Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Picture this: Christians live in a perfect world. They have everything they ever need or want. Those who confess faith in Christ never go hungry. Instead, they all have their dream jobs making more money than they need. Everyone who believes in Jesus as Savior owns a big house, drives a brand new car, and enough free time on their hands to enjoy them with their loved ones. Believers have the best health care coverage in the world for the best price. In fact, they never die.
Can you envision a world where everything goes right for God’s people? Most of us probably could, even if only in our wildest daydreams. We might even imagine the whole world would convert to faith in Jesus rather rapidly in a world like that. But the reality we face is a world filled with suffering. We see heartbreaking divorces. Parents burying their children. Cancer in remission. The list goes on. We might wish to see a distinction between believers and unbelievers, but the truth is Christians suffer just as much as others. With so much suffering, especially when believing in God seemingly makes no difference, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? That’s what we consider as we hear God’s word today.
In the last year of Jesus’ ministry, as the end approaches, he wants to make sure his followers understand who he is. So he springs a pop quiz on them. Just two questions. One: who do the masses say I am? Their answer: John the Baptist or Elijah or a prophet. Some thought Jesus was John brought back from the dead. Others thought he was Elijah returned as the prophet Malachi had predicted. Still others thought him a good man in the tradition of the prophets.
People still think that today. No, they don’t say Jesus is John or Elijah. But they still think he was a good man, maybe even a man who spoke from God. Every year someone covers a “search for the historical Jesus.” To save you the time of looking into all of them, they always find the “real Jesus” is at odds with what we read in the Bible. They interview scholars. Some say Jesus was merely myth. Others say he was a political figure. Others say a teacher of good things. With the experts split on who Jesus was, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST?
That’s where Jesus’ second question to the disciples comes in. “What about you?” he turns to them. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers for them all. “You are the Messiah.” “You are the Christ.” “You are God’s anointed, fully God, fully man. You are the one God promised would come.”
There’s an answer. WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? Because of who he is. Along with Peter, we confess Jesus is the Messiah. He is God and man. He rules the universe as our compassionate brother who took on flesh and blood. He is the one the Scripture points to. All the hopes and dreams of God’s people ride on him. But what does the Christ do?
Jesus warned his disciples not to tell others until the time was right, so that he could complete his mission. The mission was this: the Son of Man must suffer. He must be rejected. He must be killed. And he must rise again. But if even God has to suffer, has to die—WHY FOLLOW CHRIST?
Peter didn’t like Jesus’ news one bit. Here before him was the one who was going to deliver God’s people from their oppression. He was staring at the end of human suffering. In all his dreams, Jesus restored God’s kingdom—paradise on earth. So how can Jesus say hemust suffer? Peter rebuked Jesus for talking such nonsense.
Which of us hasn’t dreamed of a better world where our problems are gone? When you see an alternative to pain or misery or loneliness, don’t you take it? I don’t hear many people praying for 10 years of dementia when they could be praying for 10 healthy years instead. That just opens the bag to all sorts of questions. Where is God when I’m struggling to make ends meet? Where is God when all my friends have left me alone? Where is God when I struggle to do what’s right and end up jobless while the godless advance? He’s got to fix it! Like Peter, we are quick to tell God that we have a better plan. It’s a lot easier to follow our own advice than the teachings of Christ!
Of course, those are the devil’s plans. It comes through in Peter’s voice: “Oh, Jesus, just stay on earth a little longer. Set up a kingdom! Think how glorious it would be! All the people would acknowledge you,” he says. But Jesus rebukes him. “Get behind me, Satan.” Those aren’t God’s plans. They’re human. And they’re wrong.
Instead, God’s plan was what the Scripture said all along. Christ came to suffer and die. He didn’t come to rid the world of suffering, but to take its suffering on himself. He knew the schemes of the devil that make us look for glory. He resisted temptation. Instead, he did what was necessary. “The Son of Man must.” Why? Because God determined in eternity that this was the way he would save his world. A world filled with suffering that results from sin. He was, is, the promised Messiah who delivered all people. As he revealed to his disciples, he would die on a cross.
So WHY FOLLOW CHRIST? Why follow a man who died the cruelest of deaths? The most painful, the most humiliating? Because of what he does. He bore the cross for you. He suffered for our sins. Took our punishment. Died our death. He experienced our hell on the cross, not so we would feel sorry for him, but because he loves you. He’s God. He bore it as only he could. And irony of ironies, that day he was too bruised and bloody to even carry the cross. Someone had to carry it for him. So he could die for you and me and Simon. And also rise again. His resurrection guarantees this story—and our story—does not end in death.
But that’s not the reality we’re faced with. If Jesus suffered to take away all suffering, to save the world from death, why do we still have to deal with such terrible offenses as child abuse? Why do we still bury grandma and grandpa, mom and dad? If Christ didn’t resolve it, WHY FOLLOW HIM?
To that Jesus answers, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” That’s tough. Give up my plans when they fly in the face of God. End my efforts to do what seems best to me but is contrary to what God says. If Jesus stopped with this, it would already be too hard. But he goes on. “Let him take up his cross,” Christ says. And we groan, “Great, even more suffering! Suffering because of Jesus and his gospel? Why, God, why?”
Friend, when your cross seems monumental, when you’re ready to drop it and run—for the times when you can’t pick up your cross, consider what Christ does for you. He followed God’s plan of greatest suffering, dying on a cross. He faced rejection by God and all people so that God would never reject you. Jesus knows your suffering. He won’t ignore it. Instead, he comes to you. He comes to us in the waters of baptism, promising that we share in his death and will certainly share in his resurrection. He comes to us in bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. He comes to us on the pages of his book.
In light of what he’s done for you, is it too much to ask you to share, for this short life, in his sufferings? Shouldn’t we rather rejoice that God allows us to suffer because we bear his name—Christian, a follower of Christ? Thank God when others call you a fool for believing in Christ! Praise God when the world hates your outdated views on an ancient book! Give thanks that you suffer. WHY FOLLOW HIM? Because he has made you his follower. He knows your troubles. He won’t leave you alone in them. He promises he will make it right.
In a world so filled with problems, WHY FOLLOW CHRIST when we could think of so many better options? He is the only way to eternal life, and he won’t abandon us in this one. Follow Christ because of who he is, what he has done, and who he has made you to be. Take up your cross, and follow him!