Many people over the course of history have asked, “Why must a person believe in God to be nice and do good things?” Why, indeed? What separates our faith communities from other social activist groups like the Lions Club or Doctors Without Borders? The answer lies in our deepest motivation: following Jesus. With this understanding, we have a lens through which we filter everything.
Of course, we should all be nice, decent people, but to follow Jesus – that calls for something deeper, something more weighty. You can be a nice person without believing in God or following Jesus; but you can’t truly believe in God and follow Jesus without being a person of conversion: your heart must be where God’s heart is, as well as your hands and feet. This takes courage. It is often easier said than done.
At the time of crucifixion, some victims had to carry their own crossbeams to the hill where they were to be crucified. Imagine how terrible that road must have felt, as they walked themselves to their impending death, carrying one of the implements of their death on their backs? Then, once there, being humiliated by being seen in all your vulnerability as a human being – not able to care for your basic human functions while others watch; spending hours in unrelieved pain; having other people jeer and laugh at you and not see you as a person, but as an object of ridicule; all the while knowing that you are dying. When Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem, he knows that this is what it will come to. Jesus chooses this vulnerability. He chooses obedience and courage and tells the disciples that if they are to follow him, that they must choose this, too.
It’s a lonely choice. This is not what a person would typically want for his or her life. As Brother David Vryhof of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist says, “It’s no wonder that Jesus’ family was concerned about him. By his actions he was showing that principles which most people value above everything else – security, safety, and a good reputation in the eyes of others – meant nothing to him. How countercultural is that?”
To live within the integrity of God’s call to you instead of living within popularity can certainly be countercultural, and it can be lonely. Being a follower of Jesus means that we embrace this loneliness. As God came to be fully human in Jesus, so we too, understand what it means to be fully human through Jesus. This is where we find glimpses of grace.
But the idea of a vulnerable, suffering God is as unacceptable to us as it was to Peter in our gospel today. Peter saw the Messiah as something very different – an invincible war hero who would lead the Jewish people to freedom, and redeem them from their own vulnerability. Aren’t we all like Peter in our own way? Believing that Jesus is the Messiah – a Messiah who will save us from the cruel, harsh world that surrounds us? A tame Messiah that will come when we call and keep the bad things at bay? “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus demands of Peter. Get behind all of us so that we can have the clear and sobering view of the path of the cross.
When we are baptized, it is a joyous occasion of being received into the Christian community. But even as we receive the water of life, we are also handed a crossbeam of our own and pointed to the path of Jesus and told to hop to it. We look at that road and the figure of Jesus struggling in the distance and wonder if there has been some mistake. The road looks difficult, and at the end is death.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. All our lives end in death, as we are reminded in our Ash Wednesday service at the beginning of Lent. The difference for a Christian is the singular intention to live our lives following Jesus. We deny our notions of who we think we are in order to truly become who God created us to be. The more we know God, the longer we follow Jesus’ path, the more we become ourselves. There is true freedom in what Jesus asks of us – the freedom to draw near to God, to love and accept one another and ourselves without constraint. Jesus shows us how to do it. He keeps his eye on the prize: obedience to God’s will. And nothing deters him. We are asked to do the same in our own lives, but we have a guide. When we keep our eyes on Jesus, everything else falls away.
Where is Jesus asking you to follow him in your life right now? Perhaps it’s time to take that step of faithfulness, of vulnerability, of being loved by God, of living and sharing the Good News; to take that step of becoming the human that God has created you to be. What are you waiting for?