‘Follow the Leader’
My husband is a big Bob Dylan fan, so we hear Dylan’s music quite a bit in our house. Not that I am the greatest fan, but Dylan’s lyrics, more often than not, make me think. No wonder he was an icon of the 60s, and his early songs are on every playlist of protest songs of that era, the most famous among them ‘Blowing in the Wind’.
Dylan, who grew up as Robert Zimmermann in Minnesota, was of Jewish heritage. In the late 70s, he converted to Christianity. Consequently, he released several contemporary gospel albums – not many people know that. His greatest hit from that era is ‘Gotta serve somebody’, a song that has been covered by quite a few artists ever since. In this song, Dylan describes people from all walks of life, from the homeless to the ditzy socialite, from the worker to the high-ranking politician, and how they all have something in common – ‘they gotta serve somebody’.
And the catchy chorus of this song goes,
‘But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.’
So what Dylan is saying that nobody is truly free, and that we all serve something, be it money, fame, a certain ideology or philosophy, the devil or the Lord. However, we have a choice. Now as Lutherans, we have the doctrine that there is no free will, but Luther himself conceded that we are all predestined for grace, which means God wants all of us and all of humanity to receive this grace – but it’s still up to us whether we accept or reject this grace God so freely offers. The choice is still ours.
Once we accept grace, we become followers of Christ. And that’s not a bad thing, because we ‘gotta serve somebody’, and serving Christ and following Christ as our leader is arguably the best option we have.
Now following the leader may seem like a child’s play, but it’s easier said than done. There are many people in this country and on this planet today who claim they follow Christ, yet the ways they do follow are very different – and sometimes Christians go in absolute opposite directions. Some stress God’s law and damnation, others stress forgiveness and grace. Some make it all about morals, others about social justice. Some use Christ to justify the exclusion of people, some interpret Christ’s grace as all-inclusive.
And it’s hard for us to determine with absolute certainty who’s following the right way – because we don’t have Jesus Christ walking in flesh and blood among us today, we can’t ask him personally, and all we can turn to is to the Scriptures and to discern God’s will with the help of the Holy Spirit and our conscience. And we come to different conclusions, because we all have different backgrounds and experiences and consequently read the Bible through different lenses.
But even for the disciples, who had Jesus with them all the time, who were right at the living source of God’s word and God’s presence, following wasn’t easy. Case in point is today’s gospel story. What is happening in today’s gospel is quite remarkable: Jesus, after spending some time with his disciples, asks them: so, who do people say that I am? And the disciples answer: some say you are one of the prophets of old, some say you are John the Baptist. But then Jesus ask: and who do you say that I am? You must have an idea by now. And Peter has this big aha-moment: Jesus, you are much more than what the people say. You are the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed, sent to liberate, save and redeem God’s people.
But when Jesus, right after this confession, talks about his suffering and death – a totally unexpected turn of events, for isn’t the long-promised Messiah supposed to come with power and might and overturn the often oppressive powers that are? – Peter can’t accept it. He may be the first of the disciples to understand who Jesus is, but that doesn’t mean he is ready to follow the Messiah, the Christ, on the way he leads. We read that Peter started to rebuke Jesus – Peter confronts him, he’s giving him a piece of his mind – what in the world, Jesus…?
Peter in this moment is trying to get ahead of Jesus, correct his course, show him the way, take over and be in the lead. And I am sure he is well-meaning. But Peter’s ways are not God’s ways. And so Jesus responds, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.’
Now I’ve mentioned it before, the Hebrew or Aramaic word ‘Satan’ simply means ‘tempter’, someone who leads into temptation – so Jesus is not implying that Peter is evil. But what a temptation it is, to forgo the hard way! I don’t want to focus on that. But pay attention to what Jesus is saying here: ‘Get behind me.’ Get in line. Get my back. If you want to truly follow, you have to be behind me, not in front. Follow the leader.
Jesus then explains, what this means: take up your cross. Go, where I go – to familiar places and strange places, to the often uncomfortable and sometimes even dangerous places. Go to all kinds of people, no matter, where they are. Talk to the ones, eat with the ones no one else would talk to or eat with. Serve me by serving those who need God’s presence. Proclaim the good news for the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins – even if this message doesn’t sit well with those in power. Live the good news. For the kingdom of God has come near – be present in this kingdom.
And, if necessary, follow me into suffering and death for the sake of the gospel.
Easier said than done, right? It even took the disciples, Jesus’ closest followers, some time to embrace what it means to really follow Christ, and, yes, most even followed him through suffering and death.
Even though today we might not be called to actually suffer and die for our faith, I think we get the sense that following Christ never is convenient or easy. That the call to follow still entails go to the places and the people Jesus went to and proclaim and live the grace God intends for all. To go to places that maybe scare us, and people who make us uncomfortable. To give our life away as a gift in service to others.
That’s no child’s play, because there are so many temptations out there to mainly look out for ourselves, to accumulate and consume at the expense of others and creation, to disregard the need of someone else. There is the temptation to understand success mainly as personal success, which is defined by wealth, prestige, influence and power – instead of striving for the success of an entire society.
But if we follow Christ to the places he went, we will find fulfillment, and life to the fullest – not only for ourselves, but for the world God so loved that he gave his only Son. And if we follow Christ, we can be confident that, through all suffering and death, we will ultimately go to and be with the heavenly father.
We gotta follow and serve somebody – so why not choose Christ, who offers us and everyone grace and life to the fullest, life eternal?
Picture by Jhyun Sung on unsplash.com