I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus. —Malcolm Muggeridge, British journalist and Christian apologist
For anything worth doing in life, there is a moment when we cease to simply practice, and we take the field of action. There is the moment of moving from batting practice to facing a pitcher when the crowd is roaring. There is the moment of driving golf balls 250 yards on the driving range, and them moving to the first tee on tour. There is the moment at the piano, or organ bench, for playing scales, and then moving to the auditorium where the audience or congregation awaits. At some point, in any endeavor worth pursuing, we move from the practice to the pursuit; we move from the drill field to the battle field, where the great idea must be translated into life itself.
We are seeing such a moment in Matthew’s Gospel today. It is the moment when the disciples move from meandering with Jesus through the lovely fields and shorelines of Galilee, to following Jesus as he turns his face to Jerusalem.
It is a shift from pursuing something, as Muggeridge says, as a means of personal fulfillment or happiness, to something deeper, inviting a kind of death to ourselves, resulting ultimately in joy.
It is time to leave the batting cage. It is time to put away the range balls and head to the first tee. It is time to quit rehearsal, and move to the audience. This is not a drill. Following Jesus will not simply remain a good idea among ideas; following Jesus will perhaps become a matter of life and death.
What begins in the lovely climate and rambling walks in Galilee is about to turn very serious in Jerusalem, and Jesus is telling his friends that the rehearsals are over.
Jesus began to show his disciples that 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.
This moment always gets me on the hook. I believe that I understand this moment because, like you, I know what it means when this kind of shift occurs. Regardless of how or where we spend the best energies of our lives, most everyone I know can recognize when we are no longer playing at something, and we suddenly begin in earnest. “This is for real,” we might say.
This moment with Jesus hooks me because I find that in the life of discipleship we are faced again and again with “keeping it real,” verses having our Christian faith become another hobby, another avocation, our connection to God maintained so long as it does not interrupt whatever other pursuit we have decided is truly the most important goal in our lives.
Matthew is relaying to us that ultimately we face the same choice that Jesus is facing; meandering in the lovely, albeit spiritual, climes of Galilee, or turning to face the truth that waits in Jerusalem. There is an “about-face” command that comes from heaven for every disciple, and even the best of us, Peter included, may find it a bit difficult to hear.
Peter is no fool. And Peter cannot fathom that Jesus is going to lead them on the glide path of a downward trajectory. Peter fancies that the discipleship to which he has been called is something tending toward success, perhaps popularity, and the resolution of old messianic yearnings culminating in a clear and present victories. Think of the shock that Peter must feel when his own best expectations are blocked by the very person in whom he has placed those expectations.
“God Forbid . . . this shall never happen to you.”
I believe that Peter speaks a truth that lives within each of us. Peter is giving the benefit of his honesty; that he is simply not ready for the call of God to lay claim to “everything” for which he has hoped and labored. Perhaps Peter believes that he and the disciples have already done the “hard thing.”
Haven’t they sacrificed much already? Haven’t they listened closely? Haven’t they convinced themselves that they are well practiced at being good disciples?
However, Jesus is showing them that there is a deeper way.
Following Jesus is not simply the best idea among ideas. Following Jesus is not simply an avocation of reading and thinking about things “spiritual.” Following Jesus is not a “second purpose” of our lives. No. Following Jesus at this very moment is to become a Christian; doing otherwise is to become something else.
Every time that I read this vignette, every time I see the friends and the teacher in this moment, every time I read Peter’s declaration and realize that it is my declaration as well, I leave feeling that I have a splinter in my mind. Something raw. Something that aches. Something yearning to be drawn out and given relief.
Both Peter and Jesus cannot be right; in the end, only one of their paths will lead toward God. Both Peter and Jesus want to “see” God, but their eyes are cast upon different visions.
“Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me . . .”
You are a “skandalon” in the Greek to me. A trap. An object of offense. An obstacle. A stumbling block to me. Petras – Peter – the rock of the Church, is showing just how that rock can cause the Son of God offense and difficulty. Peter’s expectations are set upon the wrong thing; I find myself like Peter very often, wanting to ride through a life of faith with the training wheels on, or walk the tightrope of faith, knowing that the safety net is stretched out beneath me.
It is not wrong to want to bypass sacrifice and difficulty in life; it’s simply not always possible if one is going to follow Jesus through this world.
“To human thinking the cross must ever remain a skandalon – scandal; but the Cross plays an indispensable role in God’s salvation history.” – Douglas Hare
As we find what the Cross of Christ means for our lives, as we discover what it means for us to turn from Galilee, facing Jerusalem with Jesus, there is a falling away from ourselves, and a falling upward toward God. And Jesus hammers down the nail of his point by pointing out that any other way of living is actually a way of losing our lives. Yes – you can choose to try and have everything in the world, all at once, and you can lose God in the prospect.
The Cross, the turning to face Jerusalem, that God has in store for each of us will be something that is introduced, and something that we simply be given the choice to carry.
That seems to be the ringing truth that Jesus lays before Peter and his friends at this important juncture – there is the freedom to choose our way through this world.
