Matthew 16:21-28 New International Version (NIV)
21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.
28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
I was in high school when I noticed a lot of young men and women wearing a particular piece of jewelry. I’ve never been one to wear any kind of jewelry, I don’t wear a watch and often don’t even wear my wedding ring. But I thought that this piece of jewelry was kind of interesting: it was a bracelet with the letters “WWJD” printed in bold letters. WWJD of course stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”
The idea is simple and yet brilliant at the same time. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, perhaps an ethical dilemma, you look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” If you’re taking your math exam and you don’t know the answer and you are tempted to look at your neighbor’s paper. What would Jesus do? If you are in a convenience store and see some Twinkies, and you love Twinkies, but don’t have any money, look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”
In a number of ways, that little bracelet is a lot like that wedding ring that I rarely wear. It serves two practical purposes: It reminds me of the commitment that I have made to my wife, and it tells others that I am dedicated to loving, honoring, and serving someone.
Of course the challenge is that we can’t always agree on what Jesus would do, and often what we decide Jesus would do surprisingly looks a lot like what we really wanted to do all along. At least it did in High School, I’ll let you decide if that’s the case today or not. Or even worse, when a young man found himself in a position where he knew right and wrong, but the wrong choice was a lot easier, he answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” by saying, “Jesus would forgive me, that’s what Jesus would do.” And he went ahead and did it anyway.
We may not always know what Jesus might do in any given situation that we find ourselves in, but we can ask a few more questions that can help. When confronted with the question, “What would Jesus do?” we must ask three questions: What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? And What was Jesus like? (Murray, 61).
The desire to follow Jesus is something that we often call discipleship. As you know, Jesus had 12 disciples who followed him from town to town, ate with him, and lived under the same roof as him. The Greek word we translate as disciple is “mathetes.” Mathetes literally means a learner or a student. When Jesus calls his first disciples, notice what he says. He says, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
The goal of Christian discipleship isn’t just to learn for the sake of learning. The goal is to learn how to be like Jesus. The goal is to know Jesus so well that when the question “What would Jesus do?” comes up, you know.
And guess what. You never stop learning.
Jesus’s last words to his disciples is recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The task given to this group of learners who are seeking to become more and more like Jesus is to make more learners. When asked about the mission of the church today, I like to say that we are disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. Our job is to make more people who look like Jesus.
That’s exactly what the early church did. Just a quick read through Acts reveals that the church grew by leaps and bounds. I would attribute this growth to two things: One is the gifting of the Holy Spirit, which is best seen on the day of Pentecost. The second is that Jesus’s disciples did what he taught them to do. They went out and made more disciples, who made more disciples, who made more disciples. And these disciples put the teachings of Jesus into action. The fed the poor, healed the sick, they shared meals, they shared their homes. And we find these encouraging snippets, like Acts 4:34, “there was no need among them,” and Acts 2:47b, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
So here are these disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus every day and in every way that they could. And we know that it isn’t easy to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy to love your enemy, forgive people who have hurt you, to wash the feet of someone you know is going to betray you. We know it isn’t easy, and Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
He just compared being his follower with one of the most gruesome and painful methods of public execution known to humanity. But with the power of the Holy Spirit, and the support of community of believers, it can be done. Sure, we will fail, and praise God for grace in those moments. But Jesus didn’t give these difficult teachings knowing that they are impossible to achieve. No, he really wants us to try. We are called to look like Jesus in the way we live, breathe, and have our being.
Discipleship was a central part of Christianity for the first three hundred years of the existence of the church. But then something happened that forever changed the church and how we see Jesus. In the year 312, Constantine, Emperor of Rome, claimed to see a vision during a battle. Some claim that the vision was of a cross, others the Greek letters XP, the first two letters of the word Christ. Constantine then claims to have received a message: “In this sign, conquer.” The Romans painted the symbol on their shields and armor and defeated their enemy. Constantine made Christianity one of the recognized religions of the Roman Empire, and paved the way for Christianity to become the official religion of Rome.
