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Sermon for October 20, 2019

Lessons: Exodus 3:1-15/Matthew 16:13-28

Title: “You Can’t Be Serious!”

Discipleship is a church word you are not likely to find apart from some reference to Jesus. When the terms “disciple” or “discipleship” appear in Scripture they almost exclusively refer to the followers of Jesus, the twelve men Jesus initially called to ministry, but also the expanding circle of anonymous persons the Lord’s message attracted.

      Looking back it is really hard to get a read on what the Lord’s disciples actually did while he was in their midst.  Called out to be “fishers of people,” the gospels portray the disciples as occupying at most an observer’s, rather than a participant’s role, in Jesus’ ministry.  The few times the disciples are depicted as actually attempting to act, they come up short.  Jesus is forced to take over and do what they failed to do. Remember, however, Jesus did not call specialists to ministry, persons with specific expertise in healing arts, nor were they people expected to possess great faith or refined pastoral skills. 

Insofar as requirements were concerned the disciple’s vocation basically centered on following Jesus.  If that sounds open-ended it probably was.   

      The pressure of expectations could not have impacted the lives of Jesus’ disciples stronger than on the day when Jesus told his disciples the facts of life and death.

      The facts of life came quite easily to Peter.  Peter knew that his friend Jesus was exceptional. In fact, he was the first person we know of who identified Jesus as the Messiah. He, in turn, was the rock upon which Jesus was prepared to establish the church. Yet astute, highly regarded Peter was knocked off his pedestal in this morning’s lesson.  Jesus calls him a disciple of Satan.  But why? You see, Peter couldn’t handle the facts of death. 

To identify Jesus as Messiah was one thing, to identify him, as a suffering martyr was another.  Peter was unprepared to accept the fact that Jesus might occupy both of those roles.

      It was not the facts of life, the special opportunity to serve the Messiah that challenged Peter.  It was the facts of a cross and death that challenged Peter.

      How do you begin a conversation that you know will cause your best friends great pain and anguish?  No, it was not the perks, but the perils of discipleship, that served as the substance of Jesus’ remarks in our morning’s lesson.

      After acknowledging that, yes, he was the Messiah, Jesus opened the trapdoor to expose a deep well of darkness.  

We don’t know what Jesus did to prepare his disciples for the hard times to come. Instead Matthew immediately launches into the thick of things with these words, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hand of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

      The announcement was breathtaking, “suffering, killed, third day be raised.”  I would speculate that the emotions of Jesus’ disciples probably stalled when the words suffering and killed were spoken.  Though heard, the bit about “third day be raised” probably didn’t register at all.

      The facts of life, Messiah, and all that came with it were easily digested by the disciples.  The facts of death, on the other, the facts of death received the kind of reception one would expect them to receive, “God forbid it, Lord! [Peter proclaimed] This must never happen.”  The echo of Peter’s “no” must have been resounding: No! “You can’t be serious?”

      Peter’s purely predictable response did not gain a positive hearing from Jesus.  Instead, Jesus was furious, accusing Peter of being a stumbling block” and “Satan”.  So, this was Peter’s and the other disciples’ introduction to “the cost of discipleship.”

      Surely Peter and other disciples knew that Jesus was making enemies, people who were jealous of his notoriety. They must have understood that their friendship with Jesus could get them in trouble. But did they really know, or want to know, the full story. Did they appreciate that they could be killed for following Jesus?

What did they know about the cost of discipleship? What did Peter know about the cost of discipleship? Let’s be fair. These were men who sacrificed leaving jobs and kin to follow Jesus. They basically lived off the handouts of what people gave them. They sacrificed, but when did they personally do anything that might get them in trouble? It was Jesus who took the heat for them. How could they have been prepared when Jesus “deny yourselves and take up your cross”?  

      Again, the cost of discipleship was not a new concept.  The disciples had made sacrifices that he might string along with Jesus.  But did they fully comprehend the degree of sacrifice that came with discipleship before the Lord placed self-denial and personal suffering on the table? The cost of discipleship would bore in on them with force testing their faith and endurance to the very core.

The Sunday school teachers where I received my introduction to Jesus and the church didn’t talk much about the cost of discipleship. We were taught a lot about Jesus. We followed the course of his ministry across Palestine. We were fascinated to learn about all the incredible deeds he performed. He was a larger than life hero. What our Sunday teachers didn’t talk about, or was I listening [what they didn’t talk about] were the personal sacrifices we might be called upon to face if we chose to live as he did.

“Take up your cross and follow me.” “You must lose your life to find it.” The vocabulary of sacrifice is prominent in our Lord’s gospel, making uncomfortable demands that few of us are willing to confront, and who can blame us, for the requirements seem too severe.

Fortunately we are under no pressure to make fundamental life-shaping life and death decisions. We are under no pressure to defend our faith at the point of a gun. We who worship here this morning do not worry that someone will break in here and take us away in handcuffs. How we conduct ourselves in worship is entirely up to us.

“Take up your cross and follow me.” It was Jesus’ invitation to come follow him to Calvary hill. In light of that there is no need to ask ourselves why Jesus’ disciples may have been paralyzed with fear.      Taking up the cross represents a different challenge for us. It is not a threat of violence.  Taking up the cross for us might mean accepting Jesus’ claim on our lives when to do so means putting ourselves at a disadvantage.

