Mark 8: 27-37
17th Sunday after Pentecost)
I try to imagine the experience of the people around Jesus in the faith story this morning, walking along a road, a dirt road, dust kicked up with every step. They’re bantering back and forth, maybe talking about how great it is to be in Jesus’ company. Maybe being itinerant they’re wondering where their next meal will be. Then Jesus asks innocently enough, “who do people say that I am?” Maybe they think, “Oh, he just wants a report, wants to be kept in the loop about what people are saying.” So, one says John the Baptist brought back to life, another says Elijah, the holiest of the Jewish prophets; others say one of the other prophets. Then Jesus says, “That’s all well and good, but who do you say that I am?” The mood changes, now there’s tension and silence. The pace slows, they take sideways glances at each other waiting for someone to say something. Jesus has just pointed out the elephant in the room. It’s a bit like a couple that’s been going out for a while, and at some point, they both start wondering, “Well, where is this headed?” They both know the question is in the air but neither of them wants to risk bringing it up. It’s the same with Jesus and his friends, they’ve been going around together for a while, and everything has been fine up until now, but it’s time to take this ministry to the next level and Jesus wants to know if they understand what this means and if they are ready to commit. Imagine their relief when Peter, Mr. ff the cuff, Mr. straight from the heart stops, turns to Jesus and says, “You are the Messiah”.
You can imagine Peter’s jaw dropping and heart sinking as Jesus outlines what that means for him—suffering, rejection, death, resurrection. Peter doesn’t even hear the resurrection bit what with the shock of everything else. You might imagine everyone muttering to each other in pairs or threes, but Peter has an idea. Peter calls for a break, a time to rest from their journey so that he can speak to Jesus privately. Peter pulls Jesus aside and says, “Listen, I’m not sure you heard what I said, I said ‘Messiah’, you know, the long-awaited deliverer of our people, powerful, a whole nation behind us, kick the Romans out on their fat behinds.” Everyone is stunned at what comes out of Jesus’ mouth next,” Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Ouch!
I wonder if Jesus sensed in Peter’s response a reflection of mounting expectations on the direction of his ministry. Maybe, this is why he even asks the question in the first place. If so, he sets them all straight, “…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.” It’s not what his disciples expect. They, too, are children of the world. And although they aren’t bombarded with social media and advertising images each day as we are, yet they still imagine that the secret to life is strength and power rather than vulnerability and love. And so, they interpret Jesus’ ministry and his popularity as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love. And when Jesus describes the greatest act of love – giving his life for them and the world – they can only object.1
What does it look like for you, as a Jesus follower to lose your life for his sake, for the sake of the good news he proclaimed? What does it look like as you vote tomorrow? What does it look like in your family, at work, on social media, in the church, the community? It’s perhaps the most fundamental question in living out the Christian faith. But let’s start with what this question doesn’t mean because that’s important as well. We’re not talking about a kind of doormat theology where we ignore our genuine human needs altogether or see ourselves as not deserving of love, dignity, and respect. And so, there is no justification here for enduring abusive relationships or tolerating injustice. Rather, we’re talking about freely giving of ourselves in love – which is quite different than having others take it from us.2
So, what does it mean to lose your life for the sake of the gospel? We do it perhaps most naturally as parents, sacrificing all kinds of things in the hope of raising healthy, happy children. But it also happens in wider expressions of family—churches, communities, nations, creation. Sometimes it can actually mean losing your physical life, Martin Luther King Jr. comes most readily to mind. There’s also Sophie Scholl, a 22-year-old German University student executed by the Nazis for refusing to go along with the politics of hate. For Terry Fox it meant forsaking his right to a quiet and peaceful death. For Dr. Peter Bryce it meant forsaking a comfortable public service career in advocating for the health and care of children in Indigenous residential schools as far back as 1907. For many healthcare workers it’s meant giving up time with family and the comforts of home, sleeping in their garages, trailers and hotels to treat COVID patients and keep their families safe. Sometimes it means letting go of deeply ingrained beliefs when they’re a barrier to loving your gay or trans-gendered child. Sometimes it means exposing yourself to hard conversations about white privilege and racism when you don’t have to. Sometimes it means foregoing a comfortable retirement for a life of service as I see and have seen here and other churches I’ve served. Losing your life for the sake of the gospel is about seeing ourselves like patches on a quilt, stitched together by love for the purpose of warmth, comfort, healing—playing our unique part in something beautiful that is greater than ourselves.
The challenge of this scripture is that it asks us to want something different than what a fear-based, individualistic economy and politics tells us we should want. Instead of thinking only of ourselves and believing that it is to our good to gain wealth and avoid any path which leads to suffering, we are being challenged to be generous, giving of ourselves, even when it may mean suffering. Then we will find ourselves, our true selves. The merging of our will and being with God’s will and being. It is the way to real humanness – and the way of Jesus, and ultimately also of God!3
The journey with Jesus isn’t about success, it’s about love, therefore the journey with Jesus doesn’t lead to a throne, but to a cross. Love is always sacrificial. But it is in the giving; the dying to self that life finds its meaning, its joy, its purpose. In the paraphrased words of the late Lutheran Pastor and Author Walter Wangerin Jr., we are not called to succeed at anything…We are called to love. Which is to say to die, both vigorously and joyously.4 Love is always sacrificial. A paradox of the Christian faith is that self denial is actually self-affirming. It is in the giving of ourselves that we find our true selves, that sacred self that is part of the Holy Mystery. That’s the journey with Jesus, that’s the good news.