February 25, Follow me

Follow me

Mark 8:31-38

This text for this morning from Mark’s gospel is not unfamiliar to us. Within it are many phrases we have heard many times: Jesus saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” after Peter rebukes him for predicting his suffering and death, the call to “take up your cross,” and the familiar “those who want to save their life will lose it… and those who lose their life for my sake…will save it.”

All of that is familiar. And we are not surprised to find those words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. The disciples, in that moment, may have been surprised, but we are not surprised. This is the Jesus we have known – the one who calls for seriousness and sacrifice.

But embedded in the language of undergoing suffering and taking up crosses and even losing one’s life, is this even more familiar phrase: follow me. If any want to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 




And this, quite frankly, is terrifying: the call to follow not just in the sense of wandering along behind, but in the sense of deliberately and purposefully carrying a cross…this is intimidating, frightening, even terrifying.

You see, it’s one thing for Jesus to talk about his own impending death, and to rebuke Peter when Peter says, “No, no, that can’t be true – you? Suffering? Rejected? This isn’t what we want; this can’t be true.” It’s one thing to argue with Jesus about whether he’s doing the right thing by predicting how he will suffer and ultimately how he will lay down his life, walking right into the teeth of a torturous death. It’s quite another thing to be asked…no, expected…to do the same.

After all, who wants to give up their life? Who wants to carry a cross? Who wants to go all in with a leader, a Messiah, who (it seems) can’t even save himself? Who wants to suffer? Who wants to die?

Look, when we usually think about the words, “follow me” coming from Jesus’ lips, we think of those words in the context of the beginning of his ministry, not the end. We picture Jesus walking along beside the sea and noticing Peter and Andrew fishing, or James and John mending their nets, or Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s table, and calling each of them to leave behind what they are doing and to come along with him.

That kind of calling, that kind of “follow me” calling, may seem somewhat sudden, but it’s not like Jesus is asking them to jump off a cliff; it’s Jesus asking them to come along: Follow me. Set aside your routine, your regular, daily life and come with me.

And they do. In response to that first calling, responding to that first “follow me,” they lay aside nets or turn their backs on the tax booth and leave whatever else has hold of them, and they follow Jesus. And Jesus teaches and heals and confronts the authorities and casts out demons and does various other miracles, and the disciples, in following him, get a front row seat to all of that. They get to be his students, his companions, and eventually his friends.

And it’s demanding, to be sure, and there’s sacrifice in leaving one’s family or one’s vocation, but it doesn’t start out being terrifying. At first, Jesus says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” not “Follow me and give up your life, carry your cross, join me in suffering, share in my sacrifice.”

No, at the beginning of the story, the words “follow me” seem safe enough, easy enough, interesting enough. It’s only later – when the story is coming down the home stretch – that it starts to look scary.

But let’s think about that. Let’s think about what kind of following Jesus is asking for, here in Mark, chapter 8. What does he mean when he invites followers to come along and to take up the cross and lose their lives for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel?

Is Jesus wanting those who will follow to suffer just because he suffers? Does misery love company? Is he promoting suffering as the path toward holiness? That somehow, the more you hurt, the more “pure” you become? Is Jesus setting up the ultimate loyalty test? That you’re either for him or against him, and if you’re for him, then you’re with him, and if you’re with him, then you better get your cross and hoist it over your shoulder and start down the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows)?

What is this kind of following that Jesus is talking about? Is this all about taking a test? And either passing it or failing it, depending on whether you are willing to die like Jesus died?

If so, then what I said before was true: If any want to become my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me is actually a quite terrifying expectation, because every human instinct is to hold on to life, to protect oneself, to keep oneself safe from harm…and it would seem that Jesus is calling for the opposite – giving us a test we can’t possibly pass.

But how about this: What if “take up your cross and follow me,” and “those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose it for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”…this isn’t a test, but simply a truth?

