I think that one of the toughest lessons in life that I am still learning is that none of us is really in control of our lives. Oh, we think we are . . . but, we are not. This journey of life that each of us is on is an adventure worthy of any silver screen adaption as it is filled with twists and turns, highs and lows, surprises, and even hair-raising action that keeps us guessing and wondering whether or not we will make it to our destination. We think we are the ones guiding the journey . . . choosing the directions we take, but we are not. And, because we are, we struggle. We struggle because we are taught this mythic idea that we have the power and the ability to control our own destinies. This journey of life that each of us has been on is nothing like we ever imagined it would be . . . the journey before us is full of potholes.
As is the case when the preacher uses the lectionary to preach from, the listeners or congregation do not always know the whole story of what is taking place in the scripture reading being used. For example, it would seem that Jesus and the disciples—in particular, Peter—are in the midst of a debate over who Jesus is and what his mission or purpose is. The disciples correctly guess that Jesus is the “Christ” or the “Messiah”, but when Jesus attempts to explain what this would mean for him . . . the hardships, persecutions, and death he would endure . . . they argue with him. They tell him he is wrong and that he should not be saying such things in public . . . it wasn’t good for what he or they were attempting to do.
Of course, this does not sit well with Jesus. He rebukes Peter . . . tells him to get out of his sight . . . and, then proceeds to tell the crowd that is gathered that the foundation of faith is not in power or control, but that it is in vulnerability and love . . . that they must pick up this “cross” and follow his example. It is not about power or control, it is about vulnerability and love . . . but, the disciples did not get it.
So, what was the cause of this argument between the disciples . . . between Peter and Jesus?
Well, if you read the buildup prior to this reading you would have found that it was filled with instances of Jesus performing miracles and healings. There is the feeding of the five thousand . . . Jesus walking on water . . . the faith of the Syrophoenician woman healing her child . . . the healing of the deaf man . . . the feeding of the four thousand . . . and, the healing of the blind man. Pretty powerful stuff . . . great acts of power . . . impressive. This is the stuff of super heroes . . . the stuff of mythic gods . . . this is what everyone was looking for when it came to the “Messiah”—the “Christ”—in freeing the people from their oppression. Power and strength. This is what the disciples saw . . . this is what they believed . . . and, Jesus had done nothing to dispel that idea up to that point.
Then Jesus goes off and tells them that no, actually following me has nothing to do with power or strength . . . it has to do with vulnerability and love. Tells them that the journey before them will not be a simple and easy cruise down Easy Street, but an adventure filled with potholes . . . there would be no smooth sailing. He tells them: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
For emphasis, Jesus then adds to this challenge the kicker that explains that the ways of the world—power, strength, and control—are not the ways of God: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”
Jesus’ way is not the world’s way. To follow Jesus is to go against the ways of the world that are based on power, strength, and control. It is to swim against the current of popular belief and practice . . . it is to encounter a road that is filled with potholes that makes the journey difficult and frustrating. Let’s just say that in our reading this morning, the disciples—especially Peter—encounter their first pothole of faith . . . of following Jesus.
As Montanans we know that winter can be hard on our roads. We know that the constant freezing and thawing, the expanding and contracting, can really put our roads through a beating. The result is that we often discover that winter leaves behind a whole bunch of reminders of its presence in the form of potholes . . . axle-breaking potholes . . . alignment shifting potholes . . . vehicle-eating potholes . . . cuss a blue streak potholes. None of us likes or appreciate potholes. They cause damage to our vehicles . . . they slow us down. Yet, they are a fact of life . . . they are a part of the journey . . . and, whether we like it or not, we have to deal with them.
So it is with faith and our faith journeys . . . there are potholes to be dealt with.
Jesus never said that following him would be easy. No, he never promised any of us a rose garden. But, he did say that the journey would be worth it. Thus it was that he challenged us and encouraged us to “take up our crosses and follow him.”
Have you done it? Have you picked up your cross and followed him? And, if you have, how has it been?
I imagine that it has been a conglomeration of just about anything and everything that could ever happen. That there have been good times and bad times . . . times of smooth sailing and times when you were being tossed, turned, and thrown about like a ship in a storm . . . times of great joy and great sadness . . . times of no-brainer decisions and times of difficult and frustrating decisions. I imagine that the journey of faith has been like driving down a Montana highway and every-so-often you encounter a pothole that slows you down, grabs your attention, and frustrates you. That is the journey of faith . . . that is what you get when you follow Jesus.
In the season of Lent we encounter the potholes of faith. We encounter those obstacles and barriers that keep us from growing closer to God and to one another . . . and, we are called to deal with them . . . called to grapple with them, struggle with them . . . in order for us to move on in our relationship with God and one another . . . in order to follow Jesus. It is a time of examination, prayer, and possibly change.
I do not know about you, but I do not like or enjoy potholes whenever I encounter them going from here to there when driving. Yet, with each encounter I have to deal with them . . . I can complain until someone fills them in . . . I can stop and fill them up myself . . . I can drive around them, which only seems to make them bigger or create new ones. The thing is potholes demand our attention . . . demand our action . . . and, they will not be denied.
So it is with the journey of faith. It is frustrating to encounter potholes. They slow us down. They demand extra work . . . often hard work. Yet, we are not alone. There are our fellow sojourners making and taking the same journey . . . and, there is Jesus, our constant companion. Our constant companion telling us to keep moving forward whether there are potholes or not . . . our constant companion urging us to make the journey of faith . . . our constant companion telling us to “take up our cross and follow him.”