Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Have you ever made a decision about something; signed on for a project, campaign, or committee, planned an event, or started a new job, only to discover that the responsibilities were just a little bit over your head? Or that you were not nearly as prepared for the task as you had imagined?
Perhaps you signed onto a new relationship, made a commitment to be engaged, or to get married; but discovered not too long afterward that the person you thought you were, or the other person was, standing at the altar, not the person trying to figure things out later on – till death do us part.
Or even the decision to have a child, as wonderful and fulfilling as parenting is, proved to be far more costly – financially but also emotionally and spiritually – than you could have ever dreamed. You learn that there are a whole lot of pieces that have to be figured out day-by-day, and there is no way to know up front what all of those pieces are, because life just happens.
Often times, we take on things not knowing. Doubts arise; anxieties and insecurities begin to surface. We begin to question our capacity to rise and stretch in order to do what is necessary. We start to wonder how far we can go. Do we really have the skillset we thought we did? Are our gifts and graces, our resources sufficient for the task at hand?
I think it’s easy to find ourselves in these situations because none of us has a crystal ball. We cannot fully anticipate the unknown, and if we are blessed, we somehow muster the courage and wherewithal to learn, and grow, and develop as best we can in order to live into what is set before us. Everything good comes with a price, does it not? There is nothing without some cost, some sacrifice, some effort, or responsibility; price to pay.
And so, it is being a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. In our gospel lesson Jesus warns his disciples of this very thing. He is having an intimate conversation with those who had abandoned everything to follow Him. And they have spent days, weeks, months, years watching the things that Jesus did, and the lessons he taught.
Now the ministry is about to take a turn, and Jesus is teaching them about harder things that are to come. He begins by asking the disciples, who do people say that he is. After several responses, Jesus asked them, now, ‘who do you say that I am.’
It is an important question for all of us, because having some clarity around that is helpful. Having clarity about the Jesus we follow helps us to understand why we are here. Why we gather in this place; what compelled us to give our time, talent, and resources? What do we hope to find here and what are we looking for?
Who is Jesus to you, my brothers and sisters? Who do you say that he is? If you were to be asked this question, how would you respond? Because it is a different question than asking why do you love your church? Or what does the church mean to you? The questions are related but they beg a different answer.
Our work is to grow and nurture people in faith; to help strength their resolve of being a follower of Christ and everything that we do – every song, prayer, scripture, concert, rummage sale, theatre class – everything is to provide some sense of what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. To affirm God’s way in the world; the way of love, hope, civility, and justice.
In our epistle, James talks about the power of the tongue. Though it is a small member of the body, the tongue has great power; power to lift and heal, and power to kill and tear down. All too often, we spend our entire life sorting through the power of the tongue: harmful words spoken by our parents or early teachers who said mean and hurtful things decades ago that reverberate throughout our entire lives. Or we remember healing words, loving and true, that have literally become the wind beneath our wings. James says from the same mouth, come both blessing and cursing, but this ought not to be so. And it cost something to tame our words.
Who do you say that Jesus is? Is Jesus a historical figure, distant and remote, about whom we read and know from afar? Is he the primary character at the center of healing stories and miracles? Or, as we saw in last week’s texts, a man; human like we are, who was not always on the top of his game. Who is Jesus to you? Is he the one who supports our human needs and longings; our wants and desires to whom we pray and who will enable and empower us to get what we want in life; or to become who we wish to become?
The disciples list a bunch of titles, and we have our own, I’m sure: healer, teacher, and friend. Peter, impetuous Peter, speaks up as he often does. Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God,” according to the gospel of Matthew. And Jesus warns them not to tell anyone about him, which is characteristic of the gospel of Mark.
Jesus goes on to say that the Son of Man will undergo great suffering; and be rejected; and killed; and after three days rise again.
Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah,” is the heartbeat of our faith, but what do we mean when we say that? And what does it mean for the way we live out our lives? Only when we understand that meaning can we truly follow.
It’s important that we consider these things; garner this awareness for ourselves, because the Jesus presented is the Jesus who suffers; who is to be crucified, despised, and rejected. This Jesus is the sacrificial lamb that will be killed.
And Jesus pulls no punches, but calls us into that same kind of follow-ship, just when we so want to take things easy; to fit in and be comfortable. Just when we don’t want to be radical at all; we want to play it safe. The Jesus we want is not always the Jesus that is.
How often are we like Peter, who has the right answer but not so much the right understanding? Are we often like Peter, who thinks he knows but struggles with the living out of it all? Like Peter, quick and eager to respond, but only with the portions that work for him, the parts that allow him to remain where he is, as he is?
We often do not want the radical side of discipleship; the kind that surely stretches us, that takes us outside of the walls into new and harsh terrain or territory that we would rather not travel. Peter has the right title but the wrong understanding. Are we also guilty?
And Jesus makes it plain and simple. He calls to the crowd and says, “If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves, 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
My brothers and sisters, have you counted the cost of following Jesus? Have you made the right assessment about what it means to truly be one of his? Those who would truly follow him but pick up their cross daily.
Ah – that cross, so dirty, despised, and murky, and at times downright ugly. That cross that calls to us to make sacrifices, set ourselves aside sometimes, not because we have to, but so there can be enough for others.
That cross that calls us to self-denial as good news because it brings healing and life to those who’s self has long been denied.
May we do our homework, make the right assessment, and count the cost. May we pick it up daily and follow.