the low road

This Sunday’s text is one of the most challenging, convicting texts in the New Testament–at least for me.  Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.  Some thoughts about what that might mean for us after the jump.

***

How I love Peter.  Last week he was the hero. This week, Jesus calls him Satan. Peter’s kinda the rockstar disciple, and he messes up, a lot. So I guess there’s hope for the rest of us.

What happened? Why did Jesus called him Satan? Did you catch how that happened in the passage?

Jesus is telling the disciples how his story is going to end, what he’s really about. He has to go to Jerusalem.  There he will be executed. On the third day he will be raised.

It seems they didn’t hear the last part, about being raised. Maybe they thought it was a figure of speech, or they just didn’t understand it. But they sure knew what killed meant.

And that’s when Peter pulls Jesus aside. The language in the translation we’re using makes it sound like Peter was getting really uppity here. But I think it was more the tone we’d take with a leader we respect. “Hang on just a second. I’m not sure this is the best plan.”

And then, that’s when Jesus calls Peter the devil.

But what is Jesus so upset about?  Peter’s point of view is reasonable, maybe even wise. These religious leaders in cahoots with the imperial authorities are a real threat. Peter is saying, let’s slow down a minute. Is getting yourself killed really the best way? If we’re going to win this war, we probably shouldn’t lose everything in the first battle.

Oh, and there it is. There’s his mistake. Peter thinks Jesus is out to win. Isn’t that what kings do? That’s why they’re all following him. What’s the point of following a loser?

We’re just like Peter here, aren’t we? We like winners. We want to be winners, even those of us who like to imagine we’re not competitive. Our desires to have happy, successful families, to have bodies that look and move certain ways, to have stuff–homes and cars–that reflect on us positively, to be people who have it all together or at least seem to. All of that, if we’re honest, is a desire to win.

We may quibble about the rules of the game. In your neighbor’s game, winning may be having the biggest truck. And you may smugly think, oh but the real winners get the best gas mileage. But regardless of whether we play our games or our neighbors’ we all want to win.

It’s worth remembering where they are as they have this conversation. They’re in a town called Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was a vacation town for powerful Roman governors. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70ce, this was the town where they went afterward to celebrate. It was a playground for the winners of the world–like Camp David, or the Hamptons, or West Palm Beach.

And here, in the shadow of all these winners, Peter is offering Jesus infinitely reasonable advice about how not to be a loser. And Jesus will have none of it.

Here’s the crazy thing about Jesus. He sits in the shadow of the winners of the world and says, No. No. That is not what I am about. “If any of you want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

My road, he says, is the low road, the road to ruin, the road to losing–losing everything, including all those things that you think constitute your life.

If you want to follow me, pick up your cross.

Is there a more difficult, convicting, challenging verse in all of scripture?

Peter didn’t have an easy time with it, that’s for sure. He kept following, but it wasn’t an easy road and he messed up a lot. It’s worth remembering that, because this is one of those verses that we’re all going to struggle with.

But did you notice? Jesus doesn’t dwell on where Peter messed up. He calls him out, gets his attention, and then gets right back to it, inviting them to follow him.

That’s how it is for us as well. We step out in faith, and sometimes we’ll head down the wrong path. But God is gracious, and as we often hear before we confess our sins each week, God never stops loving us and longing for us to turn and follow again. Jesus still stands, saying take up your cross, and follow me.

What does that even mean? It’s one of those deeply churchy phrases, isn’t it? Nobody talks like that in our everyday lives.

Looking to Jesus and seeing how he did it kinda complicates matters.  Because in his case, the cross he lifted and then died on, it wasn’t a figure of speech. It was a tool of the state, a means of execution upon which he was sentenced to die for threatening the religious and political way of the world. And, at the same time, our faith confesses it was also a tool of God, a means of re-creating, redeeming, and reconciling all humanity.

I don’t know about you, but I have not seen a whole lot of things that look like that kind of cross just lying around, waiting for me to pick them up.

But maybe Jesus’ example offers us more insight than it seems at first.

Notice: Jesus dealt with the cross that was given to him. He didn’t go searching for a cross. He did the work that God set before him. That work, like any work, had consequences. When those consequences were difficult, when it seemed that the consequence of faithfulness was failure, even when the consequence was a cross, he continued.

That, too, is our call. God places a call on each of our lives. We are called to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength; to love our neighbors as ourselves; to worship God and set aside all of the other masters that seek to claim our allegiance; to share the good news we’ve received; to give up a love of winning and instead prefer someone else over ourselves. This is the way of love. This is God’s way.

At times God’s way will conflict with the world’s way. It will seem that the way of love is just the way to loss–loss of livelihood, loss of friendships, loss of status, loss of sleep. And we’ll be inclined to say to ourselves, as Peter did to Jesus, this is not what God would want. I can’t be expected to suffer, to lose like this.

