February 28, 2021
When I was in middle school, I started to become fascinated by the popular kids. I would watch them and wonder how they managed to be surrounded by people all the time, how they were able to influence so many of those people. At the time I didn’t know any of the sociological concepts of status or power or influence, but I had my hunches about how those things worked.
Don’t worry. As I made my way through high school and got more comfortable in my own nerdy skin, I had good friends and got involved in plenty of things I found fun, from marching band to math team. From time to time I still wondered what gave those kids at the top of the high school food chain so much power. What drew other people to them like moths to a flame? Eventually I decided that those people who flocked to be near the popular kids wanted some kind of power-by-association. They longed for a portion of the status that those kids held so effortlessly.
Now I certainly don’t think Jesus was about power or status in the traditional sense, but I wonder if the disciples wanted that same kind of power-by-association. They had certainly watched Jesus do some amazing things. He had cast out demons and healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, and the sick with a touch or a word. He had walked on water and calmed a storm and fed thousands. His preaching and teaching attracted a crowd, and those crowds clamored after Jesus wherever he went.
Not long after today’s gospel the disciples will reveal just how much they long for some power and status of their own. They’ll get caught by Jesus arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (9:33-34). James and John at one point will ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and on his left when he comes into glory, and you better believe that ticked off the rest of the disciples (10:35-45). Jesus keeps reminding them that he has come not to be served, but to serve – and that they are likewise called to be servants of all. But they don’t always want to hear that part.
Sometimes the disciples seem to get it right. Just minutes before today’s gospel, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had nailed the right answer: “You are the Messiah.” Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one sent by God to save the world. But Peter also freaks out when Jesus tells his followers that he will suffer and be killed. Peter does not want to hear that difficult truth, and Jesus has some harsh words for him. Peter probably is setting his mind on human things more than divine ones. Peter understandably wants Jesus to use his power and his popularity to avoid the terrible fate that Jesus describes. What’s the point of having that power if not to summon an army to one’s defense?
It’s not enough that Jesus refuses to use his power in the way that the disciples expect. It’s that he also makes it clear that he wants them to follow in his path of service and sacrifice. He says: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This hardly seems like a winning recruitment slogan. Take up your cross. Remember that at this point the listeners know the cross only as an instrument of execution used by the Roman Empire to silence anyone who seemed like a political threat.
Jesus is essentially saying: “If you follow me, be prepared to give up what you really want. Be prepared to give your whole life. Be prepared to die.”
For most of us that would have been the moment when we said, “All right, Jesus. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but I’ll be going back home now. Good luck to you!”
What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to lose their lives for his sake? I don’t think he means that we should become doormats. He certainly doesn’t mean that we must endure abuse or harassment in our relationships. This passage has sometimes been used to justify that kind of suffering in the face of abuse, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.
The life to which Jesus calls his disciples – the life to which he calls us – is one of sacrificial love. It means getting up each day and looking for the ways that we can be of service to the people in our lives – family, friends, strangers, people in need near and far. And to offer that service as much as is possible with a loving heart. Not resentfully. Not by keeping score. Simply giving all that we can, freely and graciously.
Some days we would rather not take up the cross in that way. The cost feels too great. It often means, as Jesus says, that we deny ourselves. We set aside our own preferences and priorities for the sake of others. And of course we sometimes long to bask in a little glory – to get some recognition for our labors – or maybe to wallow in our own martyrdom, certain that no one else has given as much as we have. Jesus reminds us not to wait around for that kind of affirmation from the world. That’s not what matters.
Peter understandably gets upset when Jesus talks about suffering and dying. But Peter seems to miss a really important detail. Jesus says he will suffer and be killed and after three days rise again. Maybe that’s too crazy for Peter to imagine, but it reveals an important truth. Death is not the end of the story. Suffering and sacrifice are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. There is also an empty tomb.
It’s that triumph of life over death that holds us up as we seek to embody God’s own sacrificial love in our lives. And there are so many ways to live that love. Think about the places it shows up. We take up the cross when we care for a baby, feeding and rocking and changing that little one in spite of the sleep and sanity we are losing. We take up the cross when we care for aging parents and other older folks in our lives – calling and checking in and helping them get connected to a vaccine and – when possible to do safely – visiting in person. Parents take up a cross when you allow your teenager another chance to have some freedom, even though it’s terrifying. Teenagers, you take up a cross when you help a friend avoid doing something stupid and potentially life-threatening. We take up a cross when we give from our resources of time and money to feed the hungry in our community. We take up the cross when we speak out against the racism and violence that people of color experience every day, when we work to dismantle those forms of oppression.
In all the ways we take up the cross, we do so because love is a gift. A gift that we have received from God beyond our deserving and can’t help but share.
Theologian Richard Lischer reminds us that when Martin Luther went searching for what kind of God we have, he realized that we can look at the cross. On the cross we see God’s truest self. In a world where gracelessness is the norm and grace the exception, in a world where hate and greed and white supremacy attack the dignity of human beings, it’s important to tell the truth about Jesus – that Jesus gives himself to defy those forces of evil.[i]
And so we try to live with that same kind of love, overflowing with gratitude for what we have first been given. In Lischer’s words: “For the best liberators are those who have been liberated. The best lovers are those who know what it is to be loved. The best forgivers are those whose sins have been forgiven.”
So, people of God, take up the cross this week. Live as those who are liberated, loved, forgiven. Because that is who you are. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
The following sermon was delivered by our Drew Seminarian Leif McLellan:
My home state of Minnesota goes by many names: the land of 10,000 lakes, the frozen tundra, the great white north. We even like to joke that Minnesota has three seasons: cold, colder, and road construction. Some of you might think I am odd when I say that I love the cold and the snow. After moving out here to New Jersey I experienced a bit of a climate shock. Where are all my subzero days? Where is all the snow?? Although the climate here is not very different, I have still had to adapt to the new rhythms and the new seasons. One of my favorite parts about a long winter is how much better it makes the arrival of Spring. I absolutely love that moment when Spring comes knocking on the door after months of darkness and ice. That subtle moment when the temperature starts to rise, the ground begins to thaw, and the aromas of earthy soil and wet asphalt begin to mingle in the air. Something