At one point in time the most listened to man on the radio was Paul Harvey. Paul had a trademark phrase, remember? He would tell some story of a life-changing event and then tie this story in with a famous person and then conclude with the phrase, and now you know the rest of the story. One of his stories went something like this. A young entrepreneurial man decided to become a partner in a tavern in the 1830’s. It turned out to be a bad idea and after only two months he broke up the partnership. 3 or 4 months later the tavern went bankrupt, then the former partner died and in a court judgment the young man was stuck with a very large debt-load. He argued with the judge that he should not be held responsible for the debt but the judge was adamant that since the young man had been a partner that the debts were indeed his. The judge advised the young man to learn more about the law before he got involved again with another entrepreneurial venture. The young man made a decision that he would indeed learn the law. And he decided to become a lawyer. He worked hard and paid off the debt and became a lawyer. After working as a lawyer for a while he decided that he would run for public office and was elected to the state legislature, and then later he was elected to serve in Washington D.C. in Congress. And then after a number of years he ran for the presidency of the United States and won. Abraham Lincoln became our 16th president. And now you know the rest of the story. Our gospel reading has that sort of aspect to it. That is it has a “rest of the story” sort of feeling to it.
It starts with Jesus asking his disciples who they think he is. Peter, speaking for the twelve, says, “Jesus, you are the Christ.” Then Jesus goes on to tell them the rest of the story so to speak. You see, they were familiar with the first part, that is, a Messiah was to come and he would be powerful, righteous, and charismatic. Jesus was all that. And now, the disciples were expecting Jesus to take the next step, raise an army and declare independence from Rome. After all in their mind the primary part of the Messiah’s job was to bring freedom and independence to the Jewish nation. But then the disciples heard the real “rest of the story.” Jesus told them that as the Messiah, as the Christ he would have to suffer many things. He must be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes. And finally he must be killed. The disciples were appalled. This wasn’t the rest of the story that they expected at all. But Jesus wasn’t through, the rest of the story included those who would follow him—those who would be his disciples. Jesus said that “If any want to become my followers they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And lest we miss some of the weight of what Jesus was saying, the only time a person would pick up a cross would be when he was on the way to be placed upon it, in other words, on the way to one’s execution. This was a pretty shocking and disheartening “rest of the story.” It is no wonder that Peter took Jesus aside to tell him that it is not supposed to work out this way. But there it is. It is no surprise that this part of following Jesus still is not very popular. Our gospel readings several weeks ago were about Jesus being the Bread of Life. He said in that discourse that anyone who believes in him has eternal life. But now, now it seems that the stakes have been raised considerably! Now if someone wants to follow Jesus one must deny himself, he must pick up his cross. What is going on, is this some sort of bait and switch deal?
No, it is not a bait and switch; what we are seeing here is indeed the rest of the story. Christianity, following Jesus is composed of two distinct parts. The first part is that step of faith the step of belief. This must take place for it is this event that changes one’s heart and mind; it changes one’s inner motivations. The Bible teaches us that if anyone believes in Christ he is a new creation; he is a new creature. Something has been changed inside. Jesus tells Nicodemus that faith causes one to be reborn; it brings one to a new beginning in life. One has to have this take place first because one needs to become a new creation in order to be able live into the rest of this new life. When Peter tells Jesus that he and the rest of the disciples believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the Living God, well, he was expressing that first step of belief. He was expressing this beginning of a new life.
But there is the rest of the story; there is the next step to being a Christian. If we really do believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then in fact we are reborn. This rebirth shows itself in a new perspective on life; it shows itself in a new way of living our lives. Now we need to follow him and obey him and obey him completely, putting him first place in our lives. Being a Christian requires that one denies oneself. Being a Christian requires picking up one’s cross. And this can be hard. This is where Christianity butts into our personal lives. And it not only butts in, this part of being a Christian is positively invasive. Someone once said that the problem with Christianity is that it is so everyday! And it is true. Jesus is requiring us; note it is not a request, he is not pleading; he doesn’t say, “Well, this would be a good idea.” Jesus tells us that if one is going to be his follower, that is, if one wants to be a Christian, then THIS is what is required. It is required to deny oneself. It is like if one wants to be a swimmer, one must learn to swim. One cannot be a swimmer without swimming. If we want to be Christian then according to Jesus we must denies ourselves. What does that even mean?
The word ‘deny’ is the same word that is used when Peter denies Jesus three times. Peter in his denying was saying that he did not know Jesus; Jesus was a stranger to him. The picture then that we are given is that instead of me and my wants being at the center of my life there is someone else that is more important. Instead of my needs and my wants being the most important things in my life, there is something else more important. As Christians we learn to make ourselves not our first consideration. Denial of self is making me not the end, the purpose, but instead I become the means, a channel, in the kingdom of God. We look for ways to serve others as God’s representative. So it is not even about me at all anymore. When I deny myself I am one who must to learn to focus on the needs of others before my needs and wants.
Why would anyone do this sort of thing? Why would anyone embrace this sort of lifestyle? Why does Christ call us to do this? First, we are following Jesus. This is how he lived. He lived as a servant for others. He lived God’s way of life here on earth by showing God’s love to others. He showed God’s great love for us by dying for us on the cross. He calls us to live like he did, loving others and serving others. Secondly we live like this because this is helping us to become the human beings that God created us to be. God did not create humanity to be self-centered, ego-centric beings. He created us to be able to love God and to love others. And we can only do this by denying ourselves.
And as Paul Harvey would say, “And now you know the rest of the story” Let us not only believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, let us deny self and pick up our crosses and follow Him. Let us change our lives so that we live lives of service and love like our Lord Jesus did. And let that be the rest of our story. Amen