Simon Peter stands, stunned and speechless, on a dusty road in Caesarea Philippi. What on earth has just happened? He shakes his head, as if to clear it. He turns to see Jesus beckon a large group of people over to listen. Jesus’ voice rings out in the air: “If any want become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” A cross? Wait a minute. To take up a cross means you drag your own instrument of torture and death through the cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem. That means you are about to be executed, your body hung on display as an example to other political zealots. The crowd looks stunned too.
Jesus continues, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Jesus continues to talk, and other disciples listen raptly. But Peter stands there, trying to understand what has happened. Where has this gone wrong?
Jesus and the disciples are in Caesarea Philippi, “the center of worship of the emperor and the Greek god Pan.” Everywhere the disciples look, they see grottos and shrines to Pan. The Roman Empire emperor considers himself a god to be worshipped. Rome imposes harsh taxes that force Jewish people to sell their land, then serve on it as serfs. Just as bad is the fact that their own Church people kowtow to Rome. The Jewish High Priest and hierarchy align themselves with the government. If the priests keep the people in line, Rome lets them live in the best Jerusalem neighborhoods. They walk on tiled floors, dress in expensive robes, and flash expensive rings. So as Jesus and the disciples walk amidst pagan grottos and shrines, all they see and hear reminds them of who they are: a little ragtag group of men and women living differently than most in this Goliath of the Roman Empire.
Yet every day, this counter-cultural rebellion grows larger, less quiet. Every time Jesus of Nazareth opens the ears of another deaf person, or restores sight to someone, or every time another leper is healed, word spreads like wildfire. Caiaphas, the high priest, has already sent several small groups of Pharisees to infiltrate the crowds that follow Jesus. Caiaphas smells trouble in this young man named Jesus. The last thing Caiaphas needs is trouble with Rome. Everybody just needs to get along, and life will be good. Yet life is not always good. Ordinary people suffer. They work long hours for a little food to put on their tables. They struggle with illness and disease. They resent powerful leaders who live like kings and queens while others sit on street corners and beg.
“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus has asked the disciples. They tell him what they have heard in villages and on the road. Some think Jesus is the old prophet Elijah. Some think that Herod’s nemesis, John the Baptist, has returned from the dead. Some name other prophets. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter—always the first one to raise his hand in class—answers well. “You are the Messiah.” Yes. The Messiah. The Anointed one. The One whom they have looked for, longed for, waited for. The One who will lead them to overthrow the Roman government once and for all. Yet it seems that a political coup is not what this Nazarine messiah has in mind. Instead, he knows that suffering and cross-bearing is just ahead of him, waiting in Jerusalem. You don’t get very far in Rome’s estimation when you walk the way of justice, mercy and humility. If these men and women are serious—really serious—about following Jesus in the Way of God, they must be willing to pick up a cross too.
To deny oneself and follow Jesus down such a road is difficult to comprehend, even more difficult to do. Jesus openly predicts what lies ahead for him. “I will soon be in political trouble with the Church folks. The Church elders will make sure that I am turned over to Rome. I will suffer. I will drag my own crossbeam through the streets of Jerusalem. I will suffer. I will die.”
When Peter argues with Jesus, Jesus calls him Satan and declares, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” No wonder Peter is stunned. One minute he gets it all right. The next minute, he gets it all wrong.The disciples have been following a man they hoped would overthrow Rome, then make the world right again—a world in which all will have enough and no one will have too much. Suddenly, Jesus has turned that idea upside down. This king in sandals says they have to deny themselves. Pick up a sign of death. Follow him.
What does that mean—to deny yourself and follow Jesus? One writer has noted this: “Self-denial is not primarily about squashing our desires or delaying gratification. Jesus calls us to separate ourselves from what defines us. A person in Jesus’ culture was defined by those to whom he belonged—usually household or kin. Jesus calls people to embrace new understandings of identity. Disciples join a community defined by association with Jesus. . .they enter a new family comprising all of Jesus’ followers. Self-denial is not self-annihilation, but complete redefinition.”
