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Bishop Kenneth L. Carder Bishop Kenneth L. Carder

The Reverend Kenneth L. Carder is the retired bishop of the Nashville Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church, and has held pastoral appointments in Tennessee, Maryland, and Virginia.

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Why Follow Christ?

Mark 8:27-38

September 14, 1997

Peter's objections make sense. He and his brother, Andrew, had already made considerable sacrifice to follow Jesus. They had left their thriving fishing business and the security of their Galilean home in response to Jesus invitation, "Come, follow me." They had staked their very lives on the assumption that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would restore the fortunes of Israel and save the people.

Everything they had seen up to this point would indicate that their sacrifices were a good investment. Evidences of the reign of God abounded in the life and work of Jesus. They had watched with excitement as Jesus cast out demons, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, taught with authority, calmed the storm, raised a young girl to life, fed the multitude, walked on the water, opened the eyes of the blind, made the deaf to hear. These were only the foretaste of the coming end of suffering, poverty and oppression of every kind.

When Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter's answer seemed obvious: "You are the Messiah." Jesus response is less obvious and it threw Peter into a crisis of faith. Jesus admonished the disciples "not to tell anyone about him." Then he said something that must have shook Peter and his colleagues to the very foundation. Jesus began to teach them that he would suffer, be rejected and killed and after three days be raised. They evidently didn't hear the part about being raised. Peter responded immediately and forcefully, even rebuked Jesus. Jesus turned to Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Jesus then called the crowd and said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

I'm with Peter. Should not religious faith protect us from suffering, make us acceptable, give us victory over what threatens us? This is no way to win the world and gain followers! Promised suffering, bearing crosses, losing one's life ~ that will not sell. Only the emotionally warped masochists could find such an invitation appealing. Isolation from suffering, avoiding the cross, that is what we want and expect from God, is it not?

Why would anyone follow a Christ who is to be crucified? We have enough suffering and rejection without this! Peter's objection is as contemporary and personal as our own instinct for self-preservation, our own longing for security and prominence and health and life.

Mark knows, however, that only those who follow Jesus all the way to the cross will really know who he is. If we stop before Calvary, we will misunderstand him. We will assume that he is just another miracle worker, or another exorcist, or a wise and compelling teacher. If Peter and the other disciples proclaim him Messiah based on what they have seen thus far, they will have proclaimed a false Messiah. His identity can only truly be known at the cross. There, even an unenlightened Roman soldier will be able to recognize him: "Truly this is the son of God."

Why follow a crucified Christ? Because only a crucified Messiah reveals God as a suffering, vulnerable God. Only those who stand beneath the cross and watch him suffer and die will be convinced that at the heart of the universe, the very center of reality, is One who enters into suffering. One who takes on the ultimate powers of sin and death. The Eternal One incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth the "fellow sufferer who understands."

Such an image of God is as objectionable and foreign to us as it was to Peter. We want an invincible God, a Super God, who shields us from our own vulnerability. That is the God we imitate and worship ~ invincible, self-sufficient, controlling, an all powerful one who shares divine power with us. "Immortal, invincible, God only wise" that is the God we consider worthy of worship and emulation. Strength in weakness, gaining by losing, the power of the cross ~ that still seems foolishness to those who measure strength by Gross National Product and megaton bombs, those devoted to finishing first and those who thrive on power as prominence.

The Bible bears witness to another God, a God who hears the cries of the poor, who defends the orphans and widows and the immigrants, a God who suffers with the people, a God who comes among us as a vulnerable baby, born among the homeless, spent his early years as an immigrant, lived a common life, associated with the outcasts, compared receiving the kingdom to a little child, executed as a criminal, buried in a borrowed tomb. Even when he was raised from the dead he was mistaken for a grave digger and a beach comer.

This is God! Only those who follow all the way to the cross know the depth of this God's love, the expanse of this God's presence, the power of this God's purpose! The message is profound. There is One who has moved into our vulnerability, our guilt, our alienation, our suffering, our death. God has claimed our weakness as a resource for divine power. God has claimed our wounds as potential means of healing.

By following a crucified Christ, we can come clean with our own vulnerability. No longer do we have to hide behind a mask of stoic control nor wear the protective armor of vulnerability. We can face our weaknesses, and even share with Paul the assurance that "when I am weak then I am strong." We can take up a cross with the full assurance that One has gone before us and now shares its weight and pain.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world's suffering masses. By so doing, we come to know the power of God, which is the power of love. We have enough experience to know that solidarity with the suffering brings power, but the willingness to lose ourselves in self-abandoned love for "the least of these" is to find life. Nothing so snaps us to attention and moves us into the depth of life's meaning than an anguished cry from one we love. Suddenly all the peripheral concerns are stripped away and we enter the sacred world of shared suffering. We enter into the very presence of the Crucified God.

We follow, however, as people of hope. We live on the other side of the cross from Peter. What Jesus hinted to Peter at Caesarea Philippi happened. The Crucified One is the Risen One. We know who won! The future belongs to the one who went to the cross. Those who follow him all the way know the future does not belong to the triumph of suffering, sin and death. It belongs to the reign of Christ over all creation. A new heaven and a new earth are on the way to completion.

When it looks as though sin and suffering and death have the last word, those who follow a crucified Christ know better. They were there on that terrible day when darkness covered the earth. All the evil within us was there. Greed was there. Envy was there. Hate was there. Violence was there. Political expediency was there. Religious bigotry and arrogance was there. Can't you just hear them say as the one without sin bowed his head in death, "Now we got him. We have won." Those who stick around and listen carefully hear another message. "He is risen. He is not here. He goes before you and will meet you in Galilee."

We know that this Crucified Christ is the firstborn of a whole new creation. The future belongs to the One who took up the cross, gave up his life. We have no reason, therefore, to be ashamed of him or hesitant to follow him.

Peter, we understand your objections. They are our objections, too. You and we know better. You were there in the Upper Room when the Crucified One appeared as the Risen One and announced forgiveness to you for your own misunderstanding and betrayal. His forgiveness is stronger than our betrayal. So, we, sometimes reluctantly and hesitantly, follow him even to the cross. We know that the one who calls us to take up our cross goes with us all the way to the cross and beyond.


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