Jesus, Lead the Way!

*This devotion, on the gospel for Pentecost 15, was preached in the seminary chapel by Professor Kenneth Cherney. You can also watch the video of this devotion on Livestream.

Matthew 16:21-26

“God forbid, Lord! This will never happen to you!”

Last week, we heard Peter’s stirring confession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So here Jesus seizes the opportunity to begin teaching the disciples exactly what that means; exactly what “the Christ” is; what “the Christ” does. We are going to Jerusalem, Jesus says, for a confrontation with the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law. The spiritual leaders of our people. The guardians of our sacred Scriptures. The ones you would expect to know, if anybody would, exactly what the Christ is, what the Christ does. They are going to look at me, Jesus says, and almost to a man, they will vote “thumbs-down.” “The Christ? No, this isn’t him.” “The Christ? Are you kidding?” They will then inflict on me torment like nothing you have ever seen before, torment that is going to leave me dead. Dead for three days, after which I will return to life.

Peter’s response: “Lord, that can’t be right! Lord, how dare you say that! That’s not what the Christ is. That’s not what the Christ does.”

Brothers and sisters, we’re not like Peter. By now we have seen Jesus’ story play out—how many times? We are in no danger of watching the events of Jesus’ passion and saying with Peter, “This shouldn’t be happening! Jesus is the Christ!” We often do, however, react that way as our story plays out. Our problem is not, “Never, Lord! This should never happen to you!” Our problem is, “Never, Lord! This should not be happening to me.”

Lord, this can’t be right. I’m a Christian. I’m one of the good guys. I’m part of your Church, one of those people for whose sake the universe continues to exist. Not only that, I am studying to be a pastor. I’m preparing to give my whole life in service to others, to spend it sharing your truth. Lord, in return, I don’t expect them to erect a statue of me someplace. But is it too much to ask that people listen to me, that they not pick fights with me, say nasty things said about me, trash my reputation? And if all this has to happen, does it really have to come from the members of your own church? Lord, I am trained to occupy my days with the great thoughts of God. Could I occupy just one of my days with the great thoughts of God sometime, instead of with the silly things I end up wasting my days on? Lord, I don’t expect to get rich, but is a little something of my own too much to ask? Lord, all I want is what any normal person wants: to find my place in the world; to “get a life,” as they say. Now you’re saying that’s the very thing I can’t have. Lord, that doesn’t make sense. Lord, that’s not right.”

Jesus’ answer: My precious child, I, of all people, understand. But you still do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. You want to find your place in the world? Really? In this world, that is diametrically opposed to its God, on which judgment has already been passed, and that is headed for destruction? You want to be comfortable in, you want approval from, a world like this? Here is where you want to ‘get a life’? No, you don’t. Take that life and throw it away. Take all those hopes and aspirations, and throw them away right now. Exchange all that for a cross. And come, follow me.

Does this sound harsh? Not when you think about the alternative. “Take up your cross and follow me” sounds harsh, but this is the only way to get a life that is worthy of the name. A life like mine, Jesus says; life that comes after a cross and a death; life in sinlessness and glory that never, ever ends. I want that for you more than anything, Jesus says; so please: take it! Join me! Come, follow me!

We say: Jesus, lead the way. Taking up a cross is what the Christ does. Taking up a cross is what a Christian does.