Background Passages: Mark 8:27-36; Luke 9:18-25
Jesus slipped to the grass from the flat rock upon which he sat as he spent the last hour in prayer. The canopy of trees under which he now reclined with his back against the rock sheltered him from the late afternoon sun. Jesus glanced at his disciples gathered in a loose cluster about 40 feet further down the hill. As they finished their prayers one by one, they talked quietly among themselves, breaking out a small loaf of bread and passing it around, satisfying their hunger.
Jesus looked from his disciples down into the town of Caesarea Philippi, a bustling city 30 miles north of the region of Galilee. He watched the frenetic pace of the people as they finished the work of the day and headed home. He lifted his eyes toward the sheer cliff on the north side of the city. It rose 150 feet above the lush, green valley below. He knew the streamlet gushing from the massive grotto on the western edge of the cliff were the headwaters of the Jordan River as it flowed south to the Sea of Galilee.
The cavern was said to be the birthplace of Pan, the Greek god of nature. Worshippers still brought their offerings of fruit and grain, laying them at the altar.
His vision shifted to the gleaming temple of white marble which Philip, the region’s ruler, dedicated to Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor whom the people considered a god. Before these temples and altars were built, Jesus knew his history well enough to know the whole area stood as a center dedicated to the worship of Baal, the ancient Canaanite god.
It was a deeply reflective moment. Jesus contemplated the scene spread across the valley below. Considered all he had done during his ministry. Felt his gut tighten when he thought about the cross to come. Had anything he said and done made a difference? Before he began his final journey to the cross Jesus needed to know. Did anyone really know who he was?
He turned to his disciples quietly talking and laughing in the ease of friendships forged by common experiences. His words cut through the comfortable conversation. “Who do the crowds say I am?”
They turned toward Jesus in a rustle of robes and shuffling feet. They were used to his probing. Knew an answer was required. “John the Baptist,” one blurted. “One of the old prophets brought back to life,” announced another. “Elijah,” another proclaimed.
Jesus glanced again at the city below, lost in thought for a moment. Then, he turned back to his disciples. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”
Jesus held his breath, looking into the eyes of each of his closest friends. Their answers would make all the difference. Would he see blank stares of incomprehension? Would he catch so much as a spark of understanding that meant he had at least lit a torch in their hearts. He waited. Felt his heart thump anxiously in his chest.
How his soul must have soared when Peter stood among them, looked at his friends, then to Jesus, knowing that he answered for all of them. “You are the Messiah. The Anointed One of God.”
That moment sealed the deal for Jesus. He then taught them intently about the events to come. Suffering. Rejection. Death. Resurrection. Prophecies that left them frightened and confused. Then, he challenged them with words that echo still in the ears of every believer today.
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit his very soul?”
The call of Christ demands that we deny self. It’s not a matter of dismissing our lives as unworthy or inconsequential in the grand scheme of God’s plan. Denying ourselves means to set aside our egos. Deliberately subordinating our will to the will of God. Opening our lives to the possibility that his plan for us is greater and more meaningful than the one we planned for ourselves. It means turning from where we wish to go to follow the path he lays before us.
The call of Christ demands that we take up his cross. Not just any cross…his cross. Jesus knew the horror of what lay before him. When Jesus was a boy, a Jewish rebellion in Sepphoris, just four miles from Nazareth, ended badly for those who fought against the Roman empire. Historians tell us more than 2,000 rebels were crucified, set in lines along the roadside as a frightful reminder of the power of Rome.
To face the cross was a vicious reality burned into the back of his mind. He, as well as anyone, knew what it meant to take up the cross. It stood as the inevitable certainty he faced by declaring a kingdom of God that rocked the boats of the pious and the political.
Today, taking up the cross of Christ means to live our life with the same focused commitment to God’s purpose that Jesus did. It means preparing for rejection in a world that does not understand. Letting nothing… no thought of ridicule, persecution, or embarrassment…prevent us from doing that which we know God desires us to do. It means looking at a world that dismisses Jesus as irrelevant and proclaiming in word and deed, “I belong to Christ!”
Denying ourselves. Taking up his cross. These are steps in the right direction. If we stop there, however, we miss that which matters most. The call of Christ demands we follow. It means spending our lives, not hoarding it. It means giving of ourselves, not taking from others. It means not playing it safe, but doing the right thing at all times and in all situations. It means not getting by with as little as we can for the cause of Christ, but investing ourselves completely in his ministry.
The way of the world always seeks to gain advantage over another. The goal of the world is to amass more wealth, power and glory than the guy next door. Jesus would answer that unbridled ambition with this question. Where is the eternal profit in that way of life? Jesus said one saves his life when he loses it in service to others.
As believers in Christ we have been called to follow the lead of Christ, not always knowing where it will take us. Doors open and doors close. Following his lead is not always easy, but it is always best.
I’m reminded of the old invitational hymn, Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go, written in 1936 by Baylus Benjamin McKinney. He penned the words to his poem after meeting with the Rev. R.S. Jones, a South American missionary who had been pulled from service. Because of a serious illness, he would not be allowed to return.
“What will you do?” McKinney asked his friend.
“I don’t know, but wherever he leads, I’ll go.”
From a simple conversation between two old friends poured the words that challenge us…challenge me…today.
“Take up thy cross and follow me,”
I heard my master say;
“I gave my life to ransom thee,
Surrender your all today.”
He drew me closer to his side,
I sought his will to know,
And in that will I now abide,
Wherever he leads I’ll go.
It may be through shadows dim,
Or o’er the stormy sea,
I take my cross and follow him
Wherever he leadeth me.
My heart, my life, my all I bring,
To Christ who loves me so;
He is my master, Lord and king.
Wherever he leads I’ll go.
The chorus of the song declares, “I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so.”
Wherever he leads, let’s go.