Leaders or Followers?
Grace, mercy and peace be unto you from God, our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in the business world, in the military, in schools, and in churches, leadership is a constant topic of conversation. Yet Christianity is fundamentally about being a follower, and when we try to take the lead from our Lord, we become a hindrance to Him.
In the Gospels, the disciples of Jesus often tried to lead rather than follow. In Matthew 16, Jesus and the apostles were at Caesarea Philippi, and God gave Peter the great confession of Jesus to say: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Yet just moments later, when Jesus predicted that the Christ would suffer, die, and rise again, "Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." But Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance [literally, a stumbling block] to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man" (Matthew 16:22-23). After confessing that Jesus was the Christ, Peter tried to lead Jesus away from the cross and stopped following Christ's words, which made Peter a stumbling block for Jesus' mission.
Of course, Peter wasn't alone in his misunderstanding of the Christ. Many Jews thought that the Messiah would be an earthly ruler who would restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory, someone who would sock it to the Romans and make Israel a great nation as it had been under King David. Many Jews thought that the Messiah would come and focus only on eradicating Israel's earthly enemies, and they forgot about our greatest enemies that needed to be dealt with—our spiritual enemies of sin, death, and the devil, the mortal enemies of all people. Peter and the other apostles must have had such misconceptions, because they didn't understand it when Jesus announced His upcoming suffering.
But look at what Jesus does. See how Jesus pushes stumbling block Peter out of the way and just continues His steady march up to Jerusalem and the cross. It doesn't seem to bother Jesus that the apostles don't get it. He knows His mission. He knows where He is headed. He knows that He is the One God the Father has sent to lead a perfect life, answer for the sin of the world, and then rise, and He just goes on and does it. He knows that God had inspired the Old Testament prophets to write about what He would accomplish at Mt. Calvary, so Jesus doesn't let His followers dictate the kind of Christ He is, even though they wanted to lead Him. Jesus is the Head, the Leader, and in today's Gospel reading, He says, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise."
This did not fit the expectations of the apostles, who wanted Jesus to be a powerful Christ, not a weak one; an exalted Christ, not humiliated; a victorious, living Christ, not a defeated, dead one. Everyone wanted Jesus to be something besides the Jesus who would die on the cross, beaten and bloodied and suffering. This was a disappointment to the apostles, because they wanted to lead Him to a different outcome for His life. But if Jesus had followed the apostles or any other man, He would have stopped short of saving us. It is only the Jesus who suffers God's wrath against our sin on the cross who actually defeats our greatest enemies—sin, death, the devil, and hell. It is only by His death that we are reconciled to God the Father and granted everlasting life.
And then, just as Jesus had said, just as He had led His apostles to believe but they had not followed, they found out on the third day that Jesus was resurrected just as He had promised. His victorious resurrection showed that He had paid for all the world's sins and defeated death, but even then, the disciples wanted to lead Jesus according to their plans. Even after Jesus taught the apostles the meaning of His suffering and resurrection for forty days, still right before His ascension they were asking when He would start whipping the Romans and inaugurating the reign of God over Israel. It wasn't until the Holy Spirit was poured out at Pentecost that they really "got it" and began to take up their crosses and follow after Jesus. And even then, they often did stumble and fall when they began to rely on themselves rather than on Jesus.
But I think the real reason the apostles weren't on board with Jesus going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die was that He had also spelled out the implications that His death would have on their lives, and they didn't like it one bit. Jesus had said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). There are three things that sinners don't like about that saying: self-denial, the cross, and following. As sinners we love self-indulgence and really are bent on doing our own thing, and we hate the idea of being constrained by the teachings of Jesus or anyone else. We're all like Frank Sinatra: I'll do it "my way". And then that part about us sharing in the cross, that is another part we would all like to omit. Because taking up the cross involves self-sacrifice, suffering, and finally, death. So it was easier for the apostles just to ignore that than face up to what it really meant for them and for all of us disciples; as sinners we prefer not to follow behind the Man who has called upon to take up our cross and follow Him.