What does “complete redefinition” mean to us? We live in the United States. No one in the government will turn you in and have you executed because you believe in Jesus as the Son of God. In some countries, they will—and do, every day. However, not here, in America. So you and I do not, literally, suffer in order to follow Jesus as Lord. Perhaps our context of privilege and comfort is, in itself, the challenge. Comfortable Christianity. We can settle in our pews on Sundays several times a month, or occasionally. We can admire—and maintain—our historic space and stained glass windows, say liturgical words, hear a short sermon, go to coffee hour and go home.
So what? What difference does our Sunday worship make in the rest of our week? Does Sunday morning worship completely redefine us? Does taking Holy Communion transform us in any way? If not, maybe we would be better off to go to Starbucks or Panera and read the Sunday paper. That is because Jesus still calls you and me to a new way of life. Jesus still says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus says to love God with your heart, your mind, your soul—in other words, with all that you are and all that you have. Then love your neighbor the way you love yourself. As much as you love yourself.
If you think that is easy, think again. This Christian way of life is a challenge. It is uncomfortable. To be on the way with Jesus means we must re-define our lives. How do we do that? One way we do that is in community, and in order to be in community, we have to show up here, together. You can’t do community all by yourself. Not one of us has all the answers about faith. Yet together, we can ask questions, reflect together, share insights and challenge each other, worship together.
Another way we re-define our lives is to find a way to grow in relationship with the living Christ. How does that happen? If you want to follow Jesus, you must learn more about him. It’s the same way as we make friends. You can’t get to know someone unless you begin conversations, talk to that person, get to know him or her more deeply. The same is true with your relationship with Jesus Christ. And to that, there are many books on prayer or reading scripture, many versions of the Bible, lots of on-line resources, to which you can turn.
Try this: beginning tomorrow, stop for a few minutes either when you get up or when you get ready for bed. Just top and breathe deeply. Read a few verses of scripture. Think about your day and thank God for something. And if you thought that “attitude of gratitude” started with Oprah, it did not. This attitude of gratitude, this being with God for a few minutes will begin to change you. Just a few minutes to focus on God and what God wants of you. A few minutes to talk to Jesus, in your own way. You can do that–really, you can. And it is not hard to find words. As writer Anne Lamott says, there are only three essential prayers: Help. Thanks. Wow. Trust me, God can work with that kind of beginning.
Jesus called his disciples with simple words: Follow me. Come and see. Pick up your cross and follow me. Yet Jesus knew that those simple words of invitation would change people’s lives, and mostly not in comfortable ways. Jesus does not call us to be comfortable. Jesus calls us to walk in real life, in real time, in real places, yet to walk in that way differently.
Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
What would Jesus do in today’s world? I believe that Jesus would stand for justice, over and against rich Wall Street executives who fatten their own pensions while their workers make minimum wages, or less. Jesus would stand for mercy—he would be waiting with food, water and clothing, waiting for Syrian refugees who run for their lives across corn fields, carrying their children. Jesus would stand for humility at political gatherings where politicians puff out their chests and humiliate other human beings in order to further their own ambitions. Jesus would act differently. Jesus would live differently. So if we are going to bear his name, he asks us to act and live differently too. “If any want become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
What might that look like today, for you, as you sit here this morning? Are you willing to live differently, to be different, to follow Jesus on the Way? Whatever that looks like, know that you won’t be walking alone. Look around. You will see that there are others of us on that way, too. Amen.
(c) The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
 Karoline Lewis, “Location Matters,” from website Dear Working Preacher, accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3681.
 Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 8:27-38,” at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383, Accessed on Sept. 12, 2015.
 Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, (New York: Riverhead Books, part of the Penguin Group, 2012.)
Picture of Celtic cross in baptismal font taken by McJilton at Abbey on Isle of Iona.
Picture of votive candles taken by McJilton at Abbey on Isle of Iona, Scotland.
Artwork “Simon helps Jesus carry the cross” on www.audreyanastasi.com. Accessed through Google images.