Ever had an “Ah ha!” moment. You think, “Okay, I’m getting it.” Then you get whacked by a two-by-four you never saw coming. Now it’s an “Oh No” moment. That would be Peter. He thinks he knows Jesus. Peter is about to learn that knowing a title and name won’t be enough. He’s not the only one about to learn.
Jesus has been doing rather well. On the plus side, the disciples witness him rid a man of a demon; touch and heal a leper, the sick and paralyzed; invites a despised tax collector to join his team – well, that one is questionable. Jesus stills a storm; walks on water; raises the dead; feeds a free meal to over 5000 people. As his popularity with the masses soars, his ratings with the religious authorities and pundits plummet. For most, though, this Jesus guy is impressive: “Who do you say I am?” Peter, says, “Messiah.” The two-by-four they never see coming: Jesus says he’ll suffer and die – whoa. They stopped listening, never getting to Easter. So Peter drops a rebuke on Jesus. A loved one suffer and die, Messiah or not – no one wants that to happen. Surely, if he is Messiah, he’d use his powers, if not for his sake, at least theirs.
Jesus rebukes Peter right back, not because Peter’s bad and needs shaming. He’s closed his mind – not yet ready, and Jesus knows that. He’s trying to pry open Peter’s mind to show him God’s plan from the beginning. God’s ways are not really obvious or sensible to our minds either. “Get behind me Satan!” Peter isn’t Satan, just talks a lot like Satan, as when Jesus and Satan spent time together in the wilderness: “Look, Jesus, I know who you are. I have a better plan. You won’t need to suffer and die. Follow me.” Jesus again refused to take a lesser option, tempting again, to disobey: “Behind me Peter. You follow me. I follow my Father.”
I know you people. You are good, fully committed disciples, right? So you’ll know what’s needed. Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow Jesus. It’s probably good we downplay this in the church. Following one who suffers, dies, and hands us a cross, isn’t exactly appealing once word gets out. The church has had 2000 years to dumb Jesus down, making him into a Messiah who fits our needs better. It’s like On Demand TV. Switch the channel if we’re bored and not satisfied. Self-denial, crosses, obedience, patience can’t compete with modern messiahs promising to fix our messes, grow our investments, eliminate suffering, and smite our enemies. People want problems fixed. “Don’t hand me a cross, tell me to deny myself.” No, we have a hard enough time getting new members, and filling our pews. Maybe if we say: “Follow Jesus when it fits your schedule,” they’ll come.
Following Jesus is different than believing in Jesus. You can say, “Yeah, I believe four statements. I’ve said the prayer, signed the card. I’m set – heaven when I die. I can relax, sit back, and maybe sacrifice a little time for church every once in a while.” In a world of selfies, instant messaging and self-gratification – self -denial and swimming against the tide seem so unnecessary. Mike Slaughter, Methodist pastor, says that in the church he grew up, he only knew a Sunday School version of Jesus – white male, long hair, congenial and gentle guy. Same with me – I could like and admire Jesus, but never wear my hair like his. Mike says only a few people in his church so faithfully followed Jesus that he could notice a difference in their lives. Think about that.
When we finally follow Jesus, people will notice. They notice when with our minds fixed on divine things, our lives are different in this earthy, human world. Belief is only the beginning of the journey. Demons believe Jesus is Son of God, too – remember? Deny your ego, that false self. Set you aside to love and serve people who annoy the heck out of you; those who are different, vulnerable, marginalized, and won’t thank you for being nice. Do something about suffering and injustice, even if it means you lose friends who don’t understand. You and I probably won’t be killed for following Jesus, as Coptic and other Christians are. We are still to die to ourselves to take up Jesus’ cross – the point where our sin, illusions and evil meets God’s forgiveness, grace, and love – and there see what divine power really does. We’re willing then to trade our agendas for God’s. That’s God’s plan and why Jesus does what he does. Without the cross, any faith we profess is satanic, self-serving, empty and hypocritical. The cross is when Jesus takes into his body, the pain we and suffering we inflict, our rejection of him, our deaths, to show us how much God loves us, in spite of ourselves.
It’s blasphemy to think God demands someone suffer and die to appease his wrath. I think it’s more like this. Jesus might say: “You people do some pretty horrible things – torture, kill, bomb, blow up people – you turn from the needy to satisfy yourselves. You hate, shun and say some pretty nasty things to and about others. I have come,” and here’s where Jesus is pretty sneaky – “to follow you and rescue you when you refuse to follow me. I am with you wherever you go – even to hell and back.” Maybe when you and I see that’s what divine love looks like, we’ll turn around and follow Jesus – for a change. That’s the cross we’re given to carry. Only God’s power of love is so right, as to transform what is so wrong with us. Deny yourself, take up a cross, and follow – ready to go?
 Mike Slaughter, Renegade Gospel. (Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN., 2014), 17.