Listen to it:
“To Follow After Jesus”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? Of course, we cannot ask that question without also asking, what does it mean to follow Jesus here and now, in this place, in this time, in this culture, this society. Because here is where we are. Jesus is not concerned with an abstraction; if we are really followers of Jesus, then we are followers of Jesus who live in concrete realities. We often consider “following Jesus” to be an abstract, spiritualized concept to be thought about only at church-while our lives actually go on in ways no different than if we had never even considered the question. So, what does it mean for you-you-to be a follower of Jesus? What does it mean for me to be a follower of Jesus? None of us are interchangeable; none of us are copies, or clones, or replicas of anyone else. God made only one you, with your particular characteristics, education, experiences, family, occupation, likes, and dislikes. Ask yourself then, and consider: what does it mean for me to be a follower of Jesus? But this is not simply an exercise in introspection, because whether and how you follow Jesus will be absolutely and without remainder tied to how you answer the question of Jesus to His disciples: “But you, who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29). Peter answers the question in one way, and it means something particular and very concrete: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). And Jesus tells Peter and the other disciples what it means that He is the Christ: “And he began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and to be killed and after three days to rise” (Mark 8:31). But even with his correct, pious, orthodox interpretation of who Jesus is, Peter still doesn’t know what it means that he is following the Christ, because he rejects Jesus’ interpretation of Himself; Peter rebukes Jesus. And so it is that Jesus must rebuke Peter publicly for his false interpretation. “Get behind me, Satan, because you are not thinking the things of God but rather the things of men” (Mark 8:33). Satan has not actually inhabited Peter’s body, but he might as well have. Peter is speaking Satan’s words and playing Satan’s part: to prevent Jesus from being known as the sort of Christ that He is. Just as Satan tried to get Jesus to be a different Son of God, one who claimed power apart from the will of the Father, so now Peter tries to get Jesus to be a different Son of Man, one for whom the cross is not necessary. Jesus rejected any interpretation of Himself that ignores or downplays or sentimentalizes the cross, and so should we. If someone talks about the forgiveness of God apart from the cross, Get behind me, Satan! If someone talks about the Gospel apart from the cross, Get behind me, Satan! If someone says that forgiveness does not require the shedding of blood or that Jesus’ suffering did not accomplish our salvation or that the cross was God’s plan B, Get behind me, Satan!
And yet, the gaze of Jesus is not directed primarily away from the Church, but into the midst of her, at those who confess, with St. Peter, that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is looking right here, at your heart and mine. We know that He is not just a prophet, not just an important man who speaks the truth about God. He is the truth of God; He is God’s Son and God’s Word; He is anointed in the flesh with the Holy Spirit and twice His Father says, “This is My Son, the Beloved.” We know that, but do we know what it means for us? Because Peter did not. So Jesus explains that what happens to Him, what must happen to Him, will happen to those who follow Him. Jesus will force Satan to get in line behind Him, but to those in whom the Spirit has created a desire to follow after Him, Jesus says, “Let that one take up his cross and deny himself. Let that one lose everything that she calls hers, even her physical life. Let those followers of Mine not be ashamed of Me, and I will not be ashamed of them.” Now you don’t have to go looking for suffering, for crosses. Jesus does not say that we need to go find a cross in order to prove that we suffer with Him. He simply says, claim it. It is yours because it was Mine. Take up the cross that comes with following Me in your particular situation, in your particular circumstance. Because, remember, you don’t follow Jesus in the abstract; you follow Him here and now, in the concrete details of life. Two questions, then: how have you been ashamed of your Lord, because of whom you carry your cross? And, will you carry your cross unashamed of the rejection, the suffering, and the death that it will bring?
This is an adulterous and unfaithful age, a sinful age, and it grows worse every day. Though it is never easy to follow your Lord through life to death, it is not getting any easier. Fewer distractions mean fewer temptations. Fewer items on the calendar mean fewer things to take you away from what really matters. But those distractions and full calendar squares are certainly not decreasing. We can barely drag ourselves away from television, internet, movies, iPhones, iPods, Facebook, MySpace, e-mail, video games, and whatever other technological wonders pull seconds and minutes and hours from our days. There is no shortage of means and methods for this unfaithful and sinful age to seep, and creep, and trickle, and flow, and explode into our brains and bodies and souls. Likewise, the pressure to be ashamed of Jesus and His cross multiplies in proportion to the distractions we bring into our homes and cars and offices. Technology certainly does not make it impossible to follow after Jesus, but it does not make it easier. How many more opportunities do we have to push Jesus back into the corners, into the margins, into the ever-dwindling white space on the calendar? And Jesus rebukes us for our faithlessness and our shame; for looking exactly like the unfaithful, sinful, Satanic age out of which He has called us; for taking Him aside and trying to get Him to be a different kind of Christ-maybe one for whom the cross is not necessary because talk of sin and suffering will only drive people away. Or maybe a Christ who doesn’t require that He be at the center of our lives. But, if we have confessed that Jesus is the Christ, either we follow the Christ whom He is, or we follow Satan. And that confession of the Christ requires of us a confession of sin: we have been ashamed of this rejected, suffering, dying, rising Lord more times than we can count; maybe even more often than we have confessed Him clearly. We would come after Him, but we are unable or unwilling to deny ourselves. The Spirit is willing, but our flesh is weak. We, on whom the Holy Spirit has come, who have confessed Christ, know that there is nothing more valuable than this Christ and this cross, nothing in this adulterous age for which our lives would be a worthy exchange. If we know that, then we come to the cross of Christ ashamed of ourselves, ashamed of the Satan in us. But Christ is not ashamed to receive us back. He is not ashamed to call us His own, and to pull us back into the center of His life. He does. Here, around this font and before this altar, is the center of His life among us: His forgiving and cross-shaped life among us. Do not be ashamed of this Christ! We proclaim His death every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, and when we leave this place, we bear His cross out into our concrete places and times, into this culture and this society. Knowing that-knowing that your Lord is not ashamed to call you His own-you have the freedom to unashamedly carry the cross that only you can carry, because you are the only you in your family, in your school, in your job, in your community. You have nothing to fear from this adulterous and sinful age; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, for which your life, bought with the holy, precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus, is worthy to be exchanged. And when Christ calls on you to deny yourself and your desires in some specific circumstance, when He calls on you to give up some particular claim on your life, you will know that the Christ who awaits you in the glory of His Father with His angels is not ashamed of you, because He has already given up everything to make you His own.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/3/09