BIBLE READINGS:    Romans 4:13-25       Mark 8: 31-38

 

SERMON

Being a follower is not something we admire. No speaker has ever encouraged their audience to become the "followers of tomorrow." Nobody makes biographical history films about great world followers. Nobody gives awards to recognise the contributions of community followers. Nobody frames their résumé to highlight where they exercised strong "followership" in their work. Nobody's heart swells with pride when a fellow parent comes up to them and says, "You know, your child is a real follower."

Recently I was involved in preparing the syllabus for Ministry Formation for our Candidates – our future ministers. We did not discuss or reflect on our students becoming followers. We want great leaders! "Following" if it came up at all, was seen as a negative.
What do people hear all the time? Don't be a follower, be a leader. Don't follow the crowd. Being a follower is weak and passive. It is for people who can't think or act for themselves. Being a follower is for losers.

In fact, there is only one place where we are being encouraged to become a follower is Twitter. Twitter is all about following. Twitter, of course, is an online social networking service, and you connect with other people by choosing to "follow" them; that's the language it uses. If you're following someone, you receive everything they say through Twitter, so choosing who to follow requires some real thought. Is this person interesting or funny or insightful or are they just going to tell you what breakfast cereal they had this morning? Whose thoughts and activities do you really want to keep up with?

The algorithm that Twitter uses creates suggestions of people you might follow; it presents the names and pictures of people, and each one of them has a little button marked "follow" that you can just click to start following them.

Rev Austin the director of the “Center for Christian Leadership” at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York tell so f his experience with Twitter. “...(recently) Twitter went beyond being a social networking service and became an online evangelist because it said that I should follow Jesus Christ, literally. It was right there. A Twitter feed for Jesus Christ. With his picture and everything. Oh, come on, I'm a minister - what was I going to do: not follow Jesus Christ? So, I clicked the button next to his name marked "follow," and now I regularly get updates from "Jesus Christ," which are sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, and often insightful. Not all that different from the Jesus we encounter in Scripture, when you think about it.”

If there had been Twitter in the first century, Jesus (the real Jesus) probably would have been pretty popular. Lots of people wanted to follow him to see what he was doing and hear what he had to say. By the time this story happens, Jesus has made quite a name for himself. He's been travelling around the countryside performing healings, exorcisms and other miracles; he's been saying a lot of things that are sometimes funny, sometimes provocative, and often insightful, and the crowds follow everything he says and does. And, of course, he's got a closer group of followers, the disciples.

Now the word "disciples" simply means "students." But Jesus' students are not doing too well in class. They've been following him all over; they've seen everything he's done and heard everything he's said, but they can't seem to master the course material. Jesus asks them, "Who do you say that I am?" And, somehow, something clicks for Peter, and he actually comes up with the right answer. "You are the Messiah," he says.

But you can have the right answer and still not understand anything about it  Just a few verses after he gave Jesus the correct answer, Peter is pulling Jesus aside to tell him he to change his ways. He begins to rebuke Jesus for saying all this stuff about the Messiah having to suffer and be rejected and killed. "What kind of Messiah is that?" Peter demands. But Jesus cuts him off: "Get behind me, Satan," he says. Now Jesus isn't calling him Satan lightly; remember that Jesus began his ministry with Satan beside him, tempting him to see what kind of Messiah he really would be. It seems that here Jesus is facing that temptation again.

And then he calls the crowd and the disciples to gather around, and he gives them all the answer to the question of what kind of Messiah he really will be, what kind of Messiah they are following: "If any want to become my followers," he says, "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 and the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Following Jesus requires a lot more than clicking a button and keeping up with him, knowing what he says and does. It means actually going where he goes and doing what he does the way that he does it, which is crucial given how the phrase "take up their cross" has been abused. Usually, when people say something or someone is "my cross to bear," they mean suffering that is imposed on them, but which must nevertheless be accepted and endured without complaint.

But that is not what Jesus is saying. We do not take up our cross and follow Jesus by quietly accepting and enduring the violence of a spouse or the manipulations of a drug-addicted child. Suffering that is imposed on us against our will is not redemptive. Suffering on the cross was not imposed on Jesus; he took it up himself willingly, intentionally, to redeem all of us. To take up our cross and follow Jesus means we follow him in refusing to think only about ourselves, but to suffer for the redemption of others even if it risks us losing our lives.

John Lewis, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American civil rights struggle, talked about what redemptive suffering is really like. How do we respond when somebody else is being violently attacked? Do we just stand there keeping our hands clean and ask the attacker to stop instead of driving them away? That's hard to accept. John Lewis suggests, "...If someone is being attacked and beaten, it is your responsibility to intervene to protect them." But intervening does not mean returning violence with violence to drive the attacker away; intervening means stepping in and shielding the victim with your own body, accepting the blows yourself in order to save them, even at risk to your own life.

This is as plain as it can be. John Lewis was talking powerfully about really taking up your cross and following Jesus. Although I'm not sure I want to or am capable of going that far!

"Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, will save it." In other words, following Jesus is for losers; the question is what we are willing to lose. Now, to save or to lose our lives as followers of Christ isn't always a dramatic kind of decision like first-century Christians faced. But it is no less real; a church that is focused on saving its own life will lose it. A church that spends its energy and resources saving its building rather than empowering its mission is losing its life; a living church makes its building a resource for mission, not an object of it. A church seeking new members to save its budget or its influence is losing its life; a living church receives new members to nurture them as disciples, not so they can nurture the church as an institution.

And losing our lives for the sake of the gospel does not always mean death. But it does mean martyrdom. Generally, we think of martyrs as people who died for their faith, who literally lost their lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel, but that's not the original meaning. "Martyr" is a Greek word that simply means "witness." And what does a witness do? A witness tells the truth of what they have seen and heard, no matter what; it's just that, in the first three centuries of the church, telling the truth about how you had seen and heard Jesus' saving grace in your life and in the world was enough to get you killed. But the significance wasn't actually in losing your life for your faith. The significance was in being a witness who gives testimony that you had already lost your life when Christ claimed it and that it is held safely in Christ's hands where no one on earth can reach it.

At the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, when Christians were literally suffering and dying for justice and redemption there, Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to gather his staff around him in the mornings for prayer. And often as he was closing, he would ask, "If being Christian became a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict us?"

He was asking this question to keep himself and his staff focused on who and whose they were, rather than just what they were doing. They were not simply leaders, leading an important social struggle for dignity and freedom; they were followers, following Jesus Christ in insisting that God's reconciling love transcends anything that tries to resist it, which apartheid challenged in insisting that different races could not and should not live together. Without being followers, being leaders was not enough; people had to be able to see and hear them following Christ in their lives and ministry for that leadership to really make sense in the first place.

We don't need more leaders in the church – we need more followers – not of any one person – but of Jesus Christ! We need to be a church of followers, a people who help each other become losers, losers of anything that keeps us from following Jesus: our fears and anxieties, our pasts or our futures, our status or our schedules, our need to be in control of our lives and our faith, anything that keeps us from losing ourselves in the abundance of the grace that we receive, the love that we share, the ministry that we fulfil.

As it turns out, we have a lot to lose. So let's get going. All we have to do is follow the leader.

Acknowledgement: Rev. J. C. Austin