Lately, when I think about the disciples, they seem like real people with real, human weakness. Peter is the disciple who Jesus called his Rock, so I would have expected him to be a rather stoic and powerful person. Powerful would be true, I suppose, if one were to consider the build of a busy, working net fisherman. Stoic, however, might just not be the best descriptor. After all, Peter seems to get rather upset when Jesus tells it like it is!
When Peter takes Jesus aside to “rebuke” him, what do you think he is saying? The scripture tells us that Jesus was teaching about the fact that he was going to be rejected, suffer, and eventually die. Sure, he explains that he is going to “rise again,” but I have a feeling that Peter didn’t even hear that part. He just didn’t want his friend and Messiah to die.
Maybe he didn’t believe it could happen. After all, Jesus had performed miracles! The lame had taken up their mats and walked. The blind had been made to see. Lepers had grown new skin and become healthy. All this Jesus himself had done! How could he die? Hadn’t Peter just told him, “You are the Messiah?”
Imagine this conversation:
“What are you talking about, Jesus? Don’t talk about dying like that! You just said that the chief priests and the scribes were going to kill you! Don’t say such things! What if they heard you?”
“Peter, these are the things that must come to pass. Trust me.”
“But Rabbi, didn’t I just tell you I know you are the Messiah? You aren’t going to die – you need to lead us against the Romans! On top of all this talk about suffering and dying, you want us to keep the fact that you are the Messiah a secret? That doesn’t make any sense!”
At this point, Jesus turns toward the rest of the disciples and says loudly, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re just worried about what you want, not what God wants!” You know he said it loud enough for Peter’s friends and family to hear. How embarrassing that would have been.
Then, Jesus extends an invitation to the crowd that had gathered around. He says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
“Take up their cross.” Have you heard that before? Have you thought about what that means? You may have heard people talk about “bearing their cross” or having a “cross to bear.” There is a difference between bearing one’s cross and taking up the cross.
When people say they have a cross to bear, they usually mean that there is some bad thing in their lives that they have to accept. Whatever they think their cross is they don’t often bear it without complaint. Yet John Wesley wrote that when we properly "bear our cross," we endure whatever happens to us without our choosing without complaint.
To take up our cross is a choice. It means that we do what God calls us to, even if we don’t want to. We do what is right even when it means it makes us uncomfortable or even puts us in danger. Think about it. The cross of Jesus was an instrument of torture and punishment. It wasn’t a symbol or an instrument of self discipline like some kind of exercise equipment.
Jesus knew his actions would cause the religious leaders to challenge him. Jesus even knew that his behavior would bring him to his death by crucifixion. Anyone who knew the political climate of the time would know that the things Jesus said and did would likely end in his arrest. Yet, he did what was right wherever he went, no matter who was watching.
In this scripture, Jesus clearly declares that if someone wants to be his disciple, they must choose to do what is right no matter the consequences. This is what it means to “take up our cross.” It means to stand up for those who cannot, as Jesus stood for the adulterous woman. It means to bypass our pleasures in order to do justice when the opportunity arises.
It means to step outside our comfortable surroundings and go places where we might be afraid to go if that is where God wants us. It means to accept Christ's power in our lives as individuals and together as the body of Christ to resist evil, injustice, and oppression whenever we encounter them. It means that we deny ourselves and do things for the sake of the gospel even if it means we might be humiliated, or even tortured or killed.
What does that mean for us today? How do we deny ourselves and let Christ be the master of our lives? How do we accept God’s call to live out God’s love in the world? These are not easy things to do. It never has been. There is a clue in this scripture. When Jesus rebukes Peter, he says, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What are the human things we focus on that keep us from learning what God wants for us and from us? These are questions we should each ask ourselves.
I like to think I’m a pretty spiritual person, and that I am doing everything I can to follow God’s call. I’ve made some commitments to God and to the church. I hope that I am discovering the gifts that God has given me and that I am using them to help God’s children. But I have a confession to make. These things take time, which is something I seem to have very little of, so I often try to do two things at once.
When I am writing a sermon, I am sometimes also watching television shows or movies. I find myself looking up at the television when I should be focusing on the sermon. I’m caught up in the things of this world.
Most of you know that for my day job right now, I am the Office Manager at Gold Canyon United Methodist Church. I’ve worked there for almost nine years now, and over those years, I’ve discovered that people who need to talk to someone or pray with someone are sometimes happy to talk to anyone, even the Office Manager. So, when someone calls or comes into the office for help and the pastor isn’t available, the Receptionist calls me.
I am embarrassed to say that if I am busy with an administrative task, I don’t always want to stop and talk to someone. It seems like an interruption. I am so focused on the worldly thing that I forget the real reason I work in the church. When a person needs to find Christ, sometimes it’s up to me to be Christ for them.
None of the things I have done or thought of doing on behalf of Jesus have been dangerous, but I’d like to tell you about a pastor I’ve recently learned about. She’s a United Methodist pastor from Texas named Lorenza Andrade Smith. Pastor Smith has chosen to work in ministry with the poor and disenfranchised. She felt called to live in the streets in solidarity with the homeless, and asked to be appointed by her bishop to serve as a pastor for the people with whom she lives and works. You can bet that it was a frightening prospect for a young woman who had the choice to be appointed to a nice comfortable church. She has followed God’s call, even though you can bet that at times, it is a dangerous life. People like Pastor Smith know what it means to “take up the cross and follow Jesus.”
We don’t have to travel all the way from Texas to find a Christian who has chosen to risk their comfort and a cushy job to follow God’s call. As a matter of fact, they are everywhere. I know one pastor who had a nice well paying job at a large church in the area; but her heart was with those who didn’t have what the parishioners of that church had. Her heart was with those who struggle daily to survive in the streets and in the barrio. Her heart is right here with you, because she knows what it means to “take up the cross and follow Jesus.”
When Jesus reprimands Peter, he says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now, he’s not accusing Peter of literally being Satan. He’s equating Peter’s focus on the things of this world with Satan. He’s saying to Peter, “You’re worried about the wrong things. You haven’t been listening to me.” He was telling Peter that to follow him is to stand for what is right, no matter how dangerous it might be.
Is this something you can do? Can you choose to suffer in order to serve God, when you could avoid it? If we really want to be Jesus’ disciples, that’s what we have to do. We have to “take up the cross.” We have to act with God’s love in the world, no matter what it costs us. Fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. We can help each other, because we are all the body of Christ.