Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
That’s rough. That’s a hard saying. But when I read it this week, it reminded me, strangely enough, of something I’d seen in an advertisement for shoes.
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
This is Colin Kaepernick. Some of you know his story. Kaepernick was a star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, taking his team to the Super Bowl in 2012. But by 2016 he decided that he needed to do something to protest racial injustice in the United States, including the deaths of numerous black people at the hands of police, Alton Sterling, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and many others. This was something Kaepernick believed in, something he felt called to do. So he began to take a knee as a protest during the playing of the national anthem before football games. Other players soon joined him, igniting an explosive controversy that continues today. There was collateral damage. When Kaepernick’s contract expired, even though he’d thrown for over 2000 yards in just 12 games the previous season, he was blackballed. No NFL team would re-sign him, and at the age of 29 years old, his football career was over.
Eric Reid was a teammate of Kaepernick’s, and the first to kneel beside him to protest the oppression of black people. When asked why he decided to take a knee, he pointed to racial injustice, and said “That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.”[i]
The decision to take a knee during the national anthem was not arbitrary. It was well thought out, and intended to be respectful. But it also recalled another key moment in the history of the black civil rights movement.
This is Martin Luther King Jr. on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Surrounded by state troopers with tear gas and clubs, taking a knee, praying.
I’m not sure that there has been anyone in recent history who for me has better embodied Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
King believed in something. He believed in the dignity and inherent value of every human being, he believed that each one of us is created in the image of God and deserving of love and respect. But he didn’t just believe it – he lived it. The belief that we’re talking about here isn’t just theoretical or academic. It is practical, it is a belief that manifests itself in action, public action, public action that takes on the establishment, takes on the power brokers: and it is action that will generate pushback. Jesus tells us that when he calls us to be his followers. In today’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t appeal for believers, he calls for followers. Sure he wants people to believe in him, but with an authentic, lived-out belief that is much more than rational assent or personal piety.
Dr. King was a follower of Jesus. Followers of Jesus are people who will walk in his ways. In God’s way. And God’s way is the way of justice, the way of compassion, the way of love for all people. It is a way that respects and honours the dignity of every person, all who have been created in God’s image. It is a way that rejects injustice and abuse of power, a way that raises up the poor and the marginalized. It is the way of the prophets. It is the way of Jesus the Messiah. To walk in this way is what it means to follow Jesus.
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks.
“You are the Messiah.” says Peter. God’s anointed. The one sent by God to save God’s people. The one sent to show us God’s way.
Yes, I am, says Jesus. Listen to me. Watch me. Believe in me. But most importantly, follow me. And if you follow me, you will see that I am not the powerful, victorious Messiah that you are hoping for. My way is different. My way is the way of the cross. The Son of Man will undergo great suffering.
It’s not that Jesus sought out suffering for the sake of suffering. It’s rather that he was willing to suffer the consequences of what he believed in. Kaepernick’s goal wasn’t to be black-balled by the NFL. Dr. King’s goal wasn’t to be assassinated.
But when you believe in something, when you believe in Jesus, when you follow him and publically proclaim the Kingdom of God, the way of God in deeds and actions, when you call the powerful to account, when you reach out to the marginalized, when you advocate for justice, when you treat foreigners as equals, when you heal on the Sabbath, when you disregard purity laws that are oppressive, when you challenge the established order, when you take a knee during the anthem, when you fight for civil rights, when you walk right into heart of the Temple in the capital city and launch a protest, there will be pushback. Rejection. Suffering. Violence. Even death.
“But those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
There’s another hard saying, to be sure. It’s a bit of a paradox, I get that. But deep down, you know that it’s true. You know that it’s better to live a life that’s worthwhile than a life that’s comfortable. But in order to live a life that’s worthwhile, that’s valuable, that’s meaningful, you have to believe in something. And that belief can’t simply be a private matter or rational assent or personal piety. It has to be active, it has to express itself in every facet of your life. Even if that means sacrificing everything.
And even if we know this is true, it is hard. Our instinct for self-preservation will fight against any perceived sacrifice tooth and nail. Figuring out what it means to follow Jesus isn’t always easy. Just look at Peter.
Peter is anything but the model disciple, and that makes him a pretty good model for us. In today’s gospel, he has the courage and insight to identify Jesus as Messiah, but then he gets it totally wrong and gets thoroughly chewed out for it. But he continues to follow Jesus, even when others turn away. He even starts to boast about how he will never desert Jesus – until the night when the potential sacrifice gets too real, too imminent, and then he cuts and runs, denying Jesus three times in the process. You might think that would be the end of Peter as a disciple – but no, Jesus rehabilitates him, calls him to follow once more, and Peter becomes the leader of the early church. And eventually he too does indeed pay the cost of discipleship with his life.
Thankfully for most of us it will never come to that. We live in a time and place which is less violent, a little gentler than first century Palestine - for most of us. But never doubt that if we stand up for what we believe in as followers of Jesus, there may be pushback and there may be a cost.
And it will be worth it. Because we will have chosen a life that matters.
Nike knows this to be true. That’s why they chose Colin Kaepernick for their new ad campaign. Sales are up. People say it’s inspiring.
But we don’t need a shoe ad to be inspired. We are followers of Jesus. We have the gospel.
Jesus says, “Follow me. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Homily: Yr B Proper 24, Sept 16 2018, St. Albans
Readings: Proverbs 1.20-33, Wis 7.26-8.1, James 3.1-12, Mark 8.27-38