Looking around the congregation this morning I see that quite a few of you are old enough to have learned to drive on a car with rear-wheel drive. Could you just raise your hand if you learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car? Thank you. Do you remember what it was like the first time you drove a front-wheel drive car? Everything was in the same place, but somehow it felt different when you were driving, didn’t it?
There was one particular area of driving where it not only felt different – it was very different. Those of you who learned to drive on a rear-wheel drive car: do you remember what they told us to do when we got into a skid? We were supposed to steer into it! This of course felt completely wrong and counter-intuitive; if you’d lost control of your car and it was sliding toward the ditch, the natural thing to do was to steer away from the ditch, not toward it! But given that the back wheels were the driving wheels and the front wheels were the steering wheels, what was necessary was to get the front and back wheels in line with each other again, so as to bring the car under control. That’s why they told us to steer into the skid; it was a better way to regain control of your car.
Or so my driving instructor told me! I must say that the few times I ever went into a skid, I don’t think I did as I was told! Natural instinct was to steer away from the skid, and when you lose control of a car, it’s usually natural instinct that takes over. It’s so difficult to do the things we know in our head will work, when they just feel completely wrong.
This is a problem Christians have to face all the time. So often in our walk with Jesus we run into paradoxes: things that don’t seem to make sense, but that Jesus seems to think are right at the centre of Christian life. The first will be last. If you want to be the first in the kingdom, then be the servant of all the others. The tax collectors and prostitutes are getting into the kingdom before the religious leaders. The wisdom of God is foolishness to the world. And, in today’s gospel reading, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s this all about?
This week’s gospel reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s. Last week we read about Jesus gathering his disciples together and asking them a question: “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets”. “What about you?” he asked them; “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Jesus affirmed that this was the right answer and he told Peter that it was God who had revealed this truth to him.
Remember: in the time of Jesus the word ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ was not just a religious word; it was a political word too. Israel lived under Roman rule, aided by corrupt Jewish leaders who were doing quite well out of the Roman occupation. That couldn’t be right, people thought; they were God’s chosen people and God would surely liberate them. God would send a king like good old King David in the past; he would drive out their enemies and set up a good and honest government in Jerusalem. He would protect the poor and the widow and the orphan and restore peace and justice to Israel. That was the Messiah’s job description.
So if Jesus is the Messiah, what’s the plan? Surely the next move is to develop a strategy for taking over the government. We should march on Jerusalem, pick up some more supporters on the way, choose our moment carefully, pray for God’s help, then stage a surprise attack, take over the Temple and have Jesus crowned as King of Israel in the royal line of David. Jesus is the true Messiah, so God will vindicate him by giving him victory over his enemies; Herod and Pontius Pilate will get what they deserve, and we’ll have peace and justice forever. This is how God’s kingdom will come. This is how we will ‘gain the whole world’ (v.26).
But Jesus has a different idea. Yes, he’s going to go to Jerusalem, but the visit will be very different from what Peter and the others have in mind:
‘From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (v.21).
This is really ‘steering into the skid’, isn’t it! Jesus is talking dangerous nonsense, and Peter thinks he needs to set him straight: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (v.24). But then Jesus says the harshest words he ever said to a human being – and he says them to his closest friend and the leader of his disciples: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv.22-23).
What a terrible thing to say to his friend: ‘The Devil is speaking through you!’ Why was Jesus so harsh?
I think it was because it wasn’t the first time he had heard this temptation. Way back in the desert when he was tempted after his baptism, the Devil had told him, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you bow down and worship me”. This wasn’t just about praying to the devil. This was about becoming like the one we worship. To worship the devil would have been to imitate his way of doing things – violence, coercion, oppression, killing, and all for the love of power. And this was a real temptation for Jesus, because everyone expected this was how the Messiah would win! David did it, Judas Maccabeus did it, the Zealots did it, so what would be wrong with Jesus doing it too?
The reason it would be wrong is that the Kingdom Jesus came to announce isn’t founded on violence and coercion. It’s about love from start to finish – God’s love for us, our love for God, our love for our neighbours, for the poor and needy, and even for our enemies. Setting up the Kingdom by violence wouldn’t change anything other than the name on the crown: ‘welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss’. Jesus had come to show something different: that if you’re faithful to the Father’s love even to the point of death, God will vindicate you. ‘And on the third day, he will be raised’. In effect Jesus was saying, “Trust me, people; steer into the skid, and God will make it come out right”.
This is the challenging thing for us today as followers of Jesus. Jesus not only took this road himself: he called us to follow after him. And so we read,
“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?” (vv.24-26).