That is, what if we would stop reading the Bible as the ultimate test, and start reading it as the wisdom of God? Then something like this call deny oneself and to follow Christ toward the cross wouldn’t read like an impossible test, but rather it would reveal some important truths about the human condition, things like this:

That the world isn’t saved, and we aren’t saved, by protectionism or escalation of violence or seeking revenge – that is, that being the strongest human, the most powerful actor, is never enough in the larger scheme of the universe; that if you believe in something, especially in something as deep and true as God’s unconditional love, you’ve got to lean all the way in and never back away; that life is, in fact, full of pain and there’s no hiding from that, but pain isn’t the point of the story, just part of the story; that your life isn’t the number of days you have on this earth, it’s what you do for the good with each moment granted to you and in each circumstance in which you find yourself; and finally this: that you don’t own your life, it’s a gift from the one who created you.

And if we believe all those things to be true, then denying ourselves isn’t killing ourselves; denying ourselves is giving ourselves.  

If we believe all those things to be true, then, as Jesus says, “gaining the whole world” really does mean nothing. Who wants the “whole world” if in the process you give up your own integrity, you abandon your compassion, you bring harm to other people, you trample the creation? If so, then in “gaining the whole world,” you have already forfeited your life!

A Jesus-speech like the one in this scripture text isn’t a test of your holiness, this is a teaching about God’s wisdom! Because if you are all about protecting yourself and punishing others, if you are interested in benefitting your tribe in exchange for a sacrifice of the stranger, if you are more worried about your “rights” than about what is right – for everyone… then you are already lost. You’ve already lost the very life you thought you were greedily securing.

But know this as well: If you stand up for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the alien, if you care about justice and not just about advantage, if you challenge the status-quo and contradict the conspiracy theorists, if you challenge nativism and racism, if you say, “No more killing. No more weapons. No more dealing in death,” then you will end up carrying a cross.

That is, doing the right and courageous and honest and holy thing, does not get you off the hook; it does not protect your daily life; it does not save you from suffering. The world did not like it that Jesus set out to create an upside-down kingdom, and the world will not like it if you set out to do the same.

And yet…you get to decide. That’s something that is right there in the scripture – from Jesus’ own lips: Follow Jesus or not? You get to decide. Nobody will force you into it. Nobody will trick you into it. You get to decide. Follow Jesus or not.

Will following be costly? Yes. Might it be painful? Yes, it well could be. When you stand with those who need you, you stand with them in their pain. When you trade power for solidarity, you will pay a price. But this is not a loyalty test. It’s not a righteousness test. It’s not a holiness test. 

No, following Christ isn’t a test at all. It’s a decision. An opportunity and a decision to answer some very basic and fundamental questions: What do you want? Who do you want to be? Who do you want to be with?

I’m not attracted to the idea of carrying a cross. I am not enamored with the idea of sacrifice or suffering. But I do have this sense that if I am going to be the kind of person who keeps company with Jesus, then it is going to have a cost. If I am going to be the kind of person who worries less about saving myself or protecting myself than I am concerned about opening a space of healing and hope and justice for those for whom those very things are in short supply, then I may well get in trouble with the powers that be.

Is it worth it? I guess that depends on how much I trust God and how much I believe in the Jesus-way and how much conviction I have that my life – my single, protected, well-managed life – isn’t the biggest concern in the universe.

It has to do with this: Do I want to save the shape of things as they are, or do I want to be saved from the shape of things as they are? That is, am I interested, willing, committed to the upside-down kingdom of Christ?

Who do I want to be? Who do you want to be? People who keep our heads down and stay safe, or people who step up to the front of the line, and say to this unassuming, unexpected, and unlikely sort of Messiah who faces down fear and carries a cross, “Me too. Wait up – I’m coming too”?

I am reading a book of essays by the late Brian Doyle who was perhaps best known as the editor of the Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, but who also wrote novels, short stories and essays, many with religious and spiritual themes. One of the essays I read this week was titled “The Courage of His Convictions” and it’s about Doyle’s older brother who joined the Navy and then decided he had to quit, because as he saw it, “shooting people was not a sensible way to solve conflict.” In order to get out of his military service, Doyle’s brother had to appear before the draft board to apply to be a conscientious objector.

Doyle remembers being a boy at that time, along with two younger brothers, and coming downstairs that morning to find their father at the kitchen table reading the newspaper – their father, who never missed a day of work and rarely if ever even took vacation, their father who was usually out the door before the boys came down from breakfast. They asked him what was going on that day, and he said he was going with their brother to the draft board; their father, a veteran who had served in two wars.

