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Following Christ: A Cultural Reflection on Matthew 16:24-26

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For my theology course, we had to do a reflection on a biblical passage interacting with the ideas we have been discussing in this course. This is an edited version of the paper that I will be submitting tomorrow. The introduction in the actual paper provides the context for how this paper came about – a context that I am cautious in sharing because it involves conversations that my readers may be able to identify while my professor would not.

Suffice it to say, at the beginning of lent, I was faced with questions of what it meant to follow Christ in a world in which Christ is not central to people’s lives. I will begin the version of the paper I share with you with these questions. (forgive the footnote commentary. this paper is already longer than it should be and I felt the footnotes were important for this particular paper.

Following Christ: A Cultural Reflection on Matthew 16:24-26

How do I share the gospel in a context that does not seem to want it? How do I deal with the discouragement and loneliness when resistance, rejection and persecution come? Is the call to follow Christ safe?

These questions have repeatedly led me to Matthew 16:24-26. This passage is a counter-cultural call of radical commitment to following Christ.

Context

This passage is placed in an interesting part of the Gospel of Matthew. Christ took his disciples to a place that was rampant with idolatry.1 He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Answers are offered. Then Christ makes the question personal: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. The theology drop-out fisherman offered an A-plus answer.

Jesus begins to teach his disciples about the suffering that he is about to go through. The road ahead was a cross and the road would be filled with suffering. Not quite the glorious and triumphant road Peter expected with his declaration of who Jesus was. Their beloved leader was going to be killed by the political and religious leaders of the day. It is Peter who speaks boldly again: “This shall never happen to you!” Maybe Peter was delighting a little too much in being the “blessed one” to whom God the Father had revealed who Christ is (16:17). Or perhaps he was crying in disbelief that something so awful could happen to his Friend. Either way, Jesus was clear – the cross was part of God’s plan (16:23).

And if that wasn’t difficult enough to swallow, Jesus then explained what it means to follow Him: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Up until then, the disciples were simply told to follow Jesus (4:19; 8:22; 9:22). But these intense words of Christ call for something far more radical than sheep following their shepherd around all day. And it did not hold the glory and prestige of being in the company of the one who would triumph over the Roman Rule. Steve Bell describes this very poetically in a song that tries to capture Jesus’ prayer for the disciples (John 17:6-19):

They’ll argue who will sit next to the throne/ And I cringe to here them say “Thy kingdom come”/ They think they know what they’re getting into/ But we both know that they haven’t got a clue.2

It is easy to be enamoured by a miracle worker. Who wouldn’t want to follow one who can turn water into the best wine, feed thousands of people with just a few loaves and fishes, and who can raise people from the dead? One could be easily persuaded by His teachings that speak of blessings to those who mourn and are poor in spirit. However, the Christ who we are called to follow is one who was flogged, mocked and crucified. Again, in Steve Bell’s words:

Here’s something that they won’t like/Someone’s coming to take the life/ No one has to look farther than me/ For I am He/ Some will trust in the things they think they know/ They should think again and let them go/ Put away the sword and get behind/ And let me die.3

Desire to Follow

We are not forced to follow Christ. Those who are disappointed by a leader who walks through Jerusalem on a donkey to be crucified on a cross are free to find another who promises them the peace and goods that they want. In a consumeristic society, there are plenty of options for those looking for a thrill or a quick fix. Take out the cross and a few other messy things Christ said and preach a gospel of prosperity and you might even find your claim to fame with riches and followers galore. As Bonhoeffer writes, “Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come.”4 However, if you want to be Christ’s disciple, the cross is central.

As Smith claims, we are beings that are primarily motivated by what we desire.5 We order our lives around the things and people we love. After telling His disciples what kind of Messiah He is, Jesus speaks of desire – Whoever wants to be my disciple. Those who do not want to follow this Messiah need not read any further. Those who do not have a heart and mind for the “concerns of God” (v. 23) will make little sense of the words that are to follow. Yet those who do desire to be Christ’s disciple must be prepared to devote their entire lives to following. Christ doesn’t ask for a half-hearted allegiance to him, but a full-on radical commitment to following him. As we will see in a moment, there is no room for other desires when following Christ – it is Christ, and Christ alone!

Deny Ourselves

Once we desire to follow God, the next step is not optional: we must deny ourselves (16:24). There is no half-heartedness about this denial. We must abandon our desires, our will, our plans, and our security. Bonhoeffer writes, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.”6 Bonhoeffer rightly sees that Christ needs to be all-consuming and that attention focused on ourselves will ultimately lead to discouragement about how narrow this road is.

Interestingly, the Greek word for ‘deny’ (aparneomai) is only used to speak of denying ourselves and of Peter denying Christ. When Peter denies Christ, he places his own security, fears, and needs first. He forgets for a few moments all that he has learned about Christ, all that he has seen and all that Christ has promised. It seems that we can either deny ourselves or deny Christ, and that we cannot have one without the other. Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew we read, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (6:24). Two thousand years does not change the candidates for masters in our lives – money, wealth, and the ‘security’ that they bring are still masters to whom we pledge allegiance.

In a culture that is “all about me” this is not a very ‘attractive’ invitation. In a consumeristic society, we are taught from a young age that we are what we buy, if we feel like it, we should do it, and that self-denial is a symptom of psychological disorder. Sadly, the church has not escaped this – many popular praise and worship choruses place ‘me’ at the center of worship. Consider the song “Above All”7 – a beautiful and catchy tune, a summary of how Christ was above everything with “no way to measure what [he’s] worth” and chose to be crucified. Then the last line betrays our individualistic mindset: “You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.”8 Is it all about me? Or is it about God?

The call is not an easy one. A few people in my life know that I am discerning a call to full time ministry. The responses have been either a commitment to pray or a statement along the line of “that’s a hard life, I don’t wish that for you.” The latter is one that perplexes me. Is there anything about following Christ that is not hard? Arthur Burt makes this even stronger: “The Christian life is not hard to live – it is utterly impossible to live! Only One can live it! Let Him! In you.”9 When we deny ourselves, we empty ourselves in a way that Christ can fill us and we become who we really are. Only when we deny ourselves are we able to see the “concerns of God” instead of being focused on our own ways and understandings. Or as Bonhoeffer writes, “Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake.”10

Take up our cross

Back to the questions that began my lenten journey. As I look at what Christ went through, I am humbled by my own weakness in fearing a calling that is ‘unsafe.’ If the one I follow was mocked, rejected, scorned, bruised and crucified, should I be surprised as I am met with resistance and rejection today? Perhaps in an attempt to temper difficult words, I searched for an understanding of what exactly the ‘cross’ is that we are to take up. My quest was not met with easy answers. First, I sought to understand the cross of Christ. However, if there was something that Christ accomplished through the cross that was done for me, instead of me, and for all time, then any cross that I bear will be different.11 Thank goodness, because both John Stott and Douglas John Hall12 describe a pretty gruesome picture of what Christ went through. And then I read Bonhoeffer:

Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case. (Bonhoeffer, pg. 79).

 

While I will never suffer as Christ did, I share in Christ’s sufferings when I live into the life that He has called me and am met with rejection, suffering and persecution. Again, Bonhoeffer is instructive: “The wounds and scars [the disciple] receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord.”13 When I have been emptied of my own desires and filled with God’s, this becomes a joyful calling. Stott draws our attention to the martyrs who are described as radiant and joyful before they are killed.14 I have tasted this joy in this lenten season. Just as it is often to describe physical tasting or what makes something taste a certain way is difficult, so is describing the joy and peace that goes beyond my understanding.15 Sometimes words actually devalue an experience making it seem far less profound than it actually is. Bonhoeffer is helpful once again:

To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and who walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up the cross (Bonhoeffer, pg. 82).