And it's true that this road is not easy. St. Paul said that we enter the Kingdom of God through many trials. Jesus said that we would have tribulation in this world, and He said that the narrow road of following Him is difficult while the road that leads to hell is broad and easy. But what is very important to remember is that we take up our cross and follow Jesus only after He has saved us, only after He has given eternal life and the promise to be with us always. And we don't want to imitate the apostles who tried to lead Jesus with their own ideas about Him, but thankfully Jesus goes right on ahead to Jerusalem to suffer and die for all of our sins.
We also don't want to be part of that crowd that went before Jesus on the road into Jericho who heard the blind beggar crying out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" The people leading Jesus down the road tried to silence the beggar and get him to stop bothering Jesus. They thought Jesus had more important things to do than help a lowly bum. They tried to lead Jesus away from an opportunity to show mercy. But here we see that Jesus loves to show mercy, and it is far better to be sitting by the road, blind and impoverished, when Jesus walks by rather than trying to lead Jesus. St. Luke says that "those who were in front rebuked [the blind man], telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?" He said, "Lord, let me recover my sight." And Jesus said to him, "Recover your sight; your faith has saved you." And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God."
This beggar is the ideal disciple, in contrast with the apostles and others in the crowd that day. The beggar knows that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, the Savior, who has come to show mercy to sinners. So when the beggar cries out for help, Jesus stops very intentionally and focuses on this one man that most of us would pass by without a thought—and Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?"
"Lord, let me recover my sight." What's amazing is that this blind beggar could already see more than the rest of the people in the story because he had the eyes of faith; he called Jesus "Lord," Messiah, Savior. So Jesus says to him, "Recover your sight; your faith has saved you." The man had already been saved by faith in Jesus, and now Jesus blesses him with physical sight as well, which allows the beggar to become not only a spiritual follower of Jesus, but a physical one as well.
A blind man can't see to lead down a trail, much less follow. The apostles were blind guides, trying to lead Jesus by their own plans and agendas. Only the blind beggar realizes that everything depends on Jesus and His mercy, and we don't contribute one bit to His salvation, we can only be given it. So before we are able to begin to follow Jesus, we need to realize that our situation is like the blind beggar. We sit by the road, blind and helpless because of our sin, and we wait for Jesus to come to us with His Word and salvation. And He does! He picks us up and applies to us the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection—in Baptism He washes us clean and gives us the eyes of faith and clothes us in His royal robe of righteousness and salvation.
So things after that should be perfect, right? We should be ideal followers, right? Alas, in reality, because we are not only saints but also still sinners, the Christian life ends up involving us sometimes sinfully trying to lead Jesus, then sitting by, and then following Him again. We know that Jesus has come and saved us in Baptism and called us by His Word to take up our crosses and follow after Him, and so we begin to follow Him through faithful use of the Word and Sacraments, through prayer and good works. But then the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh take our eyes off of Jesus and His Word, and we start to rush on ahead with our own plans and pleasures, to try to blaze our own trail, do it our own way. Inevitably, we stumble and fall into the ditch, so we need Jesus to come along and pick us right back up, forgive us, and place us where we belong: following behind Him. And that's the only road to be on, for Jesus said, "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me."
So thanks be to God that He has given us His Word and Sacraments in the Church to keep us on the straight and narrow path of following our Savior. When we assemble here for the Divine Service as poor, miserable sinners who lament how poorly we have followed Jesus during the past week, we again are beggars sitting by the road waiting for Jesus to come by. And we know that He is coming because He has promised, "Wherever two are three have been gathered in My name, there am I among them."
Knowing that Jesus is here with us, we cry out for mercy to Him: "I a poor, miserable sinner confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities. Forgive me, Lord!" And then He comes, just as He promised. He comes to us in the ditch and says, "I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." He lifts us up and asks, "What do you want Me to do for you?" And we continue with the Kyrie: "Lord, have mercy upon us; Christ, have mercy upon us; Lord, have mercy upon us." And He does: He opens His mouth to speak from the Scriptures and in the preaching of His Word, and He says, "Receive your sight by believing the Gospel." Then He feeds us with His very body and blood to give us strength for our journey as we take up our cross and follow Him, glorifying God. What a joy it is to be Christ's disciples, His followers, when we realize all that He has done and is still doing to save us for eternal, resurrected life. So come on, let's follow our Lord's lead all the time, since it's a journey that ends in Paradise. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.