Crucifixion was a punishment that the Romans reserved for rebels against the Empire. They didn’t crucify embezzlers and petty thieves and religious fanatics. So when the people of occupied Judea saw a man carrying a cross out to a nearby hill with Roman soldiers around him, they knew what was coming: he was about to be executed. This is the bad news that Jesus is giving his followers. He was going to be executed by the Romans because they saw him as a threat to their authority, despite the fact that he’d never breathed a word of rebellion. He was going to respond as he had taught his followers, by loving his enemies and praying for them, not resisting and striking them down. “And you must do the same”, he told the disciples. “You must be totally committed to this Kingdom-of-God movement we’re starting, to the point of being willing to give your life and still love those who murder you. That’s what it means to be one of my disciples”.
It sounds like bad news but in fact it’s good news: Jesus is saying “This is the way to really find life”. You think you’ll find life by taking the easy way, the less challenging road? You won’t. Steer away from the skid and you’ll end up in the ditch. Steer into the skid - even though it feels totally wrong to do so - and to your surprise things will turn out right: “those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.
This is what it means to be a baptized Christian. When we’re baptized, or when we bring children to be baptized, this is what we’re signing up for. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3). It’s a wonderful thing to be baptized, to be washed from sin and evil and to be adopted as a child of God. But it’s also a difficult thing: it’s a total identification with Jesus and all he stands for. It’s a ‘no’ to the easy life, a ‘no’ to compromise, a ‘no’ to spending your whole life trying to be popular. It’s a ‘yes’ to following Jesus, a ‘yes’ to the way of love, a ‘yes’ to being faithful even when no one else goes with you.
How do we practice this in our daily lives? We’re not likely to be crucified for our allegiance to Jesus, so what does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow him?
I think two things. First, it means not being ashamed of him. It means not being ashamed to identify ourselves as his followers, not being ashamed to say “Yes, I’m a Christian, a follower of Jesus”.
Personally, I think it’s important to go further than just identifying ourselves as churchgoers. The Church is an institution, but Jesus is the Son of God, the one we follow as our Saviour and Lord. He’s the one who has revealed God to us. I think it’s important for us to identify with him personally. I’m not a Church-follower; I’m a Jesus-follower, someone who’s learning to see life as Jesus sees it, and to live life as he taught it.
Secondly, it means that if we get into trouble because of our loyalty to Jesus, we respond with love, not belligerence. There’s a lot of belligerence out there these days, especially in social media. It’s not just the new atheists; there seem to be many people who are angry at the Church, at organized religion, at the people they see as ‘hypocrites’ who go to church but don’t practice what they preach. Identify yourself as a follower of Jesus, and sooner or later these folks will come out of the woodwork.
It doesn’t help for us to respond in kind, and it doesn’t remind people of the Jesus we’re claiming to follow. Jesus has told us clearly how to respond: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. Take it up; don’t throw it back at them. As Paul puts it in today’s epistle, ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:21).
This is the commitment we make as Christians; this is the price we pay for our allegiance to Jesus. We don’t tend to talk much about this in churchland, because we don’t want to frighten off the customers! But I don’t think we do people any favours by not talking about it. And incidentally, it doesn’t usually attract faithful customers either. Statistics have shown over and over again that churches that aren’t afraid to challenge their members - to call them to commitment - tend to be the ones that grow.
Why? Because people respond to a challenge. People want a cause, something worthwhile to live for, even if it involves hardship. How many times have I heard family members of soldiers who died in Afghanistan say “He died doing what he believed in. He thought it was really important, and that’s why he was there”. That’s the sort of commitment Jesus is calling for. His kingdom-of-God movement is going to change the world in a revolution of love. Yes, it’s going to involve suffering and hardship, but the final goal will be well worth the effort. Jesus is looking for people who are willing to pay that price and make that commitment. He has a name for them: ‘disciples’. We call them ‘Christians’.
I once heard my Dad say, “Some people take their Christianity like a vaccination: they inject themselves with a little bit of it in order to protect themselves against the real thing”. And it’s true: some people do treat church like that. Yes, let’s go on Sunday once or twice a month; that way when someone asks us we can say, “Yes, we’re religious, we believe in God, we go to church”. That should be enough for God, surely! But we don’t like this talk about total commitment. After all, we’re not fanatics or fundamentalists, you know!
In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us that following him will cost everything and give everything. His call to us this morning is simply this: ‘Steer into the skid’. It feels like the stupidest thing to do, doesn’t it? “Come and follow me in the way of the Cross”. Be totally committed to this Kingdom movement, to the point that there is nothing you wouldn’t do for God and for his Son Jesus Christ. No matter what people say about you, no matter what they do to you, keep on following Jesus. If you do this, Jesus says, you won’t regret it. On the contrary: you’ll find your true life.
You can’t enjoy the view without climbing the mountain. You can’t be a great jazz improviser without practicing your scales. You can’t win the marathon without the pain of daily training and a willingness to stick with it when your legs and your lungs are screaming out “Stop!” And you can’t find the true joy of being a Christian without taking up your Cross and following Jesus. So let’s take up the challenge and walk the way of the Cross with Jesus. He assures us that we will find it to be the way of life and blessing, so let’s put our trust in him and do as he says.