Our Part in Christ
Rev. Dr. Wilfredo Baez
The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is to make Disciples of Christ. For awhile, the mission statement stopped there. But church members asked “Make disciples of Jesus for what?” And we expanded the statement to answer that question “for the transformation of the world?” Yet the expanded version of the mission statement remains incomplete without answering the questions “Transformed into what” and “Transformed how?” It makes a difference what we aim for and how we get there.
A church member asked me “Are you saved?” I understood the question and the motivation behind it, but hesitated to offer a response. The member asked again, but before I could answer, the young man exclaimed, “I am saved!” I looked at the member and responded “So what?” The member was stunned to silence by my question. I continued, “So what is different about your life now that you’ve been saved?”
There are two parts to today’s Bible passage. The first has to do with understanding who Jesus is (his identity) and what Jesus is about (his purpose). The second has to do with understanding who we are (our identity) and what we are about (our purpose).
While traveling with his disciples Jesus asked them. “Who do people say I am?” They answered: “John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets.” Jesus didn’t correct this answer but pushed on with a question meant to differentiate his disciples from other Jews, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah!” All of the disciples had answered the previous question, only Peter this one. Peter is made to stand out from the other disciples, a model disciple, braver in his profession of faith than the others; willing to risk a wrong answer where the others were not.
Jesus sternly ordered his disciples not to reveal to others that he was the Messiah, defined in Matthew’s gospel as the Son of the living God and in our world today as “Savior of the World.” It was something only disciples would understand.
Jesus was teaching the disciples about himself, the “Son of Man,” a term used at his time to refer to the future Messiah) must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter didn’t like Jesus answer. He didn’t believe it. So he rebuked Jesus. Jesus used Peter’s action as a teaching opportunity. He turned to the disciples and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter, the most faithful of Jesus disciples tested Jesus. The role of Satan, from the start of the gospel has been to test Jesus. It has been Satan’s role through the Bible; to convince the human to go against God; to choose convenience, comfort and control over inconvenience, discomfort and risk. Jesus wanted Peter to follow him, not test him.
Now, Peter isn’t stupid. To Peter, what Jesus said, couldn’t be true. After all, Jesus was the Messiah. He came to save his people not die in a failed mission. Peter was hearing Jesus’ teaching through human eyes, a human paradigm rather than through divine eyes, the divine perspective. Jesus was teaching God’s plan, not a human one. Jesus was introducing a new Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a peaceable and collaborative system. And he was challenging the status quo Kingdom of humankind, the domination and exploitation system of the existing world. Having inaugurated this new Kingdom reality, he invited others to follow him into it. From Peter’s perspective, if Jesus died, all hope died with him for his people. Peter, and all of the disciples, had further work to do in letting go of human concerns and trusting God. And don’t we have work to do here; to let go of our human concerns and fully rely upon God.
This brings us to part two of today’s Biblical passage; the part having to do with us. Jesus said, “If any of you want to be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your-self, you’re going to lose it. But if you lose yourself for my sake (Truth’s sake), you will save your life.” Deny your-self, that external worldly defined self that exists for it-self alone. Take up your cross. Take up your purpose. Follow me. Live the way of life I exemplify. You find yourself by losing your-self in me, in my way of being, the way of the cross. I have done my part. Now you do yours. You find your-self in doing what you have to do even when it’s inconvenient, hard, tire-some and involves things you don’t like without excuse.
Certainly, Jesus didn’t want to go to Jerusalem and face what seemed to be his demise. Trouble was brewing for him there. He might even die as the result of going there. And certainly, Jesus didn’t want to stay up alone all night to face his betrayer and those who would arrest him. Jesus had been losing disciples because the task ahead of him was too hard. He even lost one of the twelve. And by the time Jesus made it to the top of Calvary with his cross, nobody was with him, save a few women. Jesus did what he did because it had to be done.
Jesus’ disciples had made their choice to save themselves. It’s the normal human response. A literal rendering of Jesus’ teaching would render his disciples extinct. By the time of Jesus’ death on the cross his disciples were hiding lest they actually did find themselves dead on the cross. Remember what Jesus taught his disciples; “The ‘Son of Man,’” a term used at his time to refer to the future Messiah, “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The disciples had not yet experienced what Jesus was teaching. It is after Jesus’ resurrection that God’s plan is made clear.
Like our Messiah, we must undergo suffering, risk rejection by the powers-that-be and die for the sake of something bigger than what we are presently identified with. We must be tested (baptized) by fire. Our commitment to the world must be transformed into commitment to God. That involves letting go of our attachment to the world and its rewards so that God’s Kingdom plan, and the rewards it promises can be made manifest in our lives. That means choosing inconvenience, discomfort and risk and doing the things that are harder over convenience, comfort and control for a greater good than our own. It involves expressing our innermost, truest and just self when we are tested.
Our whole idea of God, of Messiah and of ourselves has to change, like that of the first disciples, so that we are conformed to Christ; we think, we feel, we believe, we act like Christ. Christ is raised up in us and lives in us, witnesses by our lives that God’s kingdom has come and is coming, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus has done what he had to. We must do what is ours to do. There are excuses not to, but we must do it anyways. It’s in the small things that we start, picking up our cross like Jesus did his and in following him in proclaiming by word and action God’s shalom (God’s love, God’s peace and God’s justice).”
I leave you with the question I raised at the start of our worship time. What is your cross and are your carrying it? Will you pick up your cross and carry it? Jesus has done his part, will we do ours.