Summary: When it comes to following Jesus, we have to learn to think "inside out." His way is not the way of the world, but it is the way of life!
Just over a week ago, Ken and I rafted down the Ocoee. This is something that I have done a few time in my years in East Tennessee, but Ken had never had the experience. Now, before rafting down the Ocoee, whether a newbie or a veteran, you always get the same instructions. Among other things, these instructions have to do with how to sit in the raft, how to paddle, and what to do if you happen to fall out of the boat at any point. For some reason, probably because doing the wrong thing can be a matter of life or death, the raft guides always find it particularly important to stress what you are to do if you fall out of the boat. I think they also stress this matter because the appropriate action is different from what you might expect.
Imagine with me if you can. You're rafting down the Ocoee, splashing through a huge rapid when all of a sudden, you find yourself flying over the front of the boat. You're tossing and turning in the waves, and your mind and body are telling you to get stabilized. Our natural reaction would probably be to get our feet down and stand up, but that's exactly the wrong thing to do. If you tried to stand up in the middle of the rapids, a host of horrible things could happen. You could slip on a rock and hit your head. Your foot could get stuck in a crevice, or you could end up breaking a bone or worse as the current pushes against you. No, the best thing to do when you find yourself "overboard" (so to speak), is to float on your back with your feet sticking up out of the water in front of you. This way, the current pushes you through the rapid to a calm spot where the boat can pick you up again. You don't get your feet stuck, you lessen your chances of hitting your head, and you increase your chances of survival; just by giving yourself up to the current.
Believe it or not, Christian discipleship works in much the same way, and that is what Jesus is trying to teach the disciples in the reading we heard earlier. As you will remember from last week, Peter has just finished his proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah in answer to Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?" Now Jesus is taking a moment to teach the disciples what it really means that he is the Messiah. Last week was Peter's confession, this week is Jesus' teaching about the cost of that confession. And what Jesus tells the disciples is not what they expected to hear; but it is a matter of life and death, just like those rafting instructions.
You see, the disciples hear the word "Messiah," and they're thinking, "If Jesus is truly the anointed king, then that means all the other kings and rulers have to be overthrown." Peter had probably barely uttered the words and the disciples were making plans about how they would march on Jerusalem; gaining followers along the way, they would storm the Temple and install Jesus as King. That's how the "Son of Man" will be exalted! That's how God's kingdom will come! But they were wrong, and Jesus had to make that clear. Indeed, they would march to Jerusalem with Jesus, and they would probably even gain a few followers along the way. But when they got to Jerusalem, they wouldn't be casting out the rulers and priests. Rather, once there, Jesus would experience great suffering at the hands of the rulers, and then he would be killed.
It's no wonder Peter speaks up again, "Never, Lord! That will never happen to you!" How could the Lord of the world die at the hands of his enemies? When you've got in mind a grand, conquering feat, it's hard to imagine suffering and death; much less to accept it's inevitability. It's like being told that when you fall out of the boat, you just have to let the current take you. But just as riding the rapids and heavy current will eventually bring you to a place of calm and safety, so does this tough path of suffering that Jesus has laid out emerge in the new life of resurrection. Yet, says Jesus, he cannot ultimately conquer in the resurrection unless he has first suffered and died. And he goes on to tell the disciples the same is true for them as well. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it"