 

This tasting is not constant, for I frequently allow my own desires and ambitions to fill me again instead of being filled with the ways of God. I am frequently tempted to consider my own security and deny Christ as Peter did. Here we can see why such a radical commitment to Christ is required to follow Him.16

Follow Christ

It is in denying ourselves and taking up our cross that we are in a position to truly follow Christ. It is in following that we find life. Bonhoeffer writes, “[Jesus’] commandment never seeks to destroy life, but to foster, strengthen and heal it.”17 Indeed, we become who we are meant to be. We become culture makers who create and cultivate beauty in the world18 and we become lovers who love fully and aright.19 The question remaining as I contemplate these verses is: how do we desire to be disciples of Christ?20 Many people look at the cost of following and turn away. Others don’t even make it that far and are happy serving the masters of this world.

I draw from a recent experience to shed some light. In search for answers to my questions from the beginning of lent, I have been reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ. Stott provides a very convincing argument for Christ’s death satisfying the wrath of God.21 He focuses on Christ’s agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane asking for the cup to be taken away from him. The ‘cup’ metaphor is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to the wrath of God. Therefore, Stott argues that prayer accompanied with bloody sweat was because Christ knew that he was about to drink the cup of God’s wrath against all of humanity.22 As I read this, tears streamed down my face and God’s love touched my heart deeper leaving me with only one response that is adequate – to love God more. As God’s love penetrates my heart, the cross I must bear is one I willingly take up, and perhaps, as I mature in my faith, I will count it as loss in comparison to Christ. The harsh words of those who reject the gospel will not discourage me as Christ will be my focus. And maybe, my fear will dissipate, for whoever loses their life will find it.

1Green, Michael. The Message of Matthew. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pgs. 176-179

2Bell, Steve. This is Love

3ibid.

4Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1964), pg. 77

5Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

6Bonhoeffer, pgs. 77-88

7LeBlanc, Lenny. Above All. Thanks to G.A. for first making me think about this song.

8Is there truth in this line? I think so. Throughout Scripture we see a God who hears our individual cries (e.g. Gen 16:11), who will spare a handful of people (e.g. Gen 18:32) and who is intimately connected with our formation, growth and needs (e.g. Ps 139). The trouble I have with this song is not that God thinks of me, but that God thinks of me above all. Nice sentiment and great words of comfort for someone who is struggling, but I wonder if God’s plans are bigger than me while they might include me. Also, in a culture that is all about me perhaps I need more of a reminder that it is all about God than words that provide self-assurance.

9Unfortunately, I cannot find the original source for this wonderful quote. It was used in the meditation for February 18 in: Raine, Andy & John T. Skinner (eds.). Celtic Daily Prayer: A Northumbrian Office. (London: Marshall Pickering; 1994), pg. 119

10Bonhoeffer, pg. 98

11I do not wish to engage in the various theories of atonement, sacrifice or salvation. I just want to highlight that there was something that Christ did on the cross that I will never have to do. Christ’s cross and our cross are not one and the same thing.

12Stott, John R.W. The Cross of Christ. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006); Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

13Bonhoeffer, pg. 79

14Stott, pg. 28

15I think this is the kind of “know-how” – the embodied, pre-reflective knowing – that Smith is wanting us to yearn for. Though I haven’t seen an explicit reference to this.

16Bonhoeffer, pg. 78

17Bonhoeffer, pg. 31

18Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pg. 73

19Smith, pg. 125

20I think we are in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation here. Do we follow because we desire? Or do we follow until we desire? It seems to me we need to do both. A parent may not feel deep love for a screaming colicky baby in the wee hours of the morning, but out of love the parent will soothe the child to sleep. Thanks again to G.A. for this helpful analogy.

21This topic has been hotly debated and I have found evokes strong reactions in people. I need not defend Stott’s argument in order to make the point of how one learns to desire to be a disciple of Christ.

22Stott. Pgs. 66-86

  1. April 5, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    I just finished Bonhoeffer’s biography last night, one of the best reads of the year so far for me. Several pages are dog-eared and I will be returning to those pages again in the next week. I’m glad I bumped into your blog! The poster…it made me laugh!

  1. August 31, 2014 at 7:52 pm

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