What goes on in each of us internally has been compared to an executive meeting in a corporate boardroom. Imagine for a moment such a room. There’s a long table around which are placed those expensive leather chairs. Seated in them are members of the executive team. They debate and even argue with each other about the decisions that have to be made to maximize the return on investment of the shareholders.
Each one of these members represent a part of the self. There is a work self, a relationship self, a play or recreation self, a financial self, and a… fill in the blank. Each of these clamors for attention. Just as no two members in the executive boardroom share the same view, so also no two parts do in us. Feeling neglected, one part of the self argues that another part is given preferential treatment. As a result, we experience inner conflict. We are divided within ourselves. We struggle to integrate the various parts into a harmonious whole. And none of us ever succeeds entirely.
Success is measured by how well the problem of conflicting interests is solved, how the most balanced compromise is reached. This applies both to the boardroom and to the individual self.
But this is not how success is measured in the life of the disciple of Jesus Christ. Success rather consists, first, in firing all the members of the executive team, and then ceding executive control to Jesus alone, to whom one submits as Lord. It consists in entrusting oneself and one’s concerns entirely to him, to leave it to him to order, direct and provide. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matt. 6:33).
This is as it should be for the disciple of Jesus. It is how it is meant to be. But it’s not always how it is. Of this fact, we find an outstanding example in Peter in our Gospel lesson for today.
Remember that Peter distinguished himself among the disciples last time. When Jesus posed the question to them: “Who do you say I am?” Peter confidently volunteered the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
Peter achieved a proper confession of Jesus, which Jesus joyfully acknowledged. He then gave him a new name. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18).
Today Jesus confides to his disciples what lies ahead of him. He “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21).
This must happen. Jesus uses a word here that carries the sense of divine necessity. Theologically, the word signals that the will of God is making something happen (Chelsea Harmon). The “must” is inherent in God’s promise, in God’s plan of redemption. The Scriptures must be fulfilled (D. Bonhoeffer).
But this is unacceptable to Peter. He says: “God forbid. May this never happen to you.”
Note the audacity of this man!
In giving to Peter the name rock, Jesus at the same time elevated him. On him he conferred the keys of the kingdom of heaven, as we saw last time. Has this now gone to his head? Apparently, Peter felt it appropriate at this critical moment in Jesus’ ministry to exercise the new authority invested in him to lodge a protest vote.
“If I may speak on behalf of the executive team, we do not think that what you are proposing here is in the best interest of the organization.”
Winston Churchill, resisting India’s independence, is reported to have said: “I did not become Prime Minister in order to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.”
The language in our lesson is suggestive. Peter took him aside. Hardly an action expected of a subordinate vis-à-vis his superior. He then “began to rebuke” him. The word perhaps is better translated as “prohibited,” since it elsewhere is rendered as to “order” or “command.” Wait. Who is the Lord and who is the disciple here?
Peter cannot bear the thought that harm should come to Jesus. Granted, Jesus does mention that he will be raised on the third day, but what does that mean to Peter and the rest of the disciples here? Even after the resurrection, they were not able to connect the dots.
Jesus’ response to Peter is sharp, even shocking. “Get behind me, Satan.” But objecting to Jesus’ announcement about the great suffering that awaits him in Jerusalem does make Peter sound like Satan. He is certainly acting the part of Satan.
Consider in this connection the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The devil took him to the pinnacle of the temple and said: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.” He will command his angels concerning you. On their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (Matt. 4:6). The message of Satan and Peter is unanimous: God will prevent you from all harm.
Peter has placed himself in the wrong camp. He finds himself as a Satan, a word which means “adversary.” At this moment, Peter is Jesus’ adversary—one who stands opposed to him, not as one who stands behind him. That is why he is a stumbling block to Jesus. He stands in his way. The contrast between Peter the rock and Peter the stone of stumbling should not escape us.
“You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (Matt. 16:23). But did not the Father reveal to Peter the true identity of Jesus last time? How quickly the mind turns from divine things to human things!
Perhaps the misunderstanding here explains why Jesus ordered them then not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:20). He does not want people to define him by the title Messiah. Rather, he wants them to define the title Messiah by him. As the Messiah, Jesus and only Jesus can give the proper content to this title, as the disciples slowly and painfully learn.
The Peter we met last time is Christ-centered. But here he must learn that to be Christ-centered is to be cross-centered. Jesus is the Messiah, but he is the Messiah who is crucified and raised on third day.
