Over the years I have grown increasingly aware that my experience in Christianity is quite narrow. I have been a Christian since I could remember anything at all, but my exposure to all that falls under the umbrella of Christianity is not that broad. I was raised in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, confirmed in this same church and eventually taught and ordained through its institutions. I have been a pastor in this denomination for 17 years now. But it turns out being a pastor does not get you much involvement in what other churches are doing. It is not like I can check out the area churches on a Sunday morning. But I have learned there are things other churches talk about that Lutherans do not spend a lot of time discussing. One of those things is discipleship. Not that we do not talk about discipleship at all, but other traditions have a whole vocabulary dedicated to it. They will not just talk about being a disciple or even making disciples of all nations. They will ask you how your discipleship is coming along, and if you are discipling anyone else or being discipled by someone. And they all have specific understandings of what this means; most of which I do not understand or have not taken the time to really understand.
But at its core, when you get to the dictionary definition of the things, a disciple is one who follows another. A disciple follows a leader. In our Lord’s day, a disciple followed and learned from a rabbi, a teacher of the faith. From them, they learn how to read and apply the Word of God and how to live a life in accordance with that word. So, not only did Jesus have disciples, but so did John the Baptist. In the early Church, we learn that many of the Apostles would eventually have disciples of their own. Most disciples also hoped to grow in their wisdom and knowledge to perhaps one day even surpass that of their master. Of course, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be in a situation where you will never surpass your master, but that does not stop Peter from trying.
In our text for today, Peter has just made a powerful confession of faith. Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter looks his Lord in the eye and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” He is a disciple of the Son of God. He follows the long-awaited Messiah. All of this Jesus confirms and he says, “Yes Peter, yes you’ve got it right I am the Christ, I am the Son of God, so let me tell you what it means to be the Christ, what it looks like to be the Son of God.” Then Jesus goes on to tell about how He must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise from the dead. To be the Son of God is to go to Calvary and through the empty tomb. And good old Peter takes all this in and does the one thing disciples ought not to do, he quits following and takes the lead. He physically pulls Jesus aside, as the text says, and begins to rebuke Him. He rebukes the one he just confessed to being the Son of the living God. Why? Because he was not being the right sort of Son of God, the right type of Messiah Peter had hoped for.
Jesus does not tolerate this though. He calls Peter out on the whole ordeal. And He does not pull any punches. He does not sugar coat the reality of the situation of having a disciple that no longer follows. He says to Peter,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man”(Matthew 16:23)
To try and prohibit the work of our Lord is Satanic. To fix your mind on the things of man is to stand in direct opposition to the work of God. Jesus does not allow His disciple to dictate the course of His action. Our Lord draws a very clear line in the sand for all of us who would be His disciple.
You are also ones who would call yourselves disciples of Jesus Christ. You have learned from Peter’s mistakes and would never presume to take ahold of our Lord and dictate where He should go. After all, we are all benefactors of what He went and did. We would never assume to tell Jesus how He ought to act or what He ought to do. We are more than happy to learn from a distance as we read about Peter’s failure and chart a better path forward. So, you set out on your life of discipleship. Now I am sure this works out quite differently for each of you. I would not assume any of you would have the exact same path. Maybe for one, it is a life where you find yourself engaged in charity work. For another, it is helping to educate our youth. For one it can be a redoubling of efforts to better your life, to clean up your act, and so be worthy of the role a disciple. For another, perhaps, their discipleship is focused more on reaching out, being engaged in evangelism and missionary work, that sort of thing.
So, in one way or another, your discipleship becomes about what you can or ought to do. It is about what you have to offer in service to our Lord and His Church. As a result, the options for your discipleship are endless. The smallest to the greatest task of human kindness and care can fall under the banner of one’s discipleship. So, which way do you go? What is the best way you can be a disciple and follow your Lord?
Well, as luck would have it, our Lord does not leave us up to our personal ponderings on all this. Just as He would not allow Peter to pull Him aside, He will not allow you to define discipleship on your own terms. He lays it out for us quite clearly. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). He is saying to you that if you want to be His disciple, if you want to follow Him, you must embrace not life but death. You must lose yourself. Lose what you think you stand on, what you determine to be of value, what you prize most in the world, and take up a cross instead. Now, a cross for our Lord and His disciples in His day was not some symbol of religion or a trinket people put up in houses of worship or wore as jewelry. To bear a cross meant you were going to die, plain and simple.
So, you must die to be His disciples. And that is precisely what happens. We come in here to this house of worship, we gather as disciples and we lose ourselves. We begin by saying we have sinned in thoughts, words, and deeds, that we cannot free ourselves, that even your very best works are tainted by sin. It takes but a moment of standing before the presence of God and all your discipleship falls to pieces. None of it is worthy enough. None of it is faithful enough. In a last desperate gasp, you realize it all falls short of the glory of God and we confess that we can only die. Our only hope lies outside of us in the mercy of God alone.
And for a moment that seems like ages, there is silence as you are lost before the majesty of God. But at last, He speaks. He speaks and you are lost no longer. He speaks and His Word gives hope, life, and identity to you. He speaks and says to you, “I forgive you all of your sins.” In losing your life you find true and lasting eternal life in the faithfulness of the Son of God. His cross paid the price. His suffering sought you out. His death and resurrection set you free. Discipleship is to never be found on your own, to never be measured on your own, but to be found in Christ alone. To lose yourself in Him is to find everything.
To be a disciple is to die and rise again to a new life in Christ alone. This is your hope and salvation and it is your reality right here and now as together we take up our crosses and follow.