Taking up our cross might mean accepting less when we might have had more. It might mean forgiving someone for an offense against us that we might otherwise have deemed unforgiveable. Taking our cross and following Jesus might mean insisting that our fellow human being has the opportunity to live the quality of life we covet for ourselves. Cross bearing might force us to rethink the attitudes we maintain about race, human rights, and the distribution of wealth.

To take up the cross for us does not mean to emulate Jesus’ physical suffering. What it could mean is that we are willing to challenge engrained ways of thinking and acting that heretofore have made self-interest the first and primary consideration in our decisions.

      To his none-too-receptive disciples Jesus exposed a reality that was at best repulsive.  No, suffering and death didn’t square with their notions of discipleship.  Self-denial and cross-bearing were no more appealing to them than they are to us.  When we contemplate inconvenience or suffering, we shrink back: “Lord, you can’t be serious.”  Yet can we practice any form of Christianity worthy of the name without somehow honoring the core teaching of the faith?

      Yes, we are expected to DO something to demonstrate our Christian convictions.  That may not occasion the sort of self-denial or cross-bearing that will radically alter our lives, but to excuse ourselves from any effort because we are not called to make a great one is unacceptable to the Lord, and ruinous for the church.

      Suffering, involving self-denial and personal trauma, is the price we pay for living in a sinful world.  While Jesus was no less repelled by that reality than we are, he saw more clearly than we shall ever see, that sin is no less powerful an adversary because we choose to ignore it.

      Suffer?  Die?  You can’t be serious?  There must be a less demanding, more expedient way to deal with the sins of the world.  If it was the less demanding, the more expedient way that Jesus sought he could have chosen it.  But the fact is Jesus didn’t choose it.  He suffered and he died. 

      I recently finished reading a biography of Winston Churchill.  Churchill was among the first to appreciate the threat Adolph Hitler posed to world peace.  It was the thirties, and many wanted to downplay the Nazi threat even though Hitler made his intentions all too clear. Many in the British government were eager to negotiate with Hitler, to appease him if necessary.  Others thought a treaty might keep him at bay.  Still others chose to ignore the threat he posed all together.

      Churchill, though a comparatively low ranking government official in the British government, insisted on being heard. He did everything he could to warn Parliament and the British nation that Hitler must be stopped. He was condemned by many as a warmonger who didn’t know what he was talking about. He antagonized people to the point that people tuned him out.

      History would vindicate Churchill, proving that England’s survival would only come at great costs.  No other choices were available. There was a cross to be borne in the form of a devastating world war.

      “You can’t be serious, Lord?”  The cost of discipleship prompts such questions.  We would like to have our discipleship on our terms.  Take us, as we are, where we are, at our own pace, Lord.  But it just doesn’t work that way.  There is no discipleship absent a cost to maintain it.  It is through people who willingly stepped up and accepted the cost of discipleship that the church was built, and is being built and maintained. 

Suffering and death may not be the price tag placed on our discipleship, but there is a price tag.  By surrendering to crucifixion Jesus paid that price.  Jesus willingly died for your sins and mine. He sacrificed his life.

Much is expected of those who would follow Jesus. The life he led, the choices he made, threatened the assumptions and security of his disciples. The cost of following Jesus often put them at cross purposes with cultural norms and expectations. Their choice was to follow Jesus or stay behind. We too have a choice. Will we follow Jesus or will we stay behind?

In our decision to follow or not we may not confront challenges of the magnitude that faced Jesus’ first disciples, but the faith challenges we confront in day to day living are no less real for being of a lessor magnitude. May today be a day for building confidence to meet the challenges that come to those who follow Jesus.  



      How great you are, O Christ, and how willingly to set aside all the trappings and prerogatives of your divinity in order to take human flesh.  How willing you were to submit to your father’s will, and ultimately surrender yourself to men who mocked and executed you. 

      O Christ, who entered life in order to redeem it, we are a church of doctrines and creeds that struggle to impart divine truths. There is so much that has been written and taught in your name, yet there is so much you have yet to reveal. We claim but an imperfect grasp on the truth you taught, by our actions often rejecting it. Yet, O Lord, you love us despite our sins. Instead, you issue the call to “come,” the call to discipleship.

        Lord, the cost of discipleship imposes great demands, yet you assure us that you will us strengthen when fear and courage threaten. Your assurance, “fear not, I am with you,” is renewed with each passing day.

      Lord, abide with those who experience heartache and sadness today, people who are burdened by loss and hopelessness. Strengthen those who face personal challenges that seem overwhelming. Reassure those who are humbled by doubt and feelings of personal inadequacy.

O Christ, who cured the leper, opened the eyes of the blind, and comforted the grieving, we pray your intercession on behalf of people we know who are struggling and adrift.  You have pledged to bear the weight of human grief and despair with us. May your comfort and consolation strengthen those who are struggling.  

      O Spirit, intercessor, intercede for us before the throne of God.  Be our advocate, praying with us and for us, that we may not only embrace the name “Christian,” but embrace the identity as well.  We thank you for this fellowship into which providence has guided us, thankful for the mutual support and encourage we receive here in living the faith. All this we pray in the strong name of Jesus, our brother and our redeemer, who taught us when praying to say…