God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Today’s gospel reading might be a familiar one to you. It does, after all, contain the memorable moment when Jesus calls one of his own disciples “Satan.” When we hear this passage in worship, it’s separated from its broader context in Matthew—and we can’t possibly understand it without knowing some of that context.
So let me zoom out a bit and explain where we are in the gospel narrative. In the chapters leading up to today’s reading, Jesus has been performing miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and teaching in parables. We’ve been hearing these stories here in church over the summer months. In Matthew 13, Jesus was telling parables about seeds and sowers. In Matthew 14, Jesus fed thousands of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, and then his disciples witnessed him walk on water. In short, Jesus is having an absolutely great run as a prophet.
Last week, when Pastor Scott was here, you heard the passage that comes immediately before today’s gospel reading. After all of the teaching and signs and miracles, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Jesus presses them: “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter boldly proclaims: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”
Jesus praises Peter, promising him, “Blessed are you… I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks, and Peter answers: “The Messiah, the Son of the living God.” For Peter to make this confession shows that he does understand the significance of Jesus. Jesus isn’t just a prophet, not even a great prophet like Elijah. Jesus is something more, something singular: he is the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of God.
That proclamation of faith happens in verse 16. By verse 22, just 6 verses later—the very next paragraph!—Peter rebukes Jesus. Jesus responds harshly: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” So what happened? What did Peter get so wrong?
Although we heard the two parts of this story a week apart, the gospel presents it in one continuous narrative. Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. Right after that, the gospel tells us, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
This is where Peter objects. Jesus has drawn a road map for his own future, and it leads to suffering and death. Peter cannot comprehend this. After all, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! He can’t go to Jerusalem and die. That’s not what a Messiah does. That’s not the kind of Lord Peter thought he was following.
Peter doesn’t like the path Jesus has laid out. After scolding Peter, Jesus addresses all of his disciples: “If any want to become 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.”
This road Jesus is on, the road to Jerusalem, will lead to his betrayal, suffering and death. It’s also the road he is asking his disciples to follow. “Take up your cross,” Jesus says, as he himself heads towards his crucifixion. “Lose your life for my sake.”
Will you follow where Jesus is leading? What does it mean to follow Jesus?
Did you all ever play follow the leader as a kid? Some years ago, I was helping to lead a youth retreat. We had the youth break up into these small groups, and as an ice breaker game, we had the kids play follow the leader. But we did it with a little twist: everyone behind the leader was blindfolded. The youth would all hold hands, and walk in a line, and the leader would tell everyone what was going on. So if there was a step coming up, the leader would have to tell each person when to take that step. Now the leaders of all the groups were pretty safe about it. They just did little zig zags and walked around in circles; they were trying to make it easy for everyone.
But there was one kid who was leading who was taking this much more seriously. He led his group up and down curves and they weaved through trees. And all the while, he told his group what to do: Step up! Step down! Make your way slowly to the right! But then I heard him shout this out to his group: “Okay, in front of us, we have about fifteen rose bushes... And we’re going to walk through them.” At that point, everybody in the group opened their eyes, and said, “No way!” What happens when your leader takes you someplace you do not want to go, someplace dangerous? Who would want to follow someone like that?
The road Jesus is on leads to the cross. We think of the cross as a symbol of our faith, even a reminder of God’s saving love for us. But we can’t forget what it meant to Jesus and his followers and all those living under the Roman empire. Crucifixion was not just a form of execution; it was an execution that was horrific, excruciating, and very public. Rome didn’t crucify every criminal; those who were crucified were meant to be a public example. They were meant to be a warning to the rest of the populace: stay in line, or this could be you.
Jesus tells his followers that they need to take up their own crosses. This isn’t about suffering for suffering’s sake. Jesus isn’t saying that disciples ought to be miserable. He’s not suggesting that all kinds of suffering—from chronic illness to domestic violence—are redemptive. No, Jesus is telling his disciples that they need to have the conviction and courage to keep doing the work of God’s kingdom, the work of proclaiming the good news, even knowing what happens to those who upset the status quo.
Peter was outraged when Jesus revealed that his Messiahship would lead to suffering and death. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this revelation. Everything Jesus has done up to now has laid the groundwork for his inevitable march to the cross. This is what it means to announce “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is what it means to live as children of God, as subjects of the heavenly king. If you are loyal to God, you are a threat to Rome—and to every structure and system of this world. And the powers of this world are always willing to make examples of those who upset the status quo.
Jesus was a threat to the political and religious powers of his time, and so they had to execute him, to eliminate the threat. Jesus’ disciples, the ones who followed him to Jerusalem and to the empty tomb and beyond… they will also face danger. They will be arrested, put on trial, even killed, because they chose to follow Jesus.
And what about us? Here in the United States in the 21st century, no one is going to imprison us for following Jesus. Christianity as an institution is no longer a threat to the status quo; for centuries, Christianity has been the status quo. So if we choose to follow Jesus, there isn’t a literal cross for us to pick up. We don’t have to fear being arrested or killed for our faith. So are these words of Jesus just a relic of an earlier time? Is Jesus still speaking to us when he says, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”?
We don’t have to worry about being imprisoned for our faith. But Jesus’ message here is still relevant, two thousand years later. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves and follow him, to lose our lives for his sake.
To put it another way, Jesus is asking us to be all in. Jesus is telling us we can’t hedge our bets; we can’t put part of our trust in him while still having a backup plan. We have to commit everything we have, our whole lives, to following Jesus.
What does that look like for you? What might you be holding onto, just in case this Jesus-following thing doesn’t work out? What gives you pause, what makes you open your eyes and shout, “No way, Jesus! I can’t follow you there!”
What does it look like for this congregation? In every church I’ve worked with, there is an anxiety about the future. Will we meet our budget? Can we attract young families to fill the pews and the offering plates? There’s fear, seeing the average age of the congregation rise… seeing longtime, faithful members die… seeing more empty space in the church. We worry that we are losing our life, that the church is dying, and we try to grasp anything that will help us preserve our life for a little longer.
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” What would it look like to stop trying to save the life of the church? What could we do if we let go of the anxiety and fear for the future, and just went all in on following Jesus? And what if we took Jesus seriously here, trusting him even as we give up on the markers of success and vitality in favor of following our leader? If we lose our life for Jesus’ sake, might we find life after all?
If we want to go all in on following Jesus, I’ll leave you with these words from Romans: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers… Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.”
Follow the leader. Amen.