Sunday Message for 28 February 2021: “Prioritizing Discipleship”

Despite their closeness, Jesus and Peter didn’t always get along. One day there was a disagreement between the two that resulted in a public rebuking of Peter. The situation started when Peter rejected Jesus’ talk about suffering and death. Jesus would have none of this and responded with a surprising name-calling of “Satan” against Peter (Mark 8:33). Jesus escalated the situation by calling the crowd and declaring to them that anyone who wanted to follow him must deny self.  Peter must have been grimacing on the sidelines as he felt Jesus’ words striking like stones.

It’s interesting how the guardians of scripture didn’t censure the troubles Jesus encountered with his small cadre of followers. It’s eye-opening that even between Jesus and his friends, disagreements threatened to tear apart Jesus’ effort to reform Judaism. This makes all the centuries of conflict and controversies between subsequent generations of Christians less surprising.

The inherent nature of spirituality undermines agreement about the many unseen forces comprising peoples’ beliefs. As always, the subjective and speculative nature of religious topics generates countless perspectives. This situation isn’t all bad because conflicting opinions can generate productive debate that holds people accountable and potentially generates new insights.

The powerful theme of sacrificing for the sake of spiritual health underscores Jesus’ message about how true discipleship is neither cheap nor easy. Throughout the centuries, certain pious souls claim to have heard a call to give up everything for God. Today’s story of the rebuking of Peter is no exception. Jesus called for radical commitment, especially among his closest followers.

Jesus warned against reluctant disciples (including Peter) who were not willing to sacrifice everything. Jesus was attempting to reform Judaism but what eventually happened is that Jesus’ followers founded Christianity. Jesus’ insistence on an extreme commitment from his followers makes sense.  A vulnerable and fledgling movement such as what Jesus led can quickly be extinguished if the people who lead it waver, thereby weakening or destroying the cause before it takes root. All this may account for why Jesus demanded absolute devotion even if it meant sacrificing his followers’ lives.

The call for dedicated discipleship continues as a salient reminder of how religion can demand obedience. The nature of religion is such that it can twist and invert life’s ordinary expectations. This also partially accounts for why scripture portrays Jesus as hostile toward half-hearted followers. This legacy lingers in the form of a controversy about how much of a true believer a person must become such that they will be accepted by God. Over the centuries, there has been a recurrent pressure for a person to, in effect, shift their allegiance from God to the church, such that a follower of God is cajoled to serve an institution which in some ways usurps what should be a person’s direct connection to the Almighty.

Regarding extremes, should you or anyone else be willing to kill if your religion encourages you? Religiously-inspired terrorists conduct mass-murder by flying airplanes into buildings, beheading captives, raping & butchering women & children and so on. The conviction with which terrorists commit horrors emphasizes their self-deception and toxic faith. No wonder that people abuse religious freedom by clinging to lies, deceptions, and misinformation. The best path is to choose love so that both the reputation of Christianity and the state of your soul are as healthy as possible. You can’t control other peoples’ choices but you can better manage your own.

God is the power and essence of love. Murderers who abuse religion often perpetrate crimes because they think God wants them to be humanity’s judge, jury and executioner. Such evil is never justifiable. Heeding Jesus’ call to transcend fear, ignorance and anger can help prevent terrors committed by fake religion.

We conclude now where we began, which is at the crossroads of proper priorities as God’s disciples. The critical question remains: how much are you willing to invest in your soul? It’s good to be reminded of spiritual realities rather than become obsessed with life’s many distracting, impermanent idols. It is helpful to yearn for and remain dedicated to the God of love and truth. How you choose to do this will reflect your unique, authentic discipleship.

–Reverend Larry Hoxey

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