It may surprise some of you to find out that when I was in High School, I had a favorite gym coach. It’s somewhat out of character for me, I know, but it’s true. His name was Coach Patlak. He would introduce himself to you all the time, always spelling his name. The time he introduced himself to us on the first day of gym class and the time he introduced himself to my parents at graduation were almost identical. “I’m Coach Patlak,” he’d say, “P-A-T-L-A-K. I’m the meanest guy you’ll ever love.”
Yeah, he was a strange man, but he was a straight-ahead guy. He said what he meant. He said what he was going to insist that you were going to do in class. And he said that he knew for sure that you could do it if you concentrated, bent your knees, and followed through. The extent to which I have any kind of a jump shot today is due almost entirely to Coach Patlak. One day in class, somebody asked him, “Why are you always going on and on about how hard basketball is? Haven’t you ever heard of positive reinforcement?” I remember he said, “Why should I lie to you kids? Basketball isn’t easy, but you can do it.” OK, he didn’t actually say, “why should I lie.” He used a much more colorful metaphor that involved sunshine, and a part of your body where it isn’t normally found, but the sentiment was there.
He’d probably be horrified to hear me compare him to Jesus in the Gospel passage that we heard this morning, but I don’t think Jesus would. I think that Jesus was just trying to tell the disciples what was going to happen so that they could be ready, and so that when it got hard and started to seem like it was all out of control, they might be able to remember that Jesus knew all along how hard it was going to be, and that he knew they could do it. They would just have to concentrate, bend their knees (for prayer in Jesus’ program), and follow through. Everything he told them was true. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.”
Despite what you might think after hearing some of the parables, Jesus was a very simple, straight-ahead guy. He didn’t believe in sugar-coating the truth of discipleship, or about minimizing the reward for those who believe. And then into this story comes Peter. The ever-loving, fiercely loyal, hot-headed, never able to plan much beyond the end of his arm, Peter. He rebukes Jesus, probably because he fears that Jesus is being too negative. Can’t you just see him pulling Jesus aside, and saying “This is too much. Haven’t you ever heard of positive reinforcement?” And here Jesus uses the first century equivalent of Coach Patlak’s metaphor about the sunshine and your backside, “Get behind me Satan.” Peter, as often, doesn’t get it. Jesus taught all these things openly, because they are true. And it’s always better to know what the risks are rewards are before coming in to something.
In response, Jesus gives an even more difficult teaching. He says that not only will he undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, but so must his followers. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This must have really infuriated old Rocky, but it’s true, too. And again, Jesus offers this teaching quite openly. He wants those who would become his followers to know what is coming. But he also wants to make clear what the reward will be, and that he knows that people can do it. Jesus wasn’t only a man, but he was fully human, with all the possibilities and limitations that means for all of us. If Jesus, trusting in God’s promises, is unafraid to pick up his cross and set his face on Calvary, we can do it, too. And if death will have no claim on the Son of Man, then it will have no claim on his followers, either.
Now sisters and brothers, I tell you this quite openly, like Jesus did. If you pick up your cross and follow him, you will die. We live in Austin, Texas in 2012, so it’s unlikely that you’ll have to physically die for the gospel. It’s possible, of course, but unlikely. But that’s not the only way to die. Under Jesus’ instruction, and under the weight of the cross, you’ll find yourself doing all kinds of things you’d never expect. All sorts of things that you might have once thought, “I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that.” Maybe you’ve heard someone say, or maybe you yourself have said, “If I had to sit down and have lunch with a homeless man, or ride herd on a bunch of teenagers on a mission trip, or change a diaper in the nursery, or hear all the details from a woman who had been abused by her partner, or spend all day in the hot sun lifting 50-pound sandbags in rural Mississippi, or hold the hand of someone near to death, and then cry with the family afterwards, I don’t know what I’d do. I might die.” Yes. You would die. If you truly want to become a follower of Jesus, you will do all these things and more, and the person you were, the one who couldn’t imagine being in those situations would die. And in her place, in his place God will resurrect you into a life more wonderful than you can imagine. You will lose your life, yes, but if you give it up out of love for God, and for the sake of the Gospel, you will gain your life. Your real life, the one that God has set aside for you to live in the Kingdom, the one here on Earth, and the Heavenly one as well.
As a coda, I want to draw your particular attention this morning to one of Jesus’ words. Remember how he told the crowds, “If any want to BECOME my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.” Here is another hard teaching, but like Jesus, I tell it to you quite openly. This kind of sacrificial service, the kind I’ve been discussing today, the kind that requires the death of the self you knew before, it is not something to be done only by those who are strong in the faith. We who are leaders in the community, the ones who wear these funny clothes and the ones who don’t, we are called to endanger ourselves for the gospel, yes. But so are you. Even if you are here today for the first time and are just wondering what is the first step in following Christ, it is this. “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.” Believe in Jesus Christ and his promised resurrection, bend down and pick up your cross (don’t forget to bend your knees, I can hear Coach Patlak saying, those crosses are heavy), then get in line. For we are all following him, following him to Calvary, straight through the crucifixion, and on to whatever God has in store for us beyond.