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Archive for August, 2014

What does it mean to follow Christ? Matthew 16:21-28

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The sermon I preached this morning at Church of the Messiah. I was involved in some missional work there this summer running a youth mentorship program that focused on digital arts, leadership training and peer counselling and culminated in a one week combined Vacation Bible School/Around the World Arts Kids Camp. An intense summer for all – much learning, much stretching and much growth. This sermon is an adapted version of a paper I wrote not too long ago.

What does it mean to follow Christ? This is a question I found myself repeatedly turning to this summer. As I interacted with youth and families, what is it that we are calling them to?

I love youth for their unguarded honesty. One youth challenged me: “Why do you want to be a priest? don’t you work long hours and get paid little?” Another youth thought Christianity is a good moral way to live but it lacked relevance. With the recent events around the world, the question of why we should follow God was deep in all of our hearts.

I found myself asking some of these questions:

  • how do we share the gospel in contexts where people do not see their need for Christ?
  • How do we deal with the discouragement and loneliness when resistance, rejection and persecution come?
  • Is the call to follow Christ safe?

Today’s gospel passage deals with these questions head on. Christ took his disciples to a place that was rampant with idolatry. He asked his disciples who people say he is. After a few answers, he made things personal: Who do you say that I am? Peter boldly claims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

After this moment, the conversation turned to preparing the disciples for what was going to happen. The road ahead was a cross and would be filled with suffering. Not quite the glorious and triumphant road Peter expected with his declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Their beloved leader was going to be killed by the religious and political leaders of the day. It is Peter who speaks boldly again: “This shall never happen to you!”

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. 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. 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. However, the Christ who we are called to follow is one who was flogged, mocked and crucified.

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 piece and goods that they want. In a consumeristic society, there are plenty of options for those looking for a thrill or a quick fix. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come” (Cost of Discipleship). However, if you want to be my disciple, the cross is central.

Once we desire to follow God, the next step is not optional: we must deny ourselves. 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.”

Interestingly, the Greek word for ‘deny’ is only used in our Gospel passage today and when Peter denies 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. Yet, it is when we deny ourselves that we are 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.”

I find that I am never as aware of my insecurities, flaws and false motives as when I am in ministry. They may not be visible, but as soon as I step into a leadership position, they are all there staring at me. Also, my experience is that personal challenges escalate as opportunities to share Christ’s love increases. It is often in the most publicly successful moments that I am counting the cost of the cross I’ve been called to take up.

The call to follow Christ, to deny ourselves and take up our cross is difficult. I don’t think there is a way to sugar coat this – nor do I think we should. I recently heard one televangelist say that worship is primarily for us – not God – and that we should worship so that we are happy. In addition, God only wants our happiness. This hasn’t been my experience of the Christian faith or life itself. The call to follow God is not about me or my happiness. One author writes, “The Christian life is not hard to live – it is utterly impossible to live! Only One can live it! Let Him! In You!” (Celtic Daily Prayer). It is in Christ that we find joy and peace that passes all understanding. There is nothing more beautiful than witnessing God at work and in those moments, the cross I carry pales in comparison.

During our youth weeks of CIRCUIT, we found ourselves dealing with challenges that we had not encountered before. The dynamics had shifted so drastically that we could not run the program as designed. At the end of one very long day, my staff asked me for advice. I honestly was lacking wisdom and solutions myself, but I knew one thing – we must pray together as well as support one another in the struggle. I have to say – that week seemed impossible and I thought about cancelling the program.

We made a commitment to pray together each morning. This had been our intent all along, but I allowed the demands of the day to take priority. if the youth came early, they were invited to join us. Some mornings there were 10 of us praying together. The liturgy we prayed reminded us that Christ goes before us, with us, and is there when we leave. It invited Christ to be in our own hearts as we speak but also in the hearts of those who speak to us. It also asks for a daily affirmation of our desire to love and follow God with our whole hearts, minds, souls and strength. There are many days I don’t feel I have much to offer God – but if he wants it, I will give him what I have.

Morning Prayer had us connecting with the one who goes with and before us. It reminded us that we were not alone and desperately needed God to help us. We asked our own support networks to uplift us in prayer. We frequently met as a team to listen, support and encourage one another. I have a greater understanding of why Jesus sent his disciples out in pairs- you simply cannot do this work alone.

The challenges didn’t get easier. However, the impossible became possible through prayer. And we witnessed miracles. And that makes all the sweat and tears worth it.

As we begin another fall, my prayer today is that we will deny ourselves so that we can carry the cross to which we are called. And that as we lose ourselves to be consumed by God’s ways, we will discover more of the abundant life He promises.

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call our names

Let us turn and follow you and never be the same

In Your company we’ll go, where your love and footsteps show.

Thus we’ll move and live and grow in you and you in us.

(Adapted from Will you come and follow me)