This has direct implications for those who wish to follow him, for those who want to be his disciples. What Jesus says about the nature of discipleship here is consistent with a principle that he has enunciated elsewhere: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24).
The announcement about what awaits Jesus in Jerusalem serves as the occasion to invite the disciples, including Peter, and anyone else who is willing, into the privilege of discipleship.
Surprisingly enough, when Jesus begins to reveal to them the cost of discipleship, he once more sets them free to choose or reject him. “If any want to become my followers.”
For it is not a matter of course, not even among the disciples. Nobody can be forced, nobody can even be expected to come. He says rather, “if any want,” referring to those prepared to spurn all other offers which come their way in order to follow him (D. Bonhoeffer).
To follow consists in denying oneself. Or rather, it is a condition in following. You must renounce the claim you have over your life. If you belong to Christ, you are no longer your own lord, as we mentioned earlier. You belong to another lord.
The Apostle Paul expresses this truth when he tells the believers in Corinth: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19). The first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism reads: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong in body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”
What this involves practically, is that, as one who has denied himself to become a follower of Jesus, I can and must release myself from self-concern, self-preoccupation, so that I can place myself under his care, and at his service, free from distractions, prepared to follow him wherever he leads.
We should not blunt the sharp edge of the summons of Jesus here. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
At the same time, we should not lose sight of the comfort about which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks. In denying myself, I am relieved of the exhausting burden of running my own life as I leave it to him to order, direct and provide, as we have already said. In this perspective, the cross that he calls me to take up is no different than his yoke, which is easy, and his burden, which is light (cf. Matt. 11:30).
The Christian life is a throwaway life. It is the great dare that ventures all on the claim that Jesus is the meaning of life and that therefore losing our lives for him is the best and, in the end, really the only thing we can do. in following him we find that our deepest need for purpose is satisfied.
To be sure, following Jesus in self-forgetful abandon is hardly the image of the successful life presented to us by the world. The successful are those who have mastered the game of life and have the world’s goods to prove it (Richard Ward).
But Jesus counts these among those who want to save their life, only to lose it in the end.
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but forfeits his own life?” Better to hear this warning in this life now before one stands before God on the Day of judgment and realize too late that there is nothing to give to God in exchange for one’s life.
There is an interesting story about one of America’s most successful businessman. Born in the 1870s, he proved himself competent in the retail business at a young man. He soon became a partner, and then full owner of a chain of stores by the turn of the century, well on his way of gaining the whole world.
But in 1929, the year the stock market crashed, he suffered total financial ruin. Crushed by the weight of his anxieties, he feared that he was losing his grip on his sanity. He checked himself in at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he wrote farewell letters friends and loved ones, assuming that he would die there.
One night he heard singing in one of the halls at the sanitarium. He went down to investigate. It was a worship service, where he heard the gospel he rejected as a young man. There at that service, as he would recount later, he underwent a conversion.
He recovered, and at 56 years old, returned to the retail business. Only now, as he said of himself, he made it his aim to think clearly, live generously, and invest eternally. He gave much of what he made to charitable organizations, especially those that advanced the gospel. He died in 1971, at the age of 95. The man’s name was James Cash Penney, known to us as J.C. Penney.
We may see in J.C. Penney an example of a throwaway life, a life lost for Christ’s sake only to be found anew.
But what about us? What might life look for us as we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus?
To be sure, cross-bearing means for some what it meant for Jesus: the price of following him is paid for in blood. Peter and most of the disciples were martyred in Jesus’ name.
But for most of us, cross-bearing means self-sacrificial service to others. As cross-bearing followers of Jesus, we will often have to set aside our own agendas for personal advancement in favor of meeting the needs of others (Richard Ward).
If we want to see how such a life is fleshed out, we can do no better than to turn to our epistle lesson (Rom. 12:9-21). There we find a long list of practices that characterizes a cross-centered life: genuine love for others, goodness in the face of evil, patience in suffering, generosity shown even to enemies, refusal of opportunities for revenge.
These practices, if carried out, make disciples look very much like the one they acknowledge as Lord. That should not surprise us. Calvin tells us that this is the very point of the cross that Jesus calls us to take up: it conforms us to his image.
Embedded in this picture of life is a promise. Those who devote this life to service of self have their own reward. But those who throw away their lives in self-sacrificial and compassionate service to others for Christ’s sake have not only gained a meaningful life. They have also an expectation of an eternal reward (Richard Ward). Amen.