Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
You all know how to play follow the leader, right? Then, let’s play! (Silly walks, jumping, spinning…then hug someone, give someone a high five, encourage someone.)
Did everything we do just involve me and what I did with my body, or did it connect with other people? It connected with other people. Today, Jesus basically invites us to play follow the leader. He wants us to care for people the way he does and take care of creation the way he does and stand up to bullies the way he does. But he also wants us to have the same priorities that he does—that we should fight for people who are being hurt, even if it’s scary for us, even if it means that we make our friends mad.
Let’s pray. Dear God, thank you for being brave and standing up for us. Thank you for dying so that we can live. Help us to be courageous when doing the right thing seems scary. Amen.
The story goes that during his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he rebuked Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. “You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, “Now you know why.”
“If anyone is to be my follower, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Easier said than done. This is the conversation that happens just after Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah. Feeling pretty good about getting the answer right, he’s a little surprised, I suspect, when Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this revelation. Instead, he lays out exactly what it means to be the Messiah.
“The Son of Man must undergo suffering, be rejected, killed, and then rise again.” That word, ‘must,’ is an interesting word. It isn’t prescriptive—saying what Jesus has to do to accomplish his mission. It’s descriptive—identifying where the road he’s on will inevitably lead. But let’s get this straight right now—the cross isn’t God’s design for fixing the world. It is the world’s design for responding to a God who doesn’t play by our rules.
And, as you know, Peter can’t wrap his mind around this. A God who suffers and dies? Ridiculous! “That can’t be. You’re getting the story wrong. You’re the Messiah. Here, come with me. I’ll lay it out for you. We’ll work on our battle plan, amass an army and an arsenal, and then when the time is right, we’ll storm Jerusalem and unseat the puppet king and the Roman Empire. With you leading the way, we can’t lose!”
Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” You see, Peter is confronting Jesus and his destiny—he’s in the way. Peter’s plan is on the wrong path—and it’s tempting. Oh so tempting. Jesus calls him ‘satan’—the tempter, the accuser, the adversary—because this is just one more challenge like the ones he faced in the wilderness. “If you’re not coming with me, then at least get out of the way.” Then, Jesus invites everyone else behind him, as well. “Get behind me, because I will pave the way. I will set the course. I will determine what road we take. But be prepared because you won’t like it. It will go against every fiber of your being.”
Again, Jesus’ words are descriptive, not prescriptive, I think. My interpretation is that Jesus isn’t telling us how to be followers, as if we have to do something to secure our lives. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He’s saying that when we follow him, we no longer are concerned about securing our lives or our future in heaven or the salvation of our souls. Following Jesus means we are no longer in it for our own sake.
But here’s the thing: how are we to pick up the cross if our hands are full—full of everything that keeps us in fear of death—everything that bullies us into complying with the world’s value systems instead of God’s—everything that convinces us that might makes right and victory is only won with bigger fire power. Instead, Jesus wins victory through death. He shows power through weakness. He shows glory in his humility. And he calls us to follow suit.
Perhaps we might ask ourselves what is in the way of us following Jesus? What are you holding so tightly that keeps you from carrying the cross?
I’ve been thinking about that a bit this week. What do I hold onto—what are my priorities that make it difficult to pick up the cross? One of the big ones is my family. If I were to risk my life and my safety in order to proclaim and live in a way that follows Jesus in totality, I don’t think I’d be able to be fully present for my family. There’s a reason that Paul tells the Corinthians that it is best not to be married so that our focus on Christ is complete.
What other things do I carry with me that might tear my focus from the cross? My job. If I were totally focused on the cross, I would do ministry without pay—in part so that I would feel free to say certain things without worry about offending, without worry about losing members or losing my position.
Others things I cling to might include access to healthcare, financial security, a nice house to live in, my education, my reputation, and at the very bottom of it all—my safety. My rights. I thought about that in the midst of the arguments circulating about gun control, care for mental health, parenting, education, and everything else, including national identity. What would it look like to lay it all down and pick up the cross in order to follow Jesus?
There just aren’t many who can do that or who want to do that—not in its totality. And as a Lutheran theologian, I’m here to tell you that this is the part of the message we call the Law. This is the bad news. This is the part meant to make us uncomfortable—to make us squirm in our seats—to challenge us and force us to really take stock of how far we are from who Jesus calls us to be.
But as a Lutheran theologian, my job is to make sure we don’t miss the Gospel in all of this. There is, indeed, good news! Let’s take another look at Peter. He wanted so badly to be Jesus’ go-to guy. Even after Jesus is arrested, Peter follows close behind. Maybe he’s curious, but I imagine he even had thoughts of trying to help Jesus out. Except, when it came right down to it, he ended up denying Jesus three times.
Jesus said, “Deny yourselves.” But Peter denied him. Friends, we are in good company—but that’s not the end of the story. Because Jesus knew what would happen. Jesus knows what will happen with us, as well. Jesus knows that our lives and our allegiances and our commitments are torn. He also knows that the way in which we engage the world ends up burdening us and others more than the cross.
In Matthew, he says, “Come to me all who are weak and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The good news is that when we pick up our cross, we find that Jesus has already been carrying for us. The good news is that when it gets too heavy, there is no shame in putting it down. The good news is that part of carrying our cross means an engagement with this world—not a denial of it. It means caring for and providing for our families rather than just leaving them hanging. It means serving our country, challenging policies, holding officials accountable, and being responsible citizens. It means participating in our Church and challenging one another with love, encouraging one another with hope, strengthening one another with faith.
Picking up the cross isn’t a denial of life but rather an embracing of it—for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of the world. Yes, in order to pick up the cross, we do have to let go of the things that burden us—and let Jesus carry them for us, instead.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church