And here’s where the tricky part comes. God does not ask us to go seek out suffering. Please hear that. The diminishment or degradation of life is never God’s purpose. God seeks the wholeness of all people.

And yet. And yet, as we follow the ways of God, seeking the wholeness of God’s way, we cannot help but come into conflict with a broken world, a world ruled by a love of winning. Here’s the truth: we don’t have to seek out a cross. It’ll come all on its own. The hard part is not running, not giving up, not rationalizing our way out of it when the brokenness of the world and the love of God meet and form a cross.

We are not a people called to go find suffering. In fact, we are called to actively walk away from some suffering–the pain of abusive relationships or bullying, for example, are not a pains that we’re asked to bear silently with some sort of misguided martyr complex.

But just as we’re not called to go chasing after suffering, we’re also not to measure our success in life by how much we can avoid. We are not a people who flee neurotically from every hard or painful moment.

The way of Jesus shows us that even in the humdrum difficulties of daily life–from the awkwardness of puberty to the indignities of aging; in the hurts that are inescapable in any relationship because we are, after all, all broken people; in the senseless tragedies that accompany disease and natural disaster–in all of this we have the opportunity to choose how and who we will follow. The way of the world often counsels avoiding as much pain as possible. But the way of the cross–now, that’s something else entirely, isn’t it?

It says that there is value in facing the suffering that life deals us with hearts open to being stretched, hands open to the warm grasp of others, and feet willing to get worn out with callouses. The way of the cross is a way that faces the heartache of life with the love of God.

But that’s not all. There is also hardship that will come because we follow Christ: perhaps a social consequence for speaking out, or private pain that accompanies forgiveness, or an economic or physical price we pay for our witness. Some are called to sacrifice a lot, and others to live faithfully in the midst of deeply ordinary lives.

You know, we’re not so very different from those disciples that day. We’re not in a posh vacation spot, but we do know what it is to live in the shadow of the great empire of our day. We know what it is to live in a world where winning is the goal. And still Christ turns and looks at us and says, fix your eyes not on human things, but on divine. Make my cross the measure of your life, the standard for every decision. Follow me.

It is not going to be easy. Jesus asks us to lose some, to give some stuff up, to die to some of our earthly concerns.  What we give up is different for each of us. Jesus has a way of asking us to give up those idols we hold most dear. Only you and Jesus know what he’s asking you to leave behind.  Perhaps it’s pride. Maybe it’s love of money. It could be the worry that keeps you up at night, or the addiction that numbs the pain. Some are asked to give their very lives, some are asked to give their safety, some give up a lot of stuff, and others give up a worldview or ideas held sacred.

But make no mistake: we’re all asked to follow Jesus.  In small ways and big, we follow on this downward road that seems to lead away from all that the world values, all that we have been taught to hold dear. We’re asked to recalibrate our measure of success, reset our scales. Because, Jesus says, in my world a cross is just the beginning. The world is terrified of losing because they imagine it’s the last word. But follow me, says Jesus–I have news for you. Losing is not the worst thing in the world. Suffering is not the thing to be scared of.

Here’s what we should be scared of–getting through this life without deep love, getting through this life without giving as much as we’ve received, getting through this life without some failure and humbling heartache, without losing, because if we do get through life that way and we win according to the world, well, the truth is, we’ve lost–ultimately, finally.

But, Jesus says, if you lose your life, if you follow me, if you give up what you’re clinging to, you are going to find more life than you could ever imagine. And not just in the next life–although there too–but here, now.

Christ says, do you remember when you thought there wasn’t enough to go around, and it turned out there was gracious plenty? Do you remember the cripples you’ve seen dance, the captives you’ve seen go free? That’s the kind of life Jesus is talking about.  In Christ there is a life that sets us free from all the petty gods this world asks us to worship, and all the darkness that lives in our heart. There’s a life that makes us truly, irrevocably, ultimately free. And not just free, but whole.  No longer will we be people torn in a million directions, paying homage to all these different kings. Instead, we find the bread of life and rest for our souls.

He’s still calling, friends.  Can you hear? Christ says, Come, follow me. Lay down all this nonsense that you think is your life.  Trust me. Trust my cross. Cling to it. View the world through it. Because, though it looks like just a place where a loser goes to die, it is the very presence of God in the middle of our world. In the least and the last, in the most broken and vulnerable times, that is where God dwells.  There is no place too dark, no hell too forsaken that Christ does not go there before us. That is why we trust the cross, why we cling to it, why we follow Christ.  May we follow faithfully.

by Sarah Wiles
August 28, 2011
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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