Sunday, March 1, 2015

Sermon: Deny Yourself?

Grace Presbyterian Church
March 1, 2015, Lent 2B
Mark 8:31-38, 9:30-32, 10:32-34

Deny Yourself?

Do you ever have those experiences where, just when you’re riding high and everything seems to be going amazingly well, everything comes crashing down and you’re at about as low a point as you can possibly be?
Maybe it was a moment of professional triumph followed immediately by great personal loss.  I’ve known that experience before.  Even worse, though, is when some great accomplishment of yours is followed by a serious episode of putting your foot in your mouth.  I’ve known that one too, and I suspect some of you have as well.
Peter has that experience in today’s reading from Mark 8.  Just before our passage starts, it is Peter who puts in words what none of the other disciples were able to come up with when Jesus asked the million-dollar question, “but who do you say that I am?” (8:29).  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” and, as we know, he was right.  Jesus didn’t react quite the way Peter might have expected, though.  First, Jesus told them in no uncertain terms not to go telling others about this, something that was already becoming a pattern in their experience with Jesus as recorded by Mark.  Then Jesus launched into what must have seemed to Peter and the other disciples to be utter nonsense.
For the first time recorded by Mark, Jesus begins to talk about the suffering and rejection that he would undergo, culminating in his execution and resurrection.  The disciples, not surprisingly, latched onto the bad news and somehow didn’t catch that last part.  But still, we can be a little sympathetic.  After all this time the disciples have spent with Jesus, this is how he talks about being the Messiah?
After all, that word “Messiah” came with expectations of great things. Things like throwing off the Roman Empire.  Restoring a real Kingdom of Israel, like in David’s time.  And maybe other things, too.  But suffering and death were emphatically not among them. 
So when Peter, fresh from triumphantly identifying the Messiah in their midst, hears Jesus talking about these things, it’s not surprising that he reacts like the impulsive, sometimes hotheaded character he is.  The Greek word here translated as “rebuke” is actually even a little more forceful than that; one could even read it as Peter ordering or commanding Jesus to stop talking like that.  At any rate, it’s not a nice way for a disciple to talk to his teacher.
You can never be exactly sure what kind of reaction Peter thought he was going to get.  He probably didn’t expect to be called Satan, though.  Whatever the firmness of Peter’s rebuke to Jesus, he got it back tenfold or more.  And not only did Peter crash to a new low, he also found out that his previous high wasn’t nearly as high as he thought it was.
Jesus had to point out that Peter’s idea of Messiah was not at all what Jesus was bringing.  Peter had to learn that his ideas about following Jesus, as hopeful as he thought they were, as understandable as they were, were all wrong, with priorities misplaced and objectives all out of focus.  Just in case it wasn’t clear enough, Jesus called the whole crowd (not just the disciples) together to make it that much clearer:

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.

Writer Bruce Maples makes an interesting point about that phrase “deny yourself” (to put it in the singular).  It’s an often-abused phrase, one that is at times used by those who seek to dominate or abuse others, to convince those others that submitting to that abuse or control is the only proper thing to do.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  What it means is much harder, actually.  It goes back to that previous verse, where Jesus rebukes Peter for having his mind on human things instead of on divine things. 
Do we get how hard it is to set our minds on divine things?  To take our eyes so completely and deliberately off the “things of the world” and to see only those things that Christ would have us see?  To step away from our own wants and desires and to be so caught up in the mind of Christ that our only concern is to live out Christ’s will for us?  To be unconcerned about the one we see in the mirror and to strive to serve those we see when we look away from that mirror? 
This isn’t what comes naturally to any of us.  This isn’t about being “nice” or any of the usual ways we strive to get by in the world.  This is about being changed, being so remade and reoriented by the kingdom of God come near that our desires and interests and even needs are oriented around that kingdom come near. 
Let’s be clear; this is not about some kind of self-destroying, self-abusing kind of denial.  This is not about the kind of self-abasement that makes a person into a doormat or a punching bag or a target for abuse.  That kind of self-denial is not only unhealthy, it renders a person unable to live fully and completely into our place in the work of God’s kingdom.  It cannot help but include being nourished by the scriptures and the fellowship of the body of Christ, the church.  It demands soundness of body and mind.  It requires wholeness and health.  And it takes all of these things and directs them toward the building up of the body of Christ, the work of the kingdom of God, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit among all peoples.  This is not about self-abasement, or self-flagellation or any other kind of punishment; it is about fulfilling the kingdom of God in our very lives.
Jesus goes on to two more instructions; to “take up your cross” and “follow me.”  Again, it’s easy to misunderstand and instruction to “take up your cross.”  There are times when we find ourselves beset by difficulties or burdens, and we let slip the phrase “well, this is my cross to bear.”  I don’t mean to dismiss what we go through in the hard times, but this isn’t quite what Jesus means about “taking up your cross.”  Sometimes it means going towards the suffering.  It means seeking out those in need and reaching out to those who are lost.  It means standing with those who are oppressed, and even standing against those doing the oppressing.  And it means doing so by choice, not by compulsion.  Ultimately it all falls into that last instruction; “follow me.”  Live the life Christ lived.  Do what Christ taught. 
The sad part of this story seems to be that Peter and the disciples seemed to have trouble understanding what Jesus was about here.  As we heard in Mark 9 and 10, Jesus felt compelled to repeat his warnings about the fate he would ultimately meet.  In those cases nobody was quite as rash as Peter, presuming to rebuke Jesus, but in each case it becomes clear that the disciples didn’t understand based on what happened next.  In Mark 9, he catches the disciples arguing about who was the greatest, and in chapter 10 James and John make the ridiculous request to be seated at Jesus’s right and left in glory.  No, they didn’t get it, and it’s awfully hard for us to get it sometimes as well. 
There are so many times in this gospel when the disciples “don’t get it.”  They think that the world’s standards of success – power, influence, maybe wealth or position – transfer over into the kingdom of God just fine, when that’s just not how it works.  We humans often act as if we can just call ourselves by Christ’s name and go about our usual business and Christ will follow along, when if we look at the life Jesus lived and the teachings Jesus taught we’d realize just how foolish that is.
We are not left on our own to pull this off.  We are supported and sustained and even carried sometimes in this following.  Indeed, Jesus promises something extraordinary in verse 35; “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.  It sounds backwards, counterintuitive, and just wrong.  But in the giving away of ourselves we find what real life is, the life that is ultimately rewarding and sustaining and filled with meaning and purpose.  Striving and struggling and fighting for all those things, seeking to stuff our lives with “winning” and “honor” and “fame” and all the things the worldly way of thinking urges upon us leads, paradoxically, to the losing of life.
Again, one can read this too literally.  Jesus is not saying that every Christian has to be a martyr in order to receive eternal life (don’t laugh; there have been those who wanted to read the verse to say exactly that).  But for the one who denies self, takes up cross, and follows, this is the hope – no, this is the result.  This is how life – real life, here and now, not just in eternity – happens. 
Oh, and that does bring up another caution.  Maybe you’ve heard the expression that describes a person as being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good”?  Hopefully by now it’s clear that this is not at all what Jesus is calling for in this passage – in fact, quite the opposite; being “heavenly minded” in this context is actually all about being “earthly good.”  It means living out Jesus’s call, the kingdom of God come near, here and now, in this world that does not know and will not recognize the kingdom of God come near.  The world does not know and will not recognize it because it is busy striving and fighting for all those worldly things listed before, and frankly, it does not now and will not recognize it because so many of those who most loudly and belligerently call themselves “Christians” are among those who are most consumed with accumulating honor and power and riches and fame here on earth, and lording their power over others – in other words, living something very opposite to the kingdom of God come near.  May it never be so with us.
Sometimes we have to stop and look in that mirror.  We have to examine ourselves.  We have to interrogate ourselves.  Who do we serve?  What are we striving for?  Whose kingdom are we seeking?  Have we taken up our cross and followed Jesus?
For hard calls and crosses to choose, Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” (81), “Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said” (393), “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” (84)


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