Allowing God to become the deepest relationship in our lives will look different for each of us. This kind of “following” is often counterintuitive. For some it will mean being misunderstood by friends and family. For some it will mean losing a professional edge in order to maintain a sense of Christian identity. For some it will mean standing by a friend or family member when all the world is turning away. In my experience, choosing to carry the cross that God actually gives to us rarely, rarely results in applause, celebration, and the social capital that comes with virtue signaling.
The hope that is latent in this encounter between Jesus and Peter is that God’s grace far outstretches the limitations of our own expectations of ourselves. Peter is redeemed, and Peter actually finds that he has it within him to accept redirection in life when Christ is near. Grace always abounds. And what Peter felt was impossible, becomes actual, as he and the disciples follow Jesus into the depths of God’s mystery and love.
There is a story of a person that I have found moving, challenging, perhaps because his example shows me what might be possible for some of us; whose story reminds me of Peter. I don’t share it as the singular path, “exemplar,” of what faithful discipleship might be; I only share it so that we might think about what is possible in our own lives. I share it in the hopes that in the midst of the lives that we are living that we each, one day, may have a story to tell about the time we went from hitting range balls for Jesus, to actually going on tour for him.
In the September 2007 issue of Today’s Christian, Shirley Shaw tells the story of how the sacrifices of a successful cabinet maker named Terry Lane continue to change a drug-riddled neighborhood in Jacksonville, Florida.
My business had prospered to the point my 40-man staff needed more space to produce the quality cabinets for which Mid-Lane was well known. We found an ideal location in northwest Jacksonville and in 1985 built a 25,000 square foot state-of-the-art plant that was soon humming with activity. Life was good. But my peace and comfort were short lived.
Almost immediately, problems erupted. Every night the burglar alarm sounded, and I was summoned to the plant by police officers. Broken windows, shots fired, bullet holes in the walls, stolen equipment, vandalism—even incinerated cars in the parking lot.
One night an officer asked me, “What possessed you to build a plant this close to ‘The Rock’?”
“What do you mean, ‘The Rock’?” I asked.
“The Cleveland Arms apartments,” he responded. “More crack cocaine is sold here than anywhere in Jacksonville, so we call it ‘The Rock.'” And he proceeded to enlighten me about my new neighborhood. The 200-unit subsidized housing complex was occupied by drug dealers, prostitutes, and felons, a place considered so dangerous police were hesitant to go there…
As I sat mulling over the situation, from out of nowhere came a thought so clear it was almost audible: If you’ll love those who despitefully use you, I’ll take care of it. Stunned and shaken by God’s admonition, I wondered how I’d obey this gentle command. Then I sensed him say, “Forget about all the shooting and all the garbage. Look at the children.” …
Days went by as I prayed for my neighbors and tried to figure out how to connect with this community. I bought several basketballs, wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence into the complex. There was no immediate reaction, but at least they didn’t throw them back.
Then one Saturday while working alone, I stepped outside for a break. I heard the noise of children playing beneath a tractor trailer parked on the property. When they saw me, one said, “There’s the man,” and they started running.
“Wait,” I called. “Would you like something cold to drink?” Four or five little kids followed me into the plant where I opened the soft drink machine and gave them a cold soda pop. They went home, and I thought no more about it. Until Monday afternoon when I heard a commotion in the lobby and the receptionist ask, “Can I help you?”
As I walked down the hallway, I heard one little kid ask, “Where’s the big man with the beard?” Turning the corner, I saw 16 kids in the lobby looking for me—well, for the man with the key to the drink machine.
That was the beginning. Suddenly, 35 children adopted me, coming to my office every afternoon after school instead of going home. There was nothing for them to go home to. Day after day, while I worked at my drafting table, I was surrounded by kids on the floor busily coloring or doing other crafts I had brought…
Thus began the journey that would change my world and that of many kids whose addicted parents left them to fend for themselves. Often hungry, unkempt, undisciplined, with no structure in their lives or motivation to attend school or church, these children would be the next lost generation. I felt compelled to do what I could. Years flew by, and the kids I mentored became a part of my life.
Terry Lane’s journey of self-denial continued. Ten years after he first reached out to the kids of “The Rock,” he sold his share of the cabinetmaking business to his partner and started Metro Inner City Sunday School.
When the kids got older, they started youth groups and teen programs. It wasn’t long before Terry asked the owner of Cleveland Arms to give him an apartment. In five-years’ time, Lane established a community center called Metro Kids Konnection where the staff feeds over 145 children physically, academically, and spiritually.
Shaw ends her article with these final thoughts from Terry:
There is so much to do, but I’m excited and grateful for the direction God chose for me. My wife and I have gone from enjoying a six-figure annual income to subsisting on $12,000 a year, but God faithfully meets every need. And the rewards are incomparable…
Nothing can replace the joy of having a little child crawl into my lap with a hug for “Pastor Terry,” or for a young man who has been rescued from a potential life of dealing drugs to look me in the eye, shake my hand with a firm grip, and say, “Thanks, P.T.”
That’s my reward for “looking at the children.”
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
I bought several basketballs, wrote “Jesus loves you” and “Mr. Lane loves you” on them, and threw them over the fence . . .