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Follow the Leader

Matthew 16: 21 28

Remember as a child playing the game “follow the leader”?

Someone was designated the leader of the group, and then you had to watch very carefully what that person was doing and you had to walk where they walked and imitate how they walked. If they ran, you ran. If they skipped you skipped. If they turned ‘round in circles, you turned ‘round in circles.

Sometimes the leader would do things like go up

the ladder and down the slide on the swing set. Or if we were playing by the lake,

we might get marched down to the end of the dock and straight into the water. On a hot Minnesota summer day, that was a treat.

But I remember a couple of times playing in the basement of our house in St. Paul when it wasn’t so much fun, because the leader knew that some of us were not all that comfortable in the dark, and would lead us to places that we didn’t really want to go, like back into the furnace room behind the big old oil burner or into the small dark space that held the pressure pump for our well. Then it wasn’t so good.

Sometimes it was a lot of fun.

And really, no one likes being led to places where they don’t want to go. We don’t like it in business when our employer tells us we are getting a transfer that we didn’t apply for. We don’t like it in a family, when dad comes home and tells us that we are moving to some place far away from familiar sights and friendly faces because he has been given a transfer that we certainly did not apply for.

There may even be times in the church when we don’t like it because things seem to be moving in a new direction or a different direction than that which we expected.

In life, as in follow-the-leader, it’s no fun to be led into places we would not choose for ourselves.

But consider this morning that this is the life of true discipleship. We are called to follow the leader. We are called to be disciples or followers of Jesus Christ.

And it sounds like a great idea when we are toiling away in the heat of the day and Jesus comes and calls us from our labors. There they were; Peter, James, John and the gang, slaving away by the lake, patching nets, casting nets, cleaning fish (ah, the glamorous life of a professional fisherman). Then Jesus came along

and called them, “Come follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The guys didn’t even stop to ask about the pension or the dental plan, and being fishers of men must have sounded pretty good compared to being fishers of fish, because immediately they left their families and their nets and they followed Jesus.

It was a good life too; traveling around with the teacher, helping him with crowd control and occasionally even being called upon to do miracles in his name. As long as Jesus was popular with the people, they were part of the “in” crowd. They had the people’s respect and a very special relationship with the Lord. Follow-the-leader can be a lot of fun, even an adventure, when the particular leader in question is going your way.

But in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus began to give indications that he was heading in a different direction than what the disciples had anticipated. In verse 21,

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Matthew 16:21 NIV)

Now at first glance, Peter’s reaction seems kind of spiritual. He took Jesus aside and said to him,

"Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matthew 16:22 NIV)

And it’s like Peter is truly concerned for Jesus’ welfare. He doesn’t want the teacher to suffer. He doesn’t want the teacher to die. Of course, in hindsight we know that the cross was the price of grace. Without the cross, there could be no salvation. Without the cross Peter, and the rest of us, must perish in sin. Peter just didn’t understand that grace is costly. He didn’t understand that while “God is certainly merciful…he is also just [and] his justice demands that sin, committed against his supreme majesty be punished with the supreme penaltyeternal punishment of body and soul.” He didn’t understand yet that “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

You can tell by the way that Jesus

But really, that was not the issue anyway.

responded to Peter. He turned to him and said,

"Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

And more significantly,

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Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. {25} For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)

Now, didn’t you ever wonder how Jesus got from “he [that is, Jesus] must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…and…he must be killed…” to “whoever loses his life for me will find it”? Well, Jesus could see right through Peter. I mean, I’m sure that Peter really didn’t want Jesus to suffer and die, they were, after all, close friends. But at the bottom line, Peter had made a connection that many would-be disciples today often miss. Peter realized that to be a disciple of Jesus meant that he was supposed to be following Jesus, and if Jesus was going to the cross, then that had some implications for Peter’s own life. And a cross was not what he signed up for.

It’s probably not what most of us had in mind either, when we decided to follow Jesus. And yet, on the way to the cross, Jesus bids us, “come and follow” and he could not have been more clear.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)

And there have been times in church history when this was understood quite literally.

