“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. For
what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their
life? Or what will they give in return for their life?"
The passage for this Sunday comes immediately after last week's reading. The context for Jesus telling his disciples that he must undergo suffering at the hands of the chief priests and the elders and be killed is Peter's previous claim that Jesus is the Messiah the Son of God.
Peter's answer to Jesus' question "who do you say that I am," that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God, was praised by Jesus as coming from the Father. What we see in this passage is that Jesus goes on to explain exactly what it means for him to be the Messiah.
When Peter made this claim that Jesus is the Messiah, he did so as a first century Jewish person with first century Jewish expectations. They believed that the Messiah would restore the kingdom of Israel to political freedom, overthrow the oppressive occupation of the Romans, and the Messiah would sit on David's throne to rule as their king.
This is why Peter is shocked when Jesus says he must undergo suffering at the hand of the chief priests and the elders, and be killed. This is why Peter gets praised on the one hand only to be chastised moments later. When Jesus says "you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" he's talking about his Messianic expectation.
Peter and the other followers had one set of expectations and hopes for the future, but God's will demanded something totally different. Following the Father's way of love demanded something completely different.
All of this is the context for this famous teaching of Jesus: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
This is what the students of Jesus, those of us today included that follow his way, are called to do. We're called to reject the expectations that the world sets, expectations for what it means to live a good life, to be successful, to be a good citizen and a good person. The way of love demands something else. It demands so much more because it demands our full self.
What would it profit to gain the kingdom of Israel, indeed to gain the whole world, but to your life and soul by following the world's clamor for power? God's way of love does not grasp after power and wealth.
This week Paul lays out for us what a life submitted to the way of love looks like:
"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. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
The world wants us pitted against one another, wants us on different sides and in different tribes. The world and our enemy the Devil want us to condemn each other as evil, hateful, enemies of our country or our ideology, and as needing to be defeated at all costs. Imagine if, instead, we blessed those who cursed us? Imagine if, instead of revenge, we overcame evil with good, loving and caring for those we see as against us or different than us? What if those with a loud microphone in our society lived by the axioms "do not be haughty" and "do not claim to be wiser than you are?" What if we lived each day doing our part not to condemn, but living peaceably with all?
This doesn't mean we cannot be angry at injustice or evil around us. This doesn't mean enduring oppression or suffering without protest. The way of love also demands for us to associate with those who are persecuted and oppressed, work for justice and the dignity of every human being. We need only read Luke 13:10-17 to see that Jesus refused to wait patiently to do what is right when worldly thinking expected otherwise. Dr. King's words in "Why We Can't Wait" are as powerful today as ever" “The conservatives who say, "Let us not move so fast," and the extremists who say, "Let us go out and whip the world," would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles. But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing; for they do not reach the people who have a crying need to be free.”
If we want to know the way of love, we look to the cross, where Jesus submitted himself even to humiliating death. That's the way we are called to follow. Jesus IS that Way, and he is the Truth and the Life. There are many today trying to get us to follow them, but he is our Master and Teacher, the shepherd whose voice we must listen for in the noise.
What are you being called to sacrifice for love?
May we know the way of the cross as the way of life, and may God give us the courage to take up our cross and follow him there.