Matthew 16:21-28 confronts us with the gap between Jesus' gruesome fate and our own modest discipleship. Jesus' verbs say it all. Deny the self, take up the cross, follow Christ. Moreover, only in losing one's life -- the primary meaning of apollymi is to destroy -- one may save it. And Jesus apparently means it. Judgment, he says, involves "repaying" people according to what they have done. At this moment we are hearing Matthew's distinctive voice: Salvation comes not to those who call Jesus "Lord," but to those who do what he says (7:21-29). The Great Commission involves teaching people "to obey everything that I have commanded you" (28:20). It's a matter of life and death. Disciples are to walk Jesus' grim path.
So we face the chasm between Jesus' call to discipleship and our own lives as part-time volunteers for the Gospel. Few Christians abandon everything for the Gospel's sake. Most of us simply fit our Christianity into the open spots on our calendars. But in this passage Jesus links the life of discipleship with his own path.
This spring, Mark and Katharyn Richt sold their second home, a lakefront property valued at just below $2 million. Best known as head football coach at the University of Georgia, Mark Richt has earned -- if you can call it that -- more than $25 million dollars since taking that position in 2001. He also openly professes his Christian faith and engages in a variety of ministries.
The Richts sold this property so that they could give to anti-poverty work. Mark Richt attributed the decision to the dynamic book "The Hole in Our Gospel" by Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision. Named the "Christian Book of the Year" for 2010, this resource introduces readers to the harsh reality of global and local poverty, pressing the question of how Christians should respond to human suffering in the light of the Gospel. If you're interested, a fully resourced curriculum (DVDs, daily exercises, study guides and the like) supports the book for congregational and small group use.
Some of us might not be all that impressed by the Richts' sacrifice. What does it mean to sacrifice $2 million on an income of more than $3 million per year? "I'll make that sacrifice," the cynic might say.
For my part, I am impressed. Katharyn and Mark Richt clearly understand that the Gospel not only blesses our souls, it also calls us to service that will enrich our lives and bring forth our resources. Following Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my denomination's contemporary statement of faith confesses "the cost and joy of discipleship." The Richts are not just giving money. This summer, they've joined World Vision in a trip to Honduras devoted to the construction of water wells. I fully trust the Richts are experiencing joy in their service.
Matthew 16:21-28 moves from a focus upon Jesus and his vocation to his demands for disciples. Jesus has just congratulated Peter for his recognition that Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Moreover, Jesus' language has intimated authority and privilege: Peter the Rock provides the church's foundation, he receives the keys to the realm of heaven and his earthly authority carries heavenly significance. But now Jesus begins a process of reinterpreting what being the Messiah really means -- and what following that Messiah entails for the disciples. If Peter cannot bear the revelation of Jesus' coming suffering (16:22), how will he respond when the focus shifts to disciples whose fate mimics that of Jesus?
Some readers hardly need to hear this news. Moment by moment, many of us are constantly mindful that we fall far short of Jesus' standard. By contrast, our culture needs the reminder. The prosperity gospel holds greater sway than many of us want to admit. According to a 2006 Time magazine poll, 17 percent of Americans claim allegiance to the movement, while 61 percent agree that God wants us to be prosperous. Maybe our preaching doesn't draw folks who think that way. Then again, we find all sorts of surprising attitudes in our congregations, don't we?
Whatever the threat posed by the prosperity gospel, a more insidious assumption definitely lurks among us: that God wants us to be happy. Countless praise choruses celebrate how much Jesus loves us, how much we love Jesus and how great God is. Self-help books pack the inventories of Christian bookstores. This happiness assumption has sunk so deeply into our collective psyche that even the words of Jesus can hardly challenge it. Are we even capable of hearing that God might call us to radical sacrifice, even to danger? Can Jesus' words get past our ears?
It does no good for preachers to rehearse Jesus' extreme demands while congregations sit in well-cushioned, air-conditioned sanctuaries. Preachers must level with our congregations. Precious few of us lay everything on the line for the Gospel, but neither can we ignore its call.
In 1961 a group of Nashville students resolved to reinforce the Freedom Rides. Two previous busloads of Freedom Riders had already encountered firebombing and severe beatings, and the Nashville students determined that the movement, having commenced, should not be allowed to fail.
No one could deny that these students experienced joy during their trials -- the notorious Bull Connor complained, "I just couldn't stand their singing" -- but these students were fully mindful for the potential cost as well. The night before their departure, they had signed their last will and testaments. Singing hymns after signing one's will: the cost and joy of discipleship.
So what about Mark and Katharyn Richt? Perhaps we can't credit them with suffering for the Gospel. But we can heed their testimony. As Mark Richt put it, "You know what, I don't want to pour money into a home like that when I can use it for better things, for eternal things."
Jesus asked, "For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?"
Editor's Note: ON Scripture is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.