In 110 A.D., Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was arrested and sent to Rome for preaching Christ. He later wrote to the church. “Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing of visible or invisible things so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus.” And on the day that he was led away to the lions, he said, “I am the wheat of Christ; I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread.” (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – John Foxe 1997 version, pg 14)

And there was Jim Elliot, a gifted young missionary who in 1956, together with four others gave his life for Christ on the point of an Indian spear on the banks of the Curaray River in Ecuador. Before he left for the mission field, there were many who told Elliot that with his gifts, he really ought to stay at home and work at building up the church in the States. But, "Why should some hear twice," he said, "when others have not heard [the gospel] once?"

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It was a sentiment that would cost him his life, but Jim Elliot also believed,

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

No, the call of Jesus is clear.

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24 NIV)

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The cross is laid on every Christian. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his deathwe give over our lives to death. The cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Now, neither Jesus nor Bonhoeffer mean to imply that every Christian is going to be called to die gloriously, a martyr for the cause of Christ. Although according to the World Evangelical Encyclopedia, since Jesus himself was crucified almost 2000 years ago, roughly 43 million of his disciples have followed their leaderover half of those in the 20 th century alone. And today, while you worship in peace, and then go to visit and maybe to enjoy a nice Sunday dinner with family and friends, 200 million of your brothers and sisters around the world will face persecution and some 300 more will joyfully give their lives rather than deny the one who gave his life for them. Should that sort of persecution ever come to this country, I wonder if the master will find us as faithful and as quick to follow in his steps. Clarence Jordan, author of the "Cotton Patch" New Testament translation and founder of the interracial Koinonia farm in Americus, Georgia, was getting a red- carpet tour of another minister's church. With pride the minister pointed to the rich, imported pews and the luxurious decoration of the sanctuary. Then, as they stepped outside, darkness was falling, and the minister directed him to look up to where a spotlight shone on a huge cross atop the steeple. "That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars," the minister said with a satisfied smile. "You got cheated," replied Jordan in his rich southern drawl. "Times were when Christians could get them for free."

But when Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” he wasn’t speaking only to those who would be given the privilege of dying for their faith in him. He was laying down a general principle. “If anyone (in any time and any place) would come after me, he

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must…take up his cross,” he must share with me in my suffering to redeem this world and to bring the kingdom of God. If anyone would come after me, he must be willing to lay down his life, all at once or one little piece at a time.

So the real question is not whether you would remain faithful if a terrorist were to put the barrel of a gun against your head and say, “Deny Jesus, or die.” The real question is will you remain faithful moment by moment and day by day as you are called over the course of a lifetime to lay down little pieces of your life for the sake of the kingdom? The real question is, will you do what Jesus would do, even and especially when it’s not what you want to do? Will you “follow the leader” (will you follow Jesus) even when the leader is calling you or taking you to someplace that you really don’t want to go?

Will you go to a prayer meeting, when you’re really not very comfortable praying with others? Will you go to worship, when you’d rather be off doing something else? Will you speak up for Jesus when all around you people are saying, “my religion is none of your business.”

Toward the end of the Gospel According to John, Jesus is found talking to Peter

You’re familiar with the text, it’s the “feed my lambs” passage in chapter

21. And near the end of that conversation, Jesus said to Peter,


I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." {19} Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, "Follow me!" (John 21:18-19 NIV)

Over the course of Peter’s life after the ascension of Jesus, that command would mean proclaiming Christ beyond the comfortable boundaries of his race and religion. It would mean going to church with people he once despised. It would mean accepting all kinds of changes to his way of life and his way of worship. It would mean being beaten and imprisoned. And in the end it would mean being stretched out on a Roman cross and following his leader all the way to death. But by then, Peter had found that the grace of God was worth it all. And again, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

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Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: "ye were bought at a price," and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us.

And Jesus said,

…"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. {25} For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25 NIV)

Prayer of Application

Father, we know the promise of Scripture that your word will not return to you without accomplishing what you desire. May our minds retain what we have heard from you this morning. May our hearts be fertile ground where that word may bear fruit to your glory. May our lives reflect the glory of Christ to the world around us as we go out from this place. Work in us this week by your grace and Spirit, all that is pleasing to you through Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.


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