A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent Mark 8:31-38
Who wants to be a millionaire? Maybe you’ve seen the game show that asks contestants that question. It’s rather a silly question; who doesn’t want to be a millionaire? Well, I guess billionaires, who don’t want to be downsized. But for most folks, it would seem to be a no-brainer. Unlike the question: who wants to be a disciple?
Maybe those of us who grew up in the church or have heard the gospel message so often have grown inured to what is really being asked of those who agree to be a follower of Jesus. “If you want to follow me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it.” If that’s the job description, who would want to be a disciple?
And it is the job description. Jesus says it quite plainly: “if you want to follow me . . .”
He surely knew what the outcome would be if he kept on speaking and teaching a way of life that did not accommodate itself to the ways of the Empire. He wasn’t a zealot. He didn’t encourage violence. His way was much more subversive and much more effective. His was a way of inner transformation. And as hearts and minds were changed, people were moved to act in outer ways also, bringing about transformation of their society.
And that was as threatening to the powers that be as an armed rebellion – as Jesus well knew as he began to teach his disciples that he would suffer at the hands of the authorities. You didn’t have to be God to figure that out. It was obvious to Jesus. So he didn’t have any patience with Peter, who didn’t want to hear about suffering and death. No wonder: the Romans killed tens of thousands of people by crucifixion. Stephen Mansfield, author of the bestselling book Killing Jesus, described crucifixion as “an act of state terror.” Who wouldn’t take issue with a beloved teacher who seemed hell-bent on becoming one more of Rome’s victims, aided by the religious authorities?
This word “rebuke” is not a mere matter of a friendly discussion. It’s a severe censure of what Jesus is saying. We might imagine Peter screaming, “Shut up!” as Jesus described what he saw coming in his near future. And his language as he lashes back at Peter is just as harsh. “Get behind me, Satan.”
This is the only time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus use such heated language. And how odd that the recipient of this anger is Peter: one of the first disciples, the first one to call Jesus “Messiah,” the “rock” on whom the church would be built. This clash is no mild disagreement. It’s the moment of truth for all who would be disciples of Jesus: “If you want to follow me, you have to deny your very self and take up your cross. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it.”
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we don’t want to hear those words any more than Peter did. If we really get the horror of crucifixion, we’ll wonder why we choose to have such an ugly thing, this instrument of torture in our churches, around our necks, in our ears. And we’ll recoil from the reminder that being a follower of Jesus is not without its risks. It’s not an easy ticket to heaven. It’s not a guarantee of prosperity. It’s not a bypass around the hardships of life. Who would want to be a disciple?
Yet here we are. Moving together a little further into Lent, toward the story of the crucifix-ion. Knowing that it’s important not to get to Easter too quickly, that we need to let these words soak into us once again because they are so counter-intuitive. Sacrifice for others? Deny myself? Take up a cross? Suffer? Who wants that?
Who wants that indeed? Yet the undeniable fact is that suffering is already part of our lives in this broken world. The last time I stood here in this space was Ash Wednesday – the day that 17 people died in a school shooting in Parkland, FL. Perhaps you saw the photo of a woman, presumably the mother of a student, waiting for news outside the school. On her forehead was the sign of a cross, marked in ashes. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Since that terrible day, a lot of words have been spoken and printed, hours of discussion and commentary on news programs, extensive coverage of the movement begun by young people determined to see that it never happens again. Will this attack be the tipping point that finally brings some resolution to the problem of gun violence? We already know that these students are experiencing harassment and pushback. Standing up to the powers that be is not without its risks.
And what should our response be as followers of Jesus? Thoughts and prayers? Well, yes. That is certainly part of who we are and what we do – we reach out in compassion to those who are suffering. However, that’s not what Jesus is suggesting here as an answer. As theologian Miroslav Volf has said, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you’re unwilling to resolve.”
Sad to say, the problem of school shootings is not the only intractable and divisive issue confronting us these days. Also sad to say is that we as a society have become so unable or unwilling to have civil conversations across our divides. The church is not immune to this phenomenon. I know several pastors who have been warned to “keep politics out if the pulpit” for even mentioning an issue. But I believe that the Jesus who blew up at Peter would take exception to those warnings.
In a recent article entitled “Silencing Jesus with Politics: From a Subversive to a Submis-sive Jesus,” the author suggests that the Jesus who preached and taught that the realm of God had come near and showed us how to live within that realm was transformed into Jesus meek and mild. According to Howard Thurman, African-American author, educator, philosopher, theologian, civil rights leader, and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., “too often the weight of the Christian movement has been on the side of the strong and powerful and against the week and oppressed – this despite the gospel.”
I’ve been disturbed lately by the attitudes and opinions expressed by some who would call themselves followers of Jesus. So-called Evangelical Christians are under heavy scrutiny these days for their unwavering support of leaders, despite disturbing revelations of abusive behavior. And like it or not, as Christians, we all get lumped into the same category by many who cannot or will not distinguish between us.
This is disturbing on many levels. One is the fact that, as we know, the Church is under-going a massive re-formation. It’s certainly shrinking. Anxiety in congregations is rising. The future is uncertain for the institution that has been the church, at least within our life-time. We can’t afford to be painted with the same brush used to condemn the actions of other Christians. We have enough troubles of our own.
For example, it’s obvious that many younger people are not interested in what we have to offer, at least not in the form that we offer it. But that doesn’t mean they don’t care deeply about things. You may know that there is a mission outreach program in San Francisco called Middle Circle that has been gathering together young people and listening to their thoughts, ideas, and needs. One thing I’ve learned in getting to know many of them is that they care about the world and they want to take action. They are keenly interested in matters of social justice and want to do something about it. Thoughts and prayers won’t cut it; action will. Just look at the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
If the church is to be relevant and vibrant into the future – in whatever form it may take – it has to be true to the Jesus who spoke openly about what it would take to make a difference in the world. We have to be true to the message of the gospel – even when it’s hard. Mark Twain nailed it when he said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
“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.” That’s definitely one of those hard parts.
So who wants to be a disciple? Who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about the sins of our society, about the sins of our communal, national, and global world?
Who is willing to take the risk of speaking up, even when it means being in disagreement with family members, friends, neighbors? Who’s willing to call out racist speech and behavior? Homophobic, misogynistic Islamaphobic, any kind of hate language? Who is willing to take up a cross and work for a cause for justice? Don’t worry; there are plenty to choose from.
And who wants to be like Jesus and speak openly about a different way of living in God’s realm right here and right now? Who’s willing to learn how to do so without descending into bad behavior ourselves, by practicing what one activist described as “calling someone in while calling them out.” Who’s willing to learn non-violent ways of responding to violence, of how to always “go high” when others are “going low?” Who’s willing to show up at a rally or demonstration – visibly as a Christian – to show that we are on the side of love and justice?
“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.” That is what happens when we’re willing to take on the powers of the world. That’s what happens when we’re determined to show the world that God’s love is greater than any human show of might. That’s what happens when we say, “The realm of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” -and then live as if we believe it.
Who wants to be a disciple? Today – how do you hear Jesus’ call to pick up a cross and follow?
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly.
Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eying the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s.”
Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you want to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, you will find it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose your self in the process?
What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and of my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”