Doyle writes: When we got home that afternoon our mother and father and brother and sister were all at the table even though it was not at all time to eat and we asked what happened and our father said he very proud, very proud indeed, at the articulate courage of our brother, and he was proud that our brother had so taken the message of the Gospels to heart even at the cost of possible prison, and that we also ought to be proud of our brother, and if we three smaller brothers grew up to be as honest and courageous as our older brother he and my mother would be very proud, very proud.





Our mother was weeping. Our brother sat silent. Our sister told us later that Local Board Number Four had been impressed that a veteran of the Second World War and the Korean War had stood so proudly with his son as the son said that he refused to enter yet another war, because he believed violence was a terrible way to solve conflict, but that he, the son, would be honored to be of alternative service to the country he loved, which is why, said our sister, that our brother would be going away soon to be a teacher far away.

Our mother said that we ought to be as kind to our older brother as we could in the days remaining to him in this house, and this we endeavored to do, for we loved him and he was our hero even though he was stern and gruff and blunt and had no small talk.

Even before this all happened we wanted to grow up to be like him but after all this happened we wanted even more to grow up to be like him because now our father also thought that our brother was heroic because he had the Courage of His Convictions, and if you did not have the Courage of Your Convictions you were only an empty vessel, a hollow man, an insubstantial person, a soul filled with naught but wind, no more than a tinkling cymbal, tossed this way and that by the prevailing wind, of no measure or weight or character, and that is no way to be, boys, no way to be at all. (“Eight Whopping Lies and Other Stories of Bruised Grace,” p. 80-81)

Now you recognize what is missing in the story right? It’s what happened at the draft board. What was said to the young man, and maybe all of what was said to him every moment, on the street, in the community, until he left for his alternative service and maybe even after he arrived at that faraway place. And maybe what was said to the father and what he gave up of his own reputation in order to honor the convictions of his son. All that pain is missing from the story – except that it is hinted at in the weeping of the mother at the kitchen table.

But that’s okay, because the point of the story – the thing that Doyle internalized from that boyhood experience of watching his brother and his father – is that courage and conviction matter. And the Gospel matters. And that one hopes to grow up to be such a person who pays the price, whatever the price, of being true to what matters.

Or is that story not enough, too long ago? Do you want something more current? Well, here’s an example of this same spirit today. The Washington Post reported this past week that David Hogg, 17, one of the students who survived the mass killing at the high school in Parkland, Florida, and who has become a leading student voice for gun control has become the target of internet trolling, people claiming that he isn’t really a student, but a “crisis actor” or that he is being coached by his father and others to deflect negative attention from the FBI and their failures.

The article says, “Hogg’s mother, Rebecca Boldrick, an elementary school teacher, scoffed at the conspiracy theories growing online about her son and other Parkland students. She said her husband, a Republican, worked for the FBI as an agent at airports in Los Angeles and Florida before retiring from the bureau in October 2016. Kevin Hogg, 51, left the FBI because he had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s ­disease several years earlier, Boldrick said. The family has not previously revealed this fact publicly because her husband is embarrassed, she said. The wild allegations online have also taken on a more dangerous tone, she said. Boldrick said her family has received death threats online. “I’m under so much stress,” she said describing her state a week after the shooting. “I’m angry and exhausted. Angry, exhausted and extremely proud.”

Do you hear the echo of one story in the other? Conviction and courage, pain and pride, integrity and costliness; willingness to stand up for something true, something that matters.

Could we be such people, too? People who follow the Jesus-way, the life-affirming way, people who carry the cross, and who are even willing to run the risk of losing our lives in order to save them, for the sake of Christ and the sake of the gospel?

Following Jesus is costly. Costly and dangerous and even sometimes painful. It is all those things, and then it is this as well: It is life-affirming. It is life giving. It is doing what matters. It is being true. It is keeping company with Jesus.

And where else would you want to be? Who else would you want to be?


















Kurt Borgmann





Manchester Church of the Brethren


February 25, 2018