Doing Hard Things
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
My, how quickly things can change. Moments before, Peter, full of pride, had declared his faith that Jesus was the Messiah. Now, Jesus senses that Peter is ashamed of him. Peter believed Jesus to be the Christ, which means he believed Jesus was the one who would save him and his people, make them a great nation, rid the world of injustice, and rule with wisdom and power. That’s what a messiah does and who wouldn’t want that? But Jesus told him not to share that news, news Peter would naturally have believed to be good news worth sharing, news that meant help is on the way, better days are coming, the rescuer, the hero is here. Jesus told Peter to keep that news to himself and instead of trumpeting that good news, Jesus said, quite openly, to those who he is inviting to join his movement, to become his disciples, that instead of a pathway to success, a pathway to better days, his way will be that of great suffering and rejection, and death. What’s so good about this news?
Peter, understandably, is shocked. He pulls Jesus aside. Peter liked saviors who did not get rejected by everyone that mattered, who did not suffer, and did not die before, you know, saving. Peter was also well aware that for Jesus to be a successful earthly savior, he would need people to fight for him, he’d need these crowds to pick up their swords and follow him. Instead, Jesus asks them to pick up their crosses and lay down their lives.
Peter, respectful of his rabbi, privately asks Jesus to stop saying things like that --- it doesn’t make any sense. Jesus publicly makes clear Peter is not only wrong, he is also confused about who the leader is here, and he better fall in line. There is no ambiguity in Jesus’ message: the good news of the gospel, his good news, is full of the hard stuff of life, and following him – what invites us to do – will not change what he must endure, and what we will endure in this life.
The late pastor and author Eugene Peterson in writing out influential leaders contrasts four leaders from the same era: Jesus, who we all know; Herod, “the powerful politician who virtually defined the world in which Jesus grew up. Caiaphas, the most prominent religious leader, who controlled the Temple establishment and worship,” and Josephus, “who was a brilliant success, first as a Jewish diplomat and general and then as a Roman military leader and writer, wheeling and dealing his way to the top at the very same time that Paul was in prison and the Christian church was struggling to survive at the margins of society.”
When we think about successful leaders, Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus were great leaders, Peter would admire them, so would we, even if we didn’t agree with them. They would make a lot of money writing books on leadership that CEO’s and pastors alike would read in hopes of following their way to success.
Peterson says Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus were the most successful and admired in their time. “Jesus is better known now, but he is not much followed: Herod, Caiaphas, and Josephus are the models for leadership, both inside and outside of the church, that are most frequently emulated.” Discipleship, as Peter learns, is more followership than leadership. Peter wants to lead, emulating other successful leaders. Jesus tells him to follow, a very unique way. As disciples, it is a challenge to follow Jesus in a world that idolizes the Herods’, Caiaphas’, and Josephus’; presidents, business leaders, and movie stars; to not let them define us and our values. Peterson says, “Jesus was very much immersed in that world, but he simply went about his work, revealing God to us, inaugurating the Kingdom, and inviting us to follow him.”
Jesus doesn’t preach the sermon Peter would like to hear, or the sermon I often want to hear. The one that goes like: follow me and I’ll make all the bad things disappear. Become my disciple and never have to play the lottery again. Join my church and become immune to all illness and just wait to see how many riches I’m going to pour out on you. Follow me and you will prosper in this world. That would be some good news, wouldn’t it? To which Jesus replies, “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.”
Suffering is a part of life. Loss is a part of life. And Jesus came into this life to lead us on a way that walks among the suffering, and among rejection, and through the grave. Much to Peter’s dismay, and to many modern Christians, Jesus did not promise to make all life’s pain go away and replace it with our hearts’ desires. He came to change our hearts’ desires, to the desire of God, a desire which helps us persevere through life’s many challenges, losses, changes, and failures. He came to give us grounding and a peace that surpasses understanding, to help us endure, and even flourish despite life's changing circumstances.
Jesus knows how tempting Peter’s thinking is. It’s the message of so many successful preachers: that faith alone will somehow make them immune to all the hard things in life, and bring great worldly successes. And when the world does not change, when hardship continues to come, and great loss, then what, where is that God you promised wouldn’t let this kind of thing happen? Jesus calls it a false gospel, a temptation. Jesus rebukes Peter, openly, calls him Satan. He makes it perfectly clear, lest there be any confusion, “you are setting your mind not on the things of God but on human things.” Jesus doesn’t want people to follow him because he will solve all their problems, he wants them to follow him because it will save their souls. He will shape them into the kinds of people who care about helping others with their struggles. Life will be hard, but following Jesus will help you not only deal with the hardship, it will empower you to do the hard things, to enrich the lives of others, to uplift the community, even when change is hard to see.
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are exhausted and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Jesus is saying, the burdens of the world are heavy, we struggle and doesn’t he know it? But, mysteriously, in the thick of it we find rest in him, even as the burdens remain. He gives us his own yoke, easy to bear, his own burden, which is light. What Jesus adds to our lives helps us carry what God does not take away. The struggle is real, as they say, but Jesus came to face the struggle with us. He tells Peter, “give up your struggle for your success and take up my struggle. Stop trying to steer away from the hard, important things, and follow me into the thick of it, and I will bring you through. Get behind me.”
The German Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave up his life to resist Hitler, and he wrote about the true cost of Christian discipleship. He said that Christ is calling us to suffer, but not just for suffering’s sake. But because suffering is part of life, the life that Christ leads us through. If we follow Christ and Christ walks through suffering, so must we, so do we. He said, “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ … to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.” To be able to say, “He leads the way, keep close to him.”
Peterson agrees, saying, as disciples, “We get out of bed each morning and pray, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, I follow you. I deny myself, I take up my cross, and I follow you.’ Our basic identity is not leader but follower. Jesus never tells us to lead; he invites us to follow.”
It’s what’s so good about this news. It’s good news that even and especially when life is so hard, God loves us, God is with us, we can trust and follow Christ. The good news is Jesus wouldn’t let Peter lie to us about what Jesus came to do and what life will be like. What’s so good about this news is it's refreshingly honest, and full of hope: we have a guide along this path of life, and keeping close to him reveals glory, and beauty even among the hard things. It is a path worth following because all the people who have walked ahead, and who walk with us now. It is good news because it does not end with the crosses we bear, but the light of the resurrection.
 Eugene Peterson, “Letters to a Young Pastor,” https://thedisciplemaker.org/followership-is-greater-than-leadership/  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” 1960, 77-78.  Peterson, “Letters to a Young Pastor.”