Anglican Church of Canada
Seventeenth Sunday after
I don't know exactly how many times in the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament Jesus asks other people to follow him. But it's well more than 20. The whole question of "Who is willing to follow Jesus Christ?" is pretty much the defining question of Christianity in my way of thinking.
Some Christians may ask it personally of you in the form of: "Are you saved?" (which means essentially, "Have you claimed Jesus personally enough to really be a follower?") Other people may simply pose the question about following Jesus in terms like: "You mean you believe all of this stuff about forgiveness, and loving enemies, and this resurrection from the dead?" However it's worded, the whole matter of following Jesus is central to living the Christian faith.
The question becomes, "What does it actually mean to follow Jesus, especially in modern times, or in middle- or upper-middle class North America?" If you're going to take the words of Jesus seriously - those ones about "losing your life for his sake" and "denying yourself" - well, what's your life going to look like? Should you vacation in Cancun? Or would the Rockies be better? Which destination would express your faith more fully? Does camping versus staying in a hotel make a difference? Should you pursue a job promotion, or be content with where you are? What about expensive theater tickets? If you buy a pair of those, is that gross self-indulgence? Or if your house is full of all sorts of material possessions, what will happen to your soul the next time you pass over a person in need?
What does it mean to follow Jesus in your life, and in these times? We can worry over the stock market and argue over who holds the TV's remote control. For the life of us, we struggle to keep focus during even the briefest of prayers, so what does it mean to follow Jesus in your life and in these times?
These sorts of questions about following the Lord Jesus come to a head in today's reading from Mark's eighth chapter. The disciple Peter gets all excited to profess that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, when Jesus asks him the question, "Who do you say that I am?" But the instant that Peter learns that this also means Jesus must undergo great suffering, deep rejection, and ultimately death, Peter backs away. He critiques Jesus. He rebukes Jesus. The glamour of following Jesus is suddenly gone for Peter. It no longer seems like a life that he's sure he wants to undertake. But more than this, as far as we can tell, Jewish thinking had never before entertained the idea that the Messiah must suffer and die. This was ludicrous, they believed. If anything, the Messiah was supposed to inflict suffering, not live with it as a personal reality. And what good would a dead Messiah be anyway?
If Peter was nervous about his life in Christ imposing a certain degree of suffering and self-denial upon him, he wasn't alone. You've been there yourself. Most of us would choose a religion and come to believe important things deeply because we feel they're good for us. Suffering doesn't exactly sound good! If you were to offer me a scathed life versus an unscathed life, I'd go for the unscathed variety myself. For who would welcome the idea of suffering if there were other options available? Yet this is where we must suddenly get very honest about the Christian life. Christianity is not about solving problems and making life easier. If anything, following Jesus is going to complicate your life, and unmistakably so.
Accepting this assessment of Christianity is one of the hardest things to accomplish in the world. Maybe this is why Jesus had to repeat these words so many times, these words we hear in today's reading. They are the words spoken by Jesus more times than any other he ever uttered: "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel, will save it." Frankly, this is an idea that's just hard to believe. It runs counter to what we want to believe. Jesus is left to repeat it a good number of times, I suppose, hoping to get it inside of our stubborn brains and our pleasure-minded hearts.
Following Jesus asks for a life that in one way or another has the cross deeply embedded in it. There is sacrifice expected. We give up our lives. Playing it safe no longer is an acceptable philosophy. Death stops being a reality to be feared. Check this out sometime: The first half of Mark's Gospel is all about "how to live." Jesus gives instructions of one kind or another on how we might best fashion our lives. And, then, at this pivotal point right in the center of Mark's Gospel account, Jesus makes a shift. He begins to show us "how to die." Now that we have been given a life, he demonstrates how to give it up … or how to give it away. This is a huge move.
If we've never caught it before this eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus makes absolutely clear here that God doesn't care about our creature comforts and safety. God cares about a holiness that can live in us, a holiness that will bring joy and meaning that are far deeper than some mere comfort in living. If you want to have a worthwhile life, you're going to have to look for ways to give that life away. If you want to save your life, well, of necessity, you're going to have to hand over those petty obsessions and those mistaken priorities. You're going to have to think more of loving than of being loved, more of understanding than of being understood, more of forgiving than of being forgiven. In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines. "The principle runs through all life, from top to bottom," he says. "Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death - the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ," says C.S. Lewis, "and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in."
Keep nothing back. Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.
I don't know about you, but I have found in my own life that sometimes I am more comfortable talking about Jesus than expressing some wild and passionate devotion to him. I think I'm holding nothing back, and then I realize that caring about Jesus with the insight of my mind or through the books on my shelf is not the same as giving over the full allegiance of my life. It's a little bit like the difference between talking about a loved one and actually picking up the phone and telling a person you really love them.
When Jesus asked his disciples that day, "Who do people say that I am?" they had no trouble answering that question. As many prominent names as they could pull out of their Bible or from their community, they offered up. It was a nice objective question to which they could give nice objective answers. When Jesus changed one word, however, they all went fetching for a reply. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked them. Suddenly, their confidence and investment in him, and all that he was, was being tested. This was a much more difficult question to answer, because they had to answer it with their lives and not just with their brains.
Maybe you recall the first time you ever told someone (for whom you had strong feelings) that you really loved them. Your mouth got dry and your palms turned sweaty as you sought the courage to utter those words that are so powerful: "I love you." It's one thing to acknowledge that these three words are true. It's altogether something else to speak them and to realize how powerfully true they are. Because once they're spoken, you can no longer avoid the implications of them for your life.
Something like this happens when we hear Jesus ask not, "Who do people say that I am?" but, "Who do you say that I am?" The minute we hear this question rattling around in our heads, we have a choice. Either we can hold back and talk about this Christ figure whose sayings and deeds are written down in a precious ancient book, or we can decide to open up the fullness of our lives by using the language of love. If you should choose the second option for living your life in Christ, be prepared for a wild ride. Yes, there will be some hard times and some enormous suffering, I imagine. But you will also have an incredibly abundant life, complete not only with Christ, but with everything else thrown in.
Almighty God, you call you Church to witness that in Christ we are reconciled to you. Help us so to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may turn to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen Amen.
Wisdom cries out in the
in the squares she raises her voice.
At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.’
The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is pure,
enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey,
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then 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. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’