Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
September 3, 2023
Scripture: Matthew 16:21–28
Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb took up his cross. Reeb accepted that discipleship and ministry called him to social action, leading him to live in poor black neighborhoods where he thought his voice and advocacy could be most helpful and encourage his parishioners to participate in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965, he heeded the call of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and join the march from Selma to Montgomery for Black voting rights. One night in the streets of Selma, as Rev. Reeb and two other ministers were leaving dinner, white men with clubs and bats attacked them, fatally wounding Rev. Reeb. James Reeb didn’t go to Selma to die but released a personal claim on safety, preservation, and self-interest in service to others who were suffering. His discipleship called him to embody and enact God’s generative, life-giving presence even amid the danger.
Episcopal seminarian Jonathan Daniels also heeded King’s call to come to Selma to join the march for voting rights. Between classes and exams, Daniels would return to Alabama to continue the work of civil rights. In the late summer of 1965, Daniels joined other students and activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in protesting and picketing segregated stores. After their arrest and release from jail, Daniels, [and] a Catholic priest, and two black women, including a then 17-year-old Ruby Sales, had to walk home because the police would not transport them home after their release. On their way, the group decided to stop for refreshments at a store known for serving nonwhites. However, a special police deputy recognized the group and fired his shotgun at Ruby Sales. Jonathan Daniels pushed Ruby out of the way to take the full blast of the gunfire. He died instantly. Jonathan Daniels didn’t go to Selma to die but released a personal claim on safety, preservation, and self-interest in service to others who were suffering. His discipleship called him to embody and enact God’s generative, life-giving presence even amid the danger.
And Dr. King, the one who put out that call to come to Selma, was not shy about confront the cost of his discipleship. Amid the ongoing threats and harassment during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he had to ask himself directly, “Am I prepared to die?” He received his answer in the assurances of the Holy Spirt to him, “Preach the gospel. Stand up for truth. Stand up for righteousness” (Jonathan Eig, King).
Not everyone who takes up their cross and follows the way of Jesus is going to die prematurely. Not every stand we take for the sake of others will require us to pay the price with our lives. But when we follow the imperatives of our covenantal commitments and existence, when we embody and enact God’s generative, life-giving presence amid injustice and oppression, it may cost us something. It make cost friends, family, jobs, and status.
The idea of self-denial and cross-bearing in modern God-talk is not very popular, relatable, or understandable. Although we can point to powerful examples of faithful people relinquishing self-interest and self-fulfillment for service to God’s reign of love, peace, and liberation, we often view them as exceptional human beings rather than models of discipleship we should emulate. I’m talking about church people who regularly attend worship, read sacred texts, and participate in the gathered community in prayer and worship and who often become silent or insecure when pushed to reflect on the implications of our covenantal commitments and existence in the church. The church’s witnesses had become domesticated such that the idea of a cost of discipleship may seem too hard and too intrusive.
This Scripture passage is the most vivid articulation of the cost of discipleship in the Bible, and by Jesus’ reckoning, it is high. What often eludes consideration and emulation when we read this passage is that Jesus has already made his choice. He is prepared to accept the high cost of his faithfulness to God in proclaiming God’s alternative ordering to the world’s ways. Ever since his temptation in the wilderness, when the opposer of God offered him the easy way out, when Jesus was confronted with the option to protect and promote himself, Jesus denied himself and gave up his life for God’s work in the world. When Jesus articulated the cost he would have to pay for embodying and enacting God’s generative, life-giving presence, Peter refused to hear, accept, or understand. In Peter’s mind and logic, there is no way that the Anointed One of God, who has demonstrated radical hospitality, unconditional love, and miraculous deliverance to the oppressed and disinherited, can be killed so violently and shamefully. Good and faithful people don’t go down like that.
Peter, the first disciple called, first among equals, the first to speak up to respond to a question or action from Jesus, demonstrates how difficult it is for us to abandon what the theologian M. Eugene Boring called the “self-protective impulse.” Remember, Peter had the spiritual breakthrough that revealed who Jesus truly was. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter shows particular spiritual insight into Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One of God, an insight that Jesus declares was not revealed to him by flesh and blood but by God directly. And because of Peter’s insight, Jesus names him “Rock,” the foundation on which the church will be built. And yet, when Jesus predicted the death that awaited him in Jerusalem, Peter rebuked Jesus. He immediately gave into a self-protective impulse.
Jesus told Peter to “get behind me.” Be my disciple. Go with me to this cross for the sake of God’s beloved suffering in grief, poverty, rejection, and oppression. Release your personal and theological ambitions and aspirations so that there is one less enabler perpetuating the status quo. Refuse the world’s demand that you press your claims for power, protection, and preservation so that others will know that not everything is about getting ahead and winning at all costs. Lose your life for God’s movement and gain your life more fully. Become more truly yourself as God’s disciple. And just as God will vindicate a crucified Jesus through resurrection on the third day, God will vindicate all disciples who lose their lives for God’s kin-dom.
I like how the scholar Thomas Long described the life of discipleship: “A life that is spent soothing the pain of the sick, caring for children in need, hammering nails in houses for those without shelter, sharing bread with the hungry, visiting those in prison, and denying oneself may seem like a squandered life in the economy of a self-centered age, but in the storehouse of heaven, it is a lavish treasure” (Thomas Long, Matthew, 191). God will vindicate our life of service, self-denial, and cross-bearing.
As soon we enter into covenant relationship with God and each other, when we become part of the church, regardless of our theological and ideological views, we are immediately confronted, like the disciples who walked with Jesus, with “what is at stake for us and what is required of us” (J. Williams Haskins II, Feasting on the Gospel: Matthew, 56). It is difficult to grasp the reality of the price we must pay to do the right thing, confront and resist injustice, stand with and be community among those on the margins. It is not easy to stand out or alone in challenging the status quo, and I don’t think anybody is prepared for the vitriol and violence that potentially comes our way when we do. Don’t be surprised at how easily we can articulate the power of Jesus’ gospel of love, life, and liberation while shrinking from the high cost of living it out in a world greased to run on the logic of capitalism, triumphalism, and individualism.
All my life, I’ve heard this biblical wisdom “What will profit them to gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” I found out what it meant to lose my life for the sake of ministry and discipleship at a critical moment. It was when I returned to church and had to confront what was at stake for me and what was required of me when I committed myself in covenant to God and others. I was at a high point in my career, making the most money I had ever made, realizing the benefits of my hard work and preparation, and poised to advance even further in my career. But I wanted to be a disciple. And no matter how much I resisted, I heard that call to release my drive for power, protection, and preservation. To do service with integrity and commitment, I had to lose everything I had worked for. No, I’m no James Reeb or Jonathan Daniels, and my life isn’t a struggle like so many others who do not have the privileges I possess. But each of us has to decide how to be faithful to the covenant we’ve made and accept the costs.
Discipleship, self-denial, and cross-bearing are difficult in a world and culture preoccupied with and in awe of winners. We want to be winners, and we want to surround ourselves with the winners of the world. And so, suffering, failing, or struggling as part of a faith journey seems worthless, pointless, and shameful. We will be tempted to leverage whatever position or status we’ve achieved to protect ourselves and what we own and have acquired and to increase our power and privilege. That temptation makes it hard to look out for others, to challenge systems that allow us to get where we are in the first place, and to seek change that can benefit as many people as possible, especially the vulnerable among us.