Texts: Matthew 16:21-28
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Sep. 3, 2017
One of the books that made a profound impact on my life while going through seminary was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most famous book The Cost of Discipleship. Have any of you read it or heard of it? It is a book-length reflection on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, but looking at the sermon from the perspective of Jesus’s statement in today’s Gospel: “If any wish to become my disciples let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
Bonhoeffer wrote this book just before World War II. As a Lutheran he was asking the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian living in the midst of a Nazi regime?” His answer: “There is no cheap grace.” There is a cost to following Christ. He took aim at German Christians who kept their heads down and tried to live peaceably under Hitler and failed to speak out. Bonhoeffer, lived as he spoke. He was arrested and was executed just days before the allies reached Berlin.
It is easy to see that when Jesus challenged his disciples to follow him, he meant these words literally. To be his disciple meant they would be persecuted, they would be exposed to suffering. Eleven of the twelve disciples would die a martyr’s death. Only John died of natural causes, and even he died as a political prisoner in exile on the isle of Patmos. In every century since, Christians have been martyred for their faith. When I was growing up, missionaries to foreign lands were held as heros who risked their lives for the cause of Christ. When I was in Bible school I became friends with a young couple who went as missionaries to the Belgium Congo. They were caught in the civil war that took place in that country in the early 1970’s. Angeline and her three young children were forced to watch as Jay, their husband and father was blindfolded, shot and killed. Indeed, it has been stated that more Christians were martyred in the 20th Century than all the prior 19 centuries of Christianity put together. Although we are early in the 21st Century, it does not look that such killings will stop this century either.
But having acknowledged this, it is unlikely that most of us here today, and indeed those living in a country where religious freedom is the law of the land and tolerance for those who are of a faith different than our own is broadly practiced, it highly unlikely that any of us will suffer or be put to death simply because we are Christian. So, in our case, what do our Lord’s words that you heard spoken in today’s Gospel: “If you are to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” mean for us? Does this injunction even apply in our situation, and if so in what ways?
There have been three general ways that Christians have sought to apply this gospel to those living in our kind of situations. As we reflect briefly on each of these this morning, I will suggest to you that I don’t think the first two of these are valid applications. It is to the third application that I suggest applies to all Christians in every generation no matter what the situation.
The first application to this text I have not heard much in the circles I travel in here in Naples, but I heard it a lot when I was growing up on a farm and where the families of most of my friends were struggling to make ends meet. I am also confident it is a view that is still embraced in faith communities where poverty is widespread. These Christians hear this statement from our Lord as a call to live a meager life, denying themselves of joy and of an abundant and full life. The come to feel that they are called to delay gratification until they reach heaven. It is expressed in a hymn we often sang in my church when I was a child. “I am just a pilgrim here on earth with little money other things to call my own, but someday yonder, I will never more wander, but walk on streets that are paved with gold.”
We pointed to such saying of Jesus that it is harder for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, or his advice to the rich young ruler, if you want to be my disciple, sell all that you have, give the proceeds to the poor and then come follow me.” Both of those statements of Jesus have application to our Christian lives today, but I would submit by interpreting these statements as the “cross” our Lord is calling us to carry had the psychological effect to in the words of the prayer of St. Francis “to accept the things I could change” as unchangeable. It enabled us to feel superior to those about us who had more than we had. Yes, it enabled us to cope with life, but left us with a world view that this world is essentially evil, we are here on earth only to be tested, and only a precious few will pass the test.
The second interpretation I have often heard throughout life, when I was growing up in Michigan, in my ministry in Kentucky and the DC area and yes even here in Naples. In this interpretation Christian hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel as the reason for the suffering that has already burrowed its way into their lives. It paints a picture of God as a drill sergeant who is in the business of giving out more and more obstacles, more struggles, more illness in your life to see how long you can endure them. Terrified, each day they hang on, believing this is the cross that God has called them to bear.
Now don’t get me wrong. As a pastor, I see real pain and suffering every day, And while we thank God that in most cases, through prayer, through trained medical professionals and through letting nature take its course, healing and regeneration comes. We know there are other times in our lives we are like St. Paul when he had a “thorn in his side,” and prayed that God would remove it, the answer he and at times we receive is, “My grace is sufficient for you,” and we discover God does give us the strength and grace to face and move through those situations. I’m not talking about that.
But we all have seen people whose lives are filled with negativity, who develop what we call a “martyr’s complex,” and who seem to be victims of one blow after another and they cope by saying “this is the cross God has called me to bear.” What these folk need is a transformation of thinking, a dose of the gospel of Norman Vincent Peal’s “power of positive thinking.” Rather than a cross, these folk need to hear another saying of Jesus, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
The final application to today’s gospel’s injunction to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, I believe applies to all Christians in every generation. This gospel is not a call to a life of suffering, it is not about denying one’s self the pleasures of this life in order to receive a future joy in heaven. Ultimately it is about not being afraid. Being afraid of suffering, being afraid to take risks, being afraid of death.
From the moment we start to fear death, it will not be long before we fear life. This was the case of Peter. In last week’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him: “You are the Messiah.” The problem was Peter was expecting a different kind of Messiah. He was anticipating a Messiah who came in strength and power. A Messiah who would defeat the evil powers of this world. As a follower of Jesus, Peter expects to be part of this glorious battle.
But as soon as Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, our Lord in today’s Gospel says that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo much suffering and die were not the future Peter envisioned for the Messiah. No wonder he cries out: “God forbid it Lord, this must never happen to you!” I suggest that while Peter was afraid for our Lord’s life, he was more afraid for his own. Let me state it again, the moment we start to fear death, it will not be long before we start to fear life.
Our Lord was not about to let Peter’s fear prevent him from living the abundant life. He confronts Peter. Yes, he must go to Jerusalem; yes, he must undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes; yes, he must be killed. But that was not why he was going to Jerusalem. That was not the final destination. He continues, “and on the third day be raised.” Resurrection was his ultimate goal. He was not going to Jerusalem in search of death, he was going in search of life!
Our Lord knows that suffering and death are part of human experience. But his call to us is to face it, not fear or deny it. Failing to face any obstacles in our life make our lives smaller, less worth living. He asks us to take up our cross and following him, not to death, but to life. He asks us to face our fears and overcome them, and he has promised that he will walk with us each step of the way. The path to walk is ours to choose. Let us choose life. Let us choose an abundant resurrected life. Amen