Matt 16:21-28 | Discipleship

Junkie sitting on the bed, withdrawal symptom

3 September 2023 | Liz Caughey

Today’s gospel is a recipe for a life of following Jesus. And that’s what being a Christian means – simply, being a follower, a disciple, of Jesus – however imperfectly we might try to do that. But, while following Jesus brings inner peace and contentment to our soul, it’s not for one moment a promise for an easy life. It will more likely be a path of obstacles and opposition. Because once we truly accept Jesus as Lord, we have taken on a calling to what I have heard described as ‘radical inclusion’. That is, a calling to love and look out for all people and especially those who face disadvantage of any kind – like injustice, rejection, ill-health, or loneliness. Being a disciple might mean we have to take a stand against those in power – or against the man-made systems of the world that choose not to recognise injustice. Ours is a calling to seek peace and justice, and to keep hope alive in people’s hearts and in the world.

Now, underpinning every gospel reading is the astonishing reality that whenever Jesus spoke, the people around Him were literally hearing the voice of God again. Jesus’ ministry broke the silence that God had entered into straight after he gave Moses the Ten Commandments about 1500 years before Christ was born (Ex. 20:19). After that interaction, the people said ‘no more’, God was too terrifying. So God withdrew from communicating face-to-face with humankind. Prophets and kings took over, and they delivered messages from God that they received in visions, but they too went quiet 400 years before Jesus was born. And it seems that, over time, for the most part, people stopped even listening for God’s voice.

Until Jesus. In Jesus, the silent God found voice again. With His birth, God came to earth in human form, to break open people’s hearts again. ‘This is my Son, my beloved Son. Listen to Him,’ God said. By appearing amongst them, living the same life they were living, God was reaching out yet again to connect with humankind in a way they would relate to. With Jesus’ miracles the Word of God was translated once more into acts. VERY different from God’s acts that we associate with the OT – like the famines and droughts and floods and plagues – which were sent in judgment on the people when they didn’t act righteously. Jesus’ acts were aligned with the creative and nurturing acts of God, although on a more intimate scale. His acts were miracles of healing, resurrecting, dignifying, and saving. Compassionate acts on a personal scale, amongst people around him. Acts that we are now called to do, as Jesus’ disciples.

And the short gospel reading today lays out very clearly the three steps to that discipleship:
1) to deny ourselves
2) to take up our cross, and
3) to follow Jesus

It needs to be said though that discipleship is a commitment that WE have to choose. And that we have to pledge ourselves to again and again, even daily, because it is a difficult thing to do.

So those three steps:

Firstly, to deny ourselves.

As humans, our tendency is to indulge rather than deny our ‘self’. You may have heard the phrase, ‘Death to self’. I always found that really confronting, but it doesn’t mean death in the usual, final sense of that word.  Instead, it means giving up the aspects of our life that don’t fit with the teachings of Christ. So, it is dying to our old way of being, and being resurrected or reborn to a whole new way of being that will contribute to bringing God’s kingdom on earth. In today’s reading, we can see that Peter hasn’t quite got the hang of that! He can’t understand how Jesus can be talking about being killed, when he has just admitted to being the Son of God! So, Peter rushes in where angels fear to tread. Out of love for the man he has just acknowledged to be the Messiah, he is trying to influence God’s plan to protect Jesus from the very death He is foretelling.

But God has written that narrative, and no one can disrupt that by trying to take over because they think they know better. Jesus knows he must fulfill his God-given destiny, but Peter doesn’t understand that yet. You could say, he’s between the place of acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah and the place of truly understanding what that means – both for Jesus in terms of his destiny, and for himself, as a disciple. Peter needs to deny his limited human understanding and trust in God.

We know for ourselves that it takes time between truly accepting Jesus as Lord and bringing about change in our thinking and then our actions as a result. We first have to grapple with separating our thinking from the assumptions that we have learnt from the human framework of the world we live in – everything that we have always taken for granted, everything that has been part of our life till now. And we come to understand that, as Christians, we are here to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice to those in need – and everyone is in some need.

This form of action – being Christ’s hands and feet – is known as preaching the gospel without using words. Actions are powerful, and often more appropriate and helpful than speaking about Jesus to others. Actions often sow a seed that can be nurtured and will grow.   

So, the first step then to discipleship is denying our ‘self’ that has been shaped by the ways of the world, and learning to align ourselves with the new way that Jesus teaches.

The second step to discipleship is to take up our cross. This refers to the cross of crucifixion, like the one Jesus carried on his back to his execution. This cross represents sacrifice and suffering. It stands for anything that might hold us back from being our true selves as disciples. This is a direct call to each of us: “Take up your cross. Follow me. Come now, ready or not.” What he is urging us to do is to take up whatever is our burden – our life experience our grief our baggage our disappointment our failure – and to follow Him. …  To follow Him in spite of and still with  all our faults and wounds, our regrets, our fears, our weaknesses. 

Taking up our crosses means, each of us, of our own free will, accepting the responsibilities that come with our commitment to our faith, and following God’s lead for our lives. And we won’t always get it right, because we’re only human. But for the countless times we stumble, God’s forgiveness is already putting us back on our feet. And we come to understand that we need also to forgive ourselves. Which is the most difficult forgiveness of all. 

The third step to discipleship is to follow Jesus. In this command He is saying, ‘You don’t need to look back at what you’re leaving behind. Just leave it. Don’t look around to see what everyone else is doing. Just follow me.’ He’s saying, “No excuses. There will never be a better time. Your worries will always be with you. You will always have some cross to bear, so take it up now and come. Follow me on this way to new life. You and I have so much to do.”

Because central to following Jesus is looking around at our fellow human beings and seeing what their need is, and whether we can meet that need. A conversation, a coat, some food, shelter, acceptance. At St Columba, I love how we always finish our prayers by saying, ‘Let us be the answer to our prayers for one another’. That’s what it’s about. That’s such a realistic and beautiful prayer.

So those are the three steps to discipleship.

And just as God used the Word to create the world, Jesus in this passage is speaking disciples into being: “Deny yourself, take up your Cross, follow Me”, He says. And if we do, He will show us te ara tika, te ara pono – the Way of righteousness and truth. And there is no better way for the health of the soul.

But it is our choice whether we follow or not. Discipleship is on offer to everyone. Jesus is saying to us all, ‘you are mine’. Our choice is whether to believe that or not. Whether to act as if it is true or not. When we do, we are drawn into Christ’s eternity of followers. Linked … by an invisible thread to God that no logic can explain, and nothing can break. And then we are entrusted with the mission of bringing God’s kingdom on earth in our time, each of us –  in our own / unique / way.

God is always reaching out to us and we just need to respond ‘yes, here I am’, and then act according to that decision. Act peace which brings peace, act love which multiplies love, act generosity to grow generosity, abundance so abundance blooms, and act justly so that ‘justice will roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ (Amos 5:24). These are all things that, in the very doing of them, we bring them about. And – God willing – these will open people’s eyes to the love of God.

Jesus lived the vision of God’s kingdom on earth. He invites us again and again to follow Him, and to help plant and water the seeds of discipleship so that God’s kingdom may come to fruition and flourish. All it takes is one decision, and three steps: ‘Deny yourself, take up your Cross, and follow Christ.’ Day after day after day.