Mt. 8:18-22, Mt. 16:24-26 We are beginning our journey toward the celebration of the good news of the resurrection… but that is down the road. There will be lots of toil, exhilaration, pain, and pondering before Jesus gets to that place. To put it plainly, there is a lot of suffering—both Jesus’ suffering and his disciples’ suffering—before anyone can celebrate an empty tomb. This Lent I invite you to walk together, following the footsteps of Jesus. We will explore what it means to follow Christ– for the original followers, for the first century believers, and for you and me. Following Christ starts within and moves to a community of faith, and then out into the neighborhood and the world.
Today we begin our journey by putting our feet in the shoes of two different would be followers. First, a scribe, or a teacher of the law, or someone who is well educated, or maybe a Presbyterian who has studied the Bible and the church and the faith. This guy is zealous, excited about what he has been seeing happen when Jesus is around. He is ready to follow Jesus anywhere. He thinks. How do you think he responded when Jesus told him that he was basically homeless, wandering from place to place with no stable place to sleep? Would you want to sign on for that? Would you spend the night in one of the tents down under the highway bridge at Mulberry and MLK Blvd? Brrr! Maybe in the summer. But even then, not for too long, I am sure. I am guessing that with those parameters set on following Jesus, the man’s expression would have caved and he would think twice. This following business is serious, after all.
Then there is one defined as a disciple, a person committed to learning from a specific teacher, basically a student. Perhaps he assumes he is already counted on the follower list. I’ll be right back, he says. First I have to take care of some family business. Of course burying his father is immensely important. After the seven days of mourning, he would have to accompany the body all the way to the grave as a sign of respect and devotion. It was one of the duties of a son. The entire family, even the entire community, would expect nothing less. He was not making up an excuse to join Jesus later. He had a moral and familial obligation to take care of his father’s funeral and burial. His commitments, his energy, his focus, were elsewhere. He may have thought he was a disciple already, but he was not ready for the demands of discipleship either.
There is a cost to this discipleship. There is a risk in being a follower of Christ. Jesus says being a follower means denying self and carrying a cross. That is taking the focus off self first, and then committing to carry a cross. It is not just wearing a cross necklace or earring or a tshirt with a Christian message. Neither is it bearing with those people in your life who are bothersome, or an everyday circumstance in life that creates extra work, effort, patience, etc. You know: “Oh, yes, that little Susie. She is a handful. She is just my cross to bear in life….” “I am the one who always has to wash the pots. It’s okay. It is my cross to bear.”
True cross carrying is none of these things. True cross carrying is being willing to risk suffering. The ugly wooden cross was an instrument of torture and death, plain and simple. It was a gallows. It was the execution chamber. Recently we have seen too much suffering and death come to more cross carriers doing work they felt called to do, people who have been kidnapped by terrorists in different parts of the world because they follow Jesus. Like Kayla Mueller, kidnapped in Syria, now dead. While she was being held by kidnappers, she wrote home to her family….“If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through. I have surrendered myself to our Creator… None of us could have known it would be this long, but know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able. I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down [and] I will not give in no matter how long it takes.” Just making the decision to serve in Syria was risky. She was willing to risk suffering to be a follower, to be a disciple in a place and time she felt called to be.
There are other kinds of suffering besides physical or life threatening suffering. We risk social suffering if we become the “strange one” who will not go along with friends who have decided to do something stupid, dangerous or even illegal, or when we are the one who has to leave the event early due to a curfew imposed by parents. Many times, especially for youth, that is hard to do. But it can be hard for adults as well. Going against the grain, you could be shunned or ignored. You could be ridiculed and laughed at. That is the risk. On the other hand, depending on who your friends are, you could actually be praised for sticking to your guns, for remaining steadfast as your own person. It can even happen within your family. Wonder if the family of the man whose father had died would have been able to understand him neglecting that burial duty to pursue a higher calling? To do so, he would have had to risk alienating people he loved. We are left to assume that he could not take that social risk.
We risk emotional suffering every time we put ourselves into a setting where we are walking side by side with someone who is down in the dumps or depressed—simply accompanying them through a rough time can cause emotional suffering for us. Or connecting more closely with persons who live in impoverished conditions, or in a dangerous part of the city, or under the thumb of Castro in Cuba. Or watching a loved one suffer physically in some way and feeling helpless to do anything about it. When you encounter people in difficult places in their lives, you risk suffering along with them. Pain comes from sharing painful experiences.
“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.”
Cross carrying is not an easy job. You can’t effectively carry a cross unless you place your focus away from yourself and your own wants and needs. Jesus knew it. Not everyone was cut out for cross carrying. After all, crosses get heavy. Even for Jesus. Jesus carried his own cross until he could not, and then someone else carried it the rest of the way up the hill. Jesus needed a network of support too!
Indeed discipleship costs. It brings a risk of suffering. But it also brings life, life that is found only through being willing to give up the kind of life lived before becoming a follower. So, is it worth it, this following Christ? This Lent, we will be exploring how following Christ includes refocusing on him, following his path and receiving true life. See you next week!