A Follower—Not a Fan
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 25, 2018
2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Our gospel reading puts us in the middle of a story that begins in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets…” Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” On the heels of this declaration, Jesus starts to prepare his disciples for his pending death, but Peter gets so upset he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him.
Although we might be surprised at Peter’s audacity, we likely sympathize with his confusion and alarm. After all, Jesus does openly and vividly share that he will endure great suffering; he will be rejected by the religious rulers and be killed, and after three days rise again. A little later, Jesus tells his disciples and those gathered around, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus invites them—and us—to follow him; follow the path he takes—oh, but what a daunting path it is. Surely, we want to be obedient to our Lord, but who wants to suffer? Who wants to be rejected? Moreover, who will eagerly sign up to be killed—even if it is only for three days? Oh Jesus, yes, we want to follow you—but we want to stop a few steps shy of the cross!
In a moment of clarity, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, but then, in the blink of an eye, he loses momentum because he’s unable to define “Messiah” in the way Jesus does. Seeing only with worldly eyes, Peter takes Jesus aside to scold him because Peter thinks he is in the driver’s seat. Peter thinks he is the guide on this tour, but the only guide Jesus is interested in is his Abba Father. Jesus is not looking for guides. Jesus is looking for followers.
Earlier in Mark we learn about the death of John the Baptist. You will recall that King Herod puts John in prison because he has spoken against Herod marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. And even though Herodias has a grudge against John and wants him killed, Herod fears John, and believes him to be a holy man. Turns out, Herod likes John’s preaching—he doesn’t understand him, but he is entertained by him, nonetheless. (Of course, that does not stop him from chopping off John’s head.) In the end, you might say that Herod is a fan. But Herod is not a follower.
There’s a difference between a fan and a follower. A fan is an enthusiastic admirer or a spectator while a follower is committed to serving or imitating another person. Regarding Jesus, are we followers or do we better fit the description of a fan? Do we come to church on any given Sunday not really expecting anything to happen except maybe to be entertained? Could it be that too many churches are filled with fans instead of communities of followers?
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Later he says, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed…” For the people of Israel, under Roman rule, dying by execution on a cross was a shameful affair. But today, what is there to be ashamed of? What’s scandalous about our watered down, domesticated version of Jesus?
A few years ago, or so the story goes, a large department store came up with the idea to sell dolls in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisements described it as being washable, cuddly, and unbreakable, and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Appropriate biblical verses were thrown in for good measure. To the department store executives, it had all the markings of a sure-fire success, but they were wrong. It didn’t sell. All those baby Jesus’ laying around in straw and plastic. Desperate to be rid of the dolls, one store manager took drastic measures, putting a sign in the store window that read: “Jesus Christ; 50% off; get him while you can.”
Jesus says in no uncertain terms there will be a cost to following him: “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.” What does our religion cost us in the “day in” and “day out” of our lives? Martin Luther said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman place, and from this point in the Gospel of Mark, he will be heading south, south to Jerusalem, south to the cross. Jesus isn’t so interested in what people call him along the way: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—or even the Messiah. Jesus isn’t interested in the size of the crowd—whether the meeting hall is in a small church in Valdosta or one with stadium seating. Jesus isn’t calling half-interested fans to join the throngs—no Jesus is interested in sold-out, committed followers.
Are we fans? Or are we followers? In the words of one preacher, “Fans are here today and gone tomorrow. Following takes commitment. Following takes sacrifice. Unfortunately, the church is filled with …people [who] are fans of the building they gather in…fans of the preacher or worship leader. There are those who are even fans of Jesus [who] have never made the transition to become a follower…”[i]
Jesus is on his way to cross and with every step he’s on the lookout for followers. Peter goes through the motions, says the right words, “You are the Messiah,” but it will take time for him to truly understand what that means. It will take time for him to set his mind on divine things. The Gospel of Matthew tells us when Simon Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, he gets a new name, just like Abraham and Sarah before him, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Jesus gives Simon a new name—Peter, Petros, Rock. One day, Peter grows into that name—no longer a fan—but a committed follower who will take up his cross and follow Jesus, who will end up on his own cross, crucified, tradition says, upside down.
We dare not domesticate the message Jesus proclaims. In every way, Jesus turns his disciples’ perceptions upside down, which should give us something to ponder: Aren’t we in the most danger when we think we have Jesus all figured out? If Jesus doesn’t get under our skin—make us uncomfortable—do we really know him?
Jesus wants all of us—body, mind and soul, sold out to God. Everything comes under his reign—the words we speak; what we post on social media; whether we forgive or hang onto a grudge; how we spend our time, talents, and money; whether we live with a sense of gratitude and wonder or with a chip on our shoulder certain the world owes us something. Our brokenness and shame, our hopes and dreams, all of it comes under the reign of our Lord AND all of it can be redeemed because of the price he paid on the cross.
Plain and simple, the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. A sacrifice—freely choosing for the sake of the Christ—is required. It’s one thing to go through the motions and say the words, “I will take up my cross and follow the way of Jesus,” but it’s another thing, to do it.
From Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, hear Jesus’ invitation once more:
Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.
The Season of Lent is a time of preparation—a time of self-examination. Let us spend the coming days wisely. Let us take stock of our lives so we can honestly answer: Am I a follower of Jesus—or am I just a fan?
<AN AFFIRMATION OF FAITH>
<GLORY TO GOD>
<PRAYER OF THE PEOPLE>
Holy and Loving God, you blessed Abraham and Sarah and promised to make them ancestors of many nations. In Jesus Christ, you opened your covenant to everyone who lives by faith in you. O God, we give you thanks and praise. And now, hear our prayer, O Lord, that we may all live in peace and be a sign of your abiding love. We pray for all pastors and teachers—that they may lead the church by humble example, taking up their cross in faithful service, and living for the sake of the gospel. Sovereign God, we pray for peace among the nations and for integrity within governments. Ultimately, may your will be done upon the earth. Merciful God, you hear the cry of the poor, and you satisfy the hungry with good things. For the poor and the oppressed, that they may find deliverance, and for all who voluntarily take up the cross of self-denial to serve the poor and alleviate human misery, hear our prayer, O Lord. Now in a moment of silence, we lift before you those who have asked for our prayers, those we love, and the burdens we carry. (Silence) Grant these prayers, Holy God, by your grace. Stir up in us the will to seek your kingdom with dedication, humility, and love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught his disciples to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen.
<THE GIVING OF OFFERINGS>
Now, not because we must, but because we are grateful, let us return to God what is ours to share.
<PRAYER OF DEDICATION>
Almighty God, accept these our offerings along with the dedication of our lives, that we may be for the world a sign of your abiding love and a testament of your enduring promise. This is our fervent prayer. Amen.
Go boldly from this place of worship to follow Christ, our Lord, wherever he may lead.
May God the Father bless you;
May God the Son take care of you;
May God the Spirit encourage you;
Both now and forever more. Amen.
*Cover Art “Following the Flow” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription