Followers of Jesus have always faced a deep tension within themselves. A tension of wanting to follow Jesus whole-heartedly and yet being solidly grounded in the world around them. The pull of the world is powerful. Valuing power, money, prestige, public image.
I’m sure all of us have heard of if not seen the Nike ad with Colin Kaepernick. We know the controversy stirred up by his activism on the sidelines, when as a player he used his body in protest. This one man became a focus for the President’s ire because he dared to challenge the sacred gods of football and America. At least that’s how it has been framed by some. But the same people often deny there are any issues that need a call for change. Kaepernick says he was using the opportunity and the power he had as a player to visibly protest the abuses of power by police against black people.
The tag line of the ad is: Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. Kaepernick lost his job and has not been picked up by any team. Nike snapped him up to do this ad. And there is the tension. Because Nike is a huge corporation with tons of money. They sell shoes. But they present footwear as something nearly akin to salvation. Because it is clear that if they didn’t think they would make any money, they wouldn’t run an ad. In this case it might have been a calculated risk. But we can bet if they started losing significant sales, the ad would be pulled.
Many have praised Nike for taking a stand on an issue of justice. And we wonder if this public platform reaches a greater audience for a meaningful message. A message about having conviction to things that matter.
I’m struck by the way advertising in the public, secular realm wants us to truly believe in the products and services they are hawking. That’s the point, right? If we didn’t trust the products, we wouldn’t use them. And who among us hasn’t touted something we’ve found to be useful or life-changing to a friend? “You have to try this new __________! It’ll change your life.I mean think about it, we could put Jesus’ face in the Nike ad and it would suddenly seem like a sermon. “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” It scares me a little how much this sounds like the cliff notes of Jesus’ teaching in the reading today. If you want to understand what Jesus means by taking up your cross and following, it seems like a pretty good elevator speech. Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. And what scares me is that advertisers do it so much better than we do.
The context for Jesus’ interaction with the disciples is Caesarea Philippi. Even in Jesus’ time the place had a history of being a religious place. There were temples that lined the streets dedicated to gods, particularly the god Pan. Walking together in that city they would have seen people moving in and out of the sacred niches offering various items to show their devotion to these other gods. And it’s there that Jesus asks them to make a statement of faith. “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter enthusiastically blurts out the right answer. You are the Messiah! But when he learns what it means to make a commitment to Jesus, he has a difficult time with that. So much that he is brash enough to chastise Jesus for even suggesting that they would have to give up anything to follow him.
It is a difficult struggle. One that requires us to be self-reflective about where we put our full trust. Is our faith just a nice thing to say or is it transformative?
In a context where too many possibilities for where to put our allegiance and trust, can we make a commitment to God?
It’s part of the reason that it’s so difficult to grow a church in Brooklyn. Consumerism and money are what move people. And those things make us feel secure and powerful. A faith that asks us to give that up is not attractive.Taking up a cross to follow Jesus doesn’t sound like a great life plan. We are told to sure up our investments in physical things and in material wealth. But we neglect too often the deeper part of us that seeks a connection with God and with other people around things that matter. And to really achieve that means we do have to sacrifice some things to really believe.
We can’t escape the tension that a life of faith brings with it. We can’t help being tied to this world by our obligations, our work, our desire to have a good living. To be allured by the flashy and the fashionable. Convinced by the constant barrage of advertising about what products will make life easier and worth living. While at the same time knowing that in the end none of that matters as much as how we have lived as human beings in relation to one another and in relation to God.
To believe in Christ does call us to sacrifice everything. To give over our whole lives in trust to God. We don’t lose ourselves but receive the promise of a transformed self. Who lives not only to ourselves but for the sake of what we can offer to the world.
Following Jesus means following to the cross to see how one gives himself up for the sake of all. And in following we give ourselves to the same movement to transform the world into a place that is more just and more hospitable to all people.