Every book written, every movie ever produced, every television show ever to make it onto a streaming service has a pivot.
That moment when the story, and its cast and players, have been introduced, the plot line has been developed, but now the action will turn towards its climax and final moments. No longer will the story be focused around developing themes and introducing you to who and what is taking place. With that important work accomplished, the focus can turn towards setting a course to the final chapters and how the story will come to its end.
This is where we find ourselves, this morning, in the Gospel of Matthew. Everything from Matthew 1:1-16:20 has introduced us to the players in the gospel. We’ve read the long genealogy that introduced us to the story. We’ve been with Joseph as he welcomed, along with Mary, the newborn Jesus. We’ve gone to the Mount of Beatitudes and heard Jesus teach. We’ve seen him gathering around him followers who would learn deeply and passionately from him what it meant to follow the Father. We’ve seen him heal people who were sick. We’ve seen him be challenged by the religious elites of the time.
The cast has been introduced. The theme has been developed in letting us know who this Jesus is and why we have gathered to worship him. Now, we can get to the climax of where the story is heading towards. Now, we can set our eyes towards Jerusalem.
Our passage from Matthew 16:21-28 begins a transitional series of encounters between Jesus and his disciples, which will set the stage for Jesus to move towards Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection. The action will no longer be revolved around the Sea of Galilee, but will be focused upon the Jezreel Valley and, ultimately, Jerusalem itself, as Jesus is now focused on the mission of the cross and its purpose of launching the kingdom of God through the resurrection.
So, why this moment? Why does Jesus focus towards Jerusalem now? If you remember from last week, Jesus was with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi. He is still there in our current passage. It was there where Jesus asked the disciples who they believed he was and Peter, with boldness, spoke and said he was the Messiah.
It is likely that Peter did not fully comprehend what it meant to make that statement. We know this, because we don’t always fully comprehend the ramifications of saying Jesus is Lord. Based upon the expectations of the time, it is likely that when Peter confessed Jesus as Lord he had a specific image in mind. One of a warrior king, like David, who would unite the people to rise up against the oppressive Romans. Jesus would be the ruler king from the throne of David and, likely, the disciples would be leaders in this new Jerusalem and Israel. It was an image of messiahship based on military and political power.
This is not the image of the Messiah God has in mind. It is not Jesus’ form of messiahship. Jesus uses the confession of Peter, regardless of what may have been underlying it, to teach about what was to come for him. For the first time, Jesus describes what will happen in Jerusalem. His mission and teaching will cause problems for the religious elites, who will partner with the Romans to arrest and crucify him. Yet, what they saw to be the end would only serve as a beginning, because three days later, he promises, he will rise again.
Jesus identifies himself as a suffering servant and says this is the mission God has set for him. He would be obedient to the mission, because he has trust in God and the greater glory that awaits as a result of what God will do in bringing about redemption, grace, and hope for all through the cross and the empty tomb.
Peter, and all the disciples, could not get past the idea of Jesus dying on the cross. They were unable to hear that Jesus’ death would not be the final story. They were caught up on Jesus’ obedience being different from their expectations. So, Peter goes to Jesus and rebukes him. He challenges him to reconsider this path and seek a different one to bring about God’s kingdom.
At this moment, Peter has become a tempter to Jesus. We like to think that Jesus was only tempted by the devil in the Judean wilderness near Jericho. The truth is he was tempted throughout his ministry and this is just one of the places. Much like in the wilderness, Jesus is being tempted by Satan through Peter to find an easier path to accomplish God’s will.
Jesus will not follow the easy path that Peter desires. Instead, Jesus calls him a stumbling block and tells him to get behind him. He reminds him that the posture of a disciple is to follow the way of the Lord. Jesus was only going to do that which God has called him to do. He desires his disciples, and those who would follow him, to do the same.
Jesus knew the path before him would not be easy. He knew he was walking into criticism. He knew he would be mocked and abused. He knew he would be hung on a cross. But, he knew what would happen on the other side. It would be challenging and difficult, yet he would go forward on the path because it was God’s path. He would be obedient in all things, because to be obedient means to take the focus off of oneself and to place it upon God.
This requires a pathway of self-surrender and complete dedication to God in all things. Jesus, now, turns towards his disciples to teach what it would mean to truly follow him. The request that he has made of them from the very beginning would not just entail being celebrated by the crowds and witnessing impressive and life-altering miracles. It would mean a daily commitment of walking away from the self as the center of all control and influence, and turning towards God’s will and desire in all things.
Jesus calls his followers to a life that would be akin to his own. To be a follower of Christ, he says, means to let go of one’s life, to be willing to lose it all, in order to gain everything in God’s love. To be a follower of Christ means to surrender our own desire, and perhaps dreams, in order to align ourselves with God’s will. To be a follower of Christ means not taking the easiest road available, but often taking the difficult and challenging path.
If we are to be a follower of Christ, then the focus cannot be on our own self. This is where we would prefer it and, perhaps, are most comfortable. An image of Christianity that blesses and affirms our own dreams and desires and, even, sees Jesus as a tool for our own financial success and acclaim. Under this model, we go to God in order for God to affirm our dreams and will, instead of going to God to be aligned with what God would desire for us, our church, and our world.
This is, often, where we stumble to truly follow Christ and go deeper as a disciple. We’ve been taught, by our society, culture, and world, that to place the focus upon our own self and desire is natural and, even, appropriate. We are to follow our own course, make our own path, and do as we desire. Seldom do we, even within the church, fully consider what God would have for us and the desires of the Lord. When we do, if they do not match the ones we have, we see it as too challenging or, even, not something we are capable of doing. We want our own life, while wanting the riches of God. It cannot work that way.
Peter and the disciples learn this by seeing how Jesus lives out his obedience. He was willing to do what was difficult and challenging, because he had a deep and abiding trust in the Father’s love and presence. As a result, his complete focus was not on what following the Father’s desires would mean for him. It was in giving complete focus and honor to God.
This is the discipleship life Jesus desires of us. If we are to grow as deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ, then we must be willing to lay down our own self to gain all of Christ’s love and hope. When we let go of our own life, our desires, and dreams, we will see Christ’s hopes fully realized in us and witness to peace and grace in ways we could never imagine. If only we are willing to let go, perhaps do the hard thing, and follow Christ.
Several years ago, I was wrestling with whether to leave being a writer and do something else. I knew I was called to do something with my life, and knew it was to be a pastor, but I thought I was too unprepared, too much of a sinner, and way too unqualified to even try. I remember some friends were trying to persuade me to not to go to seminary, but to go to law school at night, become a lawyer, and, even, fully enter politics. I had a decision to make. I could either follow the path of God or go my own way.
I chose the path that God desired. I’m not going to say it has been easy. I have moved more times than I would like to admit. I have been told where I could go, if you know what I mean, at church gatherings. I’ve been yelled at by people when people didn’t get their way. I’ve lost connection to friends. I’ve lost relationship with family members. And, yet, I would do it again, and again, and again. Why? Because even when the life is difficult, there is nothing that is more satisfying to the soul than doing what God desires for your life. The blessings of hope that I have been able to share, and receive, far outweigh the cost.
Discipleship does not come when we seek our own life and a little bit of Jesus. It come when our life matches that of Jesus. It comes when we are completely dedicated to God’s will, even when it is hard, even when it is challenging, even when it takes us to places when never dreamed we would go.
Discipleship means it is not about me, or you, or even Pea Ridge United Methodist Church. Discipleship means it is all about Christ and following God’s will. Is that the kind of discipleship we desire today, even if it means we lose everything to gain everything?