Follow the Leader
(Mark 8: 31-38)

Following the leader. At one time or another in our lives we’ve either followed the leader or have been the leader. Some leadership positions you train for or grow into. Others, it’s like being thrown into a cold creek, sink or swim. During my lifetime I’ve been both a follower or one who needs to be led, and a leader. When I got promoted to sergeant they didn’t send us to sergeant school. All I had to go on was my experiences being led by good sergeants and suffering under bad sergeants so I had to decide, based upon my experiences, how certain situations needed to be handled. When I got appointed District Attorney, overnight I inherited a staff. I had no knowledge on how to manage an office and the personnel that came with it. I learned by trial and error. Many trials and more than enough errors. Then there was the time I got a job as an assistant district attorney where I was hired to prosecute felony cases. I was a pretty fair trial attorney used to working on my own. I had never been micromanaged and I can tell you that is no way to effectively use your people. I swore, after that experience, if I ever got the chance to manage attorneys again I would be the opposite of a micromanager. Then along comes this great opportunity to lead God’s people. I don’t know about seminary, but I can tell you there is a lot they don’t tell you in Certified Lay Ministry classes about leading a congregation and managing a United Methodist Church. All three careers had something similar in common that should have made the job easier. As a police officer I was sworn to protect and serve the people. As a prosecutor my job was to hold those who had been brought to justice accountable for their crimes and misdeeds. As a pastor my job, as I see it, is to facilitate God’s people in our mission to serve the least, the last and the lost bringing them to a relationship with God. Strangely enough, all three jobs have had those cat herding moments which usually come when we lose sight of why we are here and what we are doing, serving God.

That’s where I think Jesus found himself in our scripture lesson for this morning. Previously, Jesus had asked the disciples who the people were saying he was. Some said John the Baptist, some said Elijah and some said one of the prophets. Jesus asked them who they thought he was to which they responded: The Christ.

It was at this point that Jesus began to teach them what was about to happen and how this was all going to play out. He told them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Peter took Jesus aside, scolded him and began to correct him. Poor Peter. He’s always stepping in it. I have no doubt that Peter is well-intentioned and truly wants the best for Jesus whom he dearly loves but he doesn’t see the big picture. I can’t blame him as it is beyond comprehension. Peter was thinking about the here and now, the establishment of a kingdom on earth, one that got rid of the hated Romans. He wanted to see a reformation of the existing church that was failing in its duty to minister to God’s people. The death of his leader was not what he wanted to see. Peter, in his emotional outburst, was not considering God’s purposes. What Peter wanted would only last a generation at best. What God intended would last an eternity. Peter wanted Christ as king and not the suffering servant. Peter wanted the glory of following the Messiah but not the persecution.

Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.” Now that was a pretty strong rebuke and I’m sure it really stung Peter. But Peter only said what many of the disciples may have been thinking. As Jesus looked at his disciples when he rebuked Peter it is clear he was also addressing them. After all, they usually had plenty of downtime to talk about what was taking place and where they thought this was heading. The disciples didn’t want to see Jesus go to the cross. There had to be another way. They were motivated out of love and admiration. Jesus, I’m sure, appreciated this sentiment but their job was to follow him and not to run interference.

Jesus, we learn, calls the crowd together and, along with his disciples, says, All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. The Roman readers knew what taking up the cross meant. A prisoner bound for execution carried his own cross signifying submission to Rome’s power. Jesus used this imagery to illustrate to his followers the ultimate submission required of his followers. He goes on to ask, Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? What will people give in exchange for their lives? Jesus is talking about the heroic effort needed to follow him moment by moment, to do his will even when the work is difficult and the future looks bleak. He’s asking them and us what we think our life is worth. Is it worth what we want in the here and now or is it worth what we will receive in eternity with him? If you choose eternity he is telling you that the Christian life is not a paved road to wealth and ease. It often involves hard work, persecution, deprivation, and deep suffering. To underscore his point Jesus puts it to them bluntly, Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.

Jesus wants us to choose to follow him rather than to lead a life of sin and self-satisfaction. He wants us to stop trying to control our own destiny and let him direct us. He asks for submission, not for self-hatred, he asks us only to lose our self-centered determination to be in charge. Many people spend all their energy seeking pleasure. Jesus said, however, that a world of pleasure centered on possessions, position, or power is ultimately worthless. Whatever you have on earth is only temporary, it cannot be exchanged for your soul. If you work hard at getting what you want, you might eventually have a pleasurable life, but in the end, you will find it hollow and empty. Follow Jesus, and you will know what it means to live abundantly now and have eternal life as well.

Jesus constantly turns the world’s perspectives upside down with talk of first and last, saving and losing. Here we have a choice. We can reject him now and be rejected by him at his second coming, or we can accept him now and be accepted by him then.

Please pray with me.

Most gracious and loving God, O how we want to follow your Son. The magnitude of his love for us as shown in his supreme sacrifice is beyond comprehension. Like Peter and the disciples, we are simple people who spend our time thinking about the here and now as we struggle to make it in a world that seems to work against us. Help us to understand the importance of living a life dedicated to doing your work and your will. Give us the strength and courage to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Move us to give up our desires for the things of this world that are merely temporary and not worth the effort. Help us to see that giving up these worldly pursuits in exchange for a life with you in eternity is worth more than everything we could possibly gain on earth. We pray that we can live a life that serves as an example to all of what it means to follow the lead of your Son, Jesus Christ, as we anxiously await the great day of his return. In the name of your loving Son, we pray, Amen.