Inside Out and Upside Down
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
August 28, 2011
Matthew 16: 21-28 (NIV)
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
24Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever wants to save his lifewill lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Just over a week ago, Ken and I rafted down the Ocoee. This is something that I have done a few time in my years in East Tennessee, but Ken had never had the experience. Now, before rafting down the Ocoee, whether a newbie or a veteran, you always get the same instructions. Among other things, these instructions have to do with how to sit in the raft, how to paddle, and what to do if you happen to fall out of the boat at any point. For some reason, probably because doing the wrong thing can be a matter of life or death, the raft guides always find it particularly important to stress what you are to do if you fall out of the boat. I think they also stress this matter because the appropriate action is different from what you might expect.
Imagine with me if you can. You’re rafting down the Ocoee, splashing through a huge rapid when all of a sudden, you find yourself flying over the front of the boat. You’re tossing and turning in the waves, and your mind and body are telling you to get stabilized. Our natural reaction would probably be to get our feet down and stand up, but that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. If you tried to stand up in the middle of the rapids, a host of horrible things could happen. You could slip on a rock and hit your head. Your foot could get stuck in a crevice, or you could end up breaking a bone or worse as the current pushes against you. No, the best thing to do when you find yourself “overboard” (so to speak), is to float on your back with your feet sticking up out of the water in front of you. This way, the current pushes you through the rapid to a calm spot where the boat can pick you up again. You don’t get your feet stuck, you lessen your chances of hitting your head, and you increase your chances of survival; just by giving yourself up to the current.
Believe it or not, Christian discipleship works in much the same way, and that is what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in the reading we heard earlier. As you will remember from last week, Peter has just finished his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah in answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Now Jesus is taking a moment to teach the disciples what it really means that he is the Messiah. Last week was Peter’s confession, this week is Jesus’ teaching about the cost of that confession. And what Jesus tells the disciples is not what they expected to hear; but it is a matter of life and death, just like those rafting instructions.
You see, the disciples hear the word “Messiah,” and they’re thinking, “If Jesus is truly the anointed king, then that means all the other kings and rulers have to be overthrown.” Peter had probably barely uttered the words and the disciples were making plans about how they would march on Jerusalem; gaining followers along the way, they would storm the Temple and install Jesus as King. That’s how the “Son of Man” will be exalted! That’s how God’s kingdom will come! But they were wrong, and Jesus had to make that clear. Indeed, they would march to Jerusalem with Jesus, and they would probably even gain a few followers along the way. But when they got to Jerusalem, they wouldn’t be casting out the rulers and priests. Rather, once there, Jesus would experience great suffering at the hands of the rulers, and then he would be killed.
It’s no wonder Peter speaks up again, “Never, Lord! That will never happen to you!” How could the Lord of the world die at the hands of his enemies? When you’ve got in mind a grand, conquering feat, it’s hard to imagine suffering and death; much less to accept it’s inevitability. It’s like being told that when you fall out of the boat, you just have to let the current take you. But just as riding the rapids and heavy current will eventually bring you to a place of calm and safety, so does this tough path of suffering that Jesus has laid out emerge in the new life of resurrection. Yet, says Jesus, he cannot ultimately conquer in the resurrection unless he has first suffered and died. And he goes on to tell the disciples the same is true for them as well. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his lifewill lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it”
Have you ever thought about just how “inside out and upside down” that statement sounds? “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Yet when it comes to following Jesus, we have to learn to think “inside out.” His way is not the way of the world, but it is the way of life; in fact, true discipleship is an entire way of life. And it’s not always easy. That, in and of itself, is quite counter-intuitive to us. Culture teaches us to take the “path of least resistance.” We are programmed to find the easy way whenever one is available. But that is not the case when it comes to Christian discipleship. As Christ tells the disciples here, any who would come after him must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow. And suffering will almost certainly be a part of that.
You see, Christ’s call to “take up your cross” is not just a call to follow him, it is a powerful metaphor for the total self-denial of a disciple. Just imagine the scene. The condemned criminal who carried the horizontal bar of the cross to the site of the crucifixion would have gone right through the middle of town, and he would have been subjected to taunts, humiliation, rejection, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death. The disciple who “takes up his cross” is willing to surrender pride, ego, status, comfort, and even life for the sake of the kingdom of God. Are we prepared for this? This is the call that Christ has placed in our lives. If we are to gain life, we must first surrender our own! And “denying ourselves” as Jesus says means we submit control of our lives totally to Christ. Cling to your life and you’ll lose it; give everything you’ve got to following Jesus, including life itself, and you’ll win life. Are you ready to give everything you’ve got?
This is a radical call from Jesus. And it requires a radical transformation of our lives. Indeed, discipleship is a very serious matter. It is a call to examine every aspect of our lives and rearrange all that does not align with the will of God. We can cling to the easy amenities of life, but that is not the way to life eternal. It has been said that “too often we make discipleship and the way of Jesus an interesting idea that we discuss over coffee with friends instead of a journey that demands transformation, obedience, the death of the old self, and the sometimes painful birth of the new.” We, like Peter hoping for an easier way, are at times, stumbling blocks to the purposes of God in both our lives and in the lives of others. How often have we taken the easy way? How often are our attitudes and behavior, and perhaps even our laziness, stumbling blocks to those outside the Church and to those inside the Church as well?
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” As Peter and the other disciples and anyone who has ever followed Christ discover, the gospel of Jesus Christ is cross-shaped. It is both a demand and a gift. The gospel of Christ offers not a comfy answer to the apparent needs of our self-centered culture, but the truth that our world so desperately needs to hear! “We preach Christ crucified.” The way of Jesus is the way of suffering. But it’s not suffering for suffering’s sake. It is suffering that comes as a result of our willingness to risk loving God and our neighbors no matter what the cost! This is suffering that comes from loving, and it is the only way that leads to resurrection and new life! If we “deny ourselves” and lose our lives in service to Christ and Christ’s Kingdom, we will find a life beyond our imagining. Nothing else compares; not money, not possessions, not any sensual indulgence, not power, nothing! We only find life when we have the courage to give it away.
Just imagine if all of us were to give ourselves completely over to Christ. Would that not cause a call to ring out like some great bell echoing through the streets of our town? “Pick up your cross and follow Jesus, pick up your cross and follow Jesus.” Imagine that sound resonating through the stores and offices, through the classrooms and hospitals, through the homes and lonely apartments: “pick up your cross and follow Jesus.” Imagine people coming out of their doors to see where the noise is coming from, and there walking ahead of them is Jesus saying, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Following Jesus costs everything and gives everything. There is no “halfway” about it. It’s like falling out of the boat in the midst of great rapids. If you try to put your feet down, you’ll only drown. But if you release yourself to the current, you’ll be safe. When we follow Jesus, the apparent safety of walking on the bottom isn’t an option, we just have to surrender ourselves to him. It seems so inside out and upside down. But what the world counts as great is foolishness, and what the world counts as foolishness is true wisdom. Try to cling to your life and you’ll lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus, whoever follows Jesus with everything he’s got will win life.
It’s been said that “in every generation there are, it seems, a few people who are prepared to take Jesus seriously, at his word.” What would it be like if you and I were one of them?