what.