Was this process, which we often call “The Constantinian Shift” a good thing or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of both. But think about what was lost. Before Constantine, only those who were dedicated to following Jesus, even if it cost them their lives, were Christians. After Constantine, everyone within the world’s largest empire was a Christian. We went from a voluntary group to required membership. This would be like going out and just declaring everyone in your city a Christian. Many people didn’t change anything about their lives.
This is about the time when groups like the monks started popping up. There became a second class of people who were dedicated to following Jesus and being his disciples because you can’t expect everyone to actually follow Jesus, even if everyone is considered a Christian.
Over the years Jesus went from being God with us, Emmanuel, who lived among us, taught us how to live, died and rose again, to some distant deity to whom we can pray. This distant deity even offers grace and forgiveness to those who believe in him. But that deity requires very little from his subjects.
We come to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. There is this group of believers in Switzerland that believes that leaders like Zwingli and Luther have started a good thing, but not gone far enough. This group didn’t see anything in the Bible that spoke of automatic church membership for someone just because of where they were born or the family they were born into. No, the New Testament Church was filled with people who had chosen to follow Jesus, at times at great cost. Some left behind family and friends, jobs and homes. Why should things change?
So this group decided that they were going to start a movement that got back to the root of the church. They began what is sometimes called the “Radical Reformation,” radical meaning the root of something. Voluntary church membership was central, as was its accompanying public gesture, which we know to be baptism. And since an infant couldn’t choose to be a member of a church, baptism became an act reserved for those who were old enough to choose to be baptized. And along with the symbol of adult baptism, these leaders, later known as the Anabaptists, focused on following Jesus. As HS Bender would write, “The Reformation emphasis on faith was good but inadequate, for without newness of life, they held, faith is hypocritical” (16).
Or as Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist, once said, “No one truly knows Christ unless they follow Him daily in life.” That’s on our church’s website!
Obviously, this can begin to look like legalism or works righteousness. I would argue that it isn’t works righteousness, it is works faithfulness. Or even more precisely, that’s what it means to be a good disciple of Jesus.
I think Palmer Becker says it best when he proclaims, “Jesus is the center of our faith.” Everything revolves around Jesus, what he said, what he did, and what he commanded. Becker, in his book Anabaptist Essentials, talks about different expressions of the Christian faith that he sees in the United States today. He asks the question, “Is Christianity a set of beliefs?” In a number of what we call “liturgical churches” we can find an emphasis on right belief or Orthodoxy. The worship services in these churches often include the recitation of creeds, or other documents of shared belief. “I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven, maker of earth. And Jesus Christ, his only begotten…”
But Christianity is more than just having right beliefs. This isn’t about just having the right theology and reciting the right words. Don’t get me wrong, orthodoxy is important, but we can’t stop there. So yes, Christianity is a set of beliefs, but it is more.
Becker then asks the question, “Is Christianity a spiritual experience?” I spoke about the gifts of the Spirit in our last session, and emphasized that the Spirit does more than we often give him credit for. But there are traditions that emphasize supernatural experiences like healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues to the point that it would seem that this is the essence of Christianity. The working of the Spirit is important, but there is more.
“Is Christianity an experience of forgiveness?” There are traditions where everything seems to be geared toward getting people to pray the sinner’s prayer. You’ve got to seal the deal! I remember hearing a pastor talking about attending a church where forgiveness and grace was all that they talked about in their church services. So they would sing, “Just as I am,” and then they would leave just as they were.
Without a doubt, repentance and forgiveness are essential to the Christian faith. And I would say that is the minimum requirement for someone to get into heaven. But since when are we about getting by with the bare minimum?
Becker then ends this section with what he has been building toward: Is Christianity discipleship? He writes, “Anabaptist Christians affirm that Christianity includes beliefs, spiritual experience, and forgiveness. But particular emphasis is placed on following Jesus in daily life” (33).
Becker also acknowledges that we Anabaptist/Mennonites are in danger of overemphasizing right practices in the same way other traditions can fall into similar traps. As I mentioned earlier, Mennonites can fall into legalism and works righteousness way too easily. No, we need a balance of right beliefs, spiritual encounters, forgiveness, and following the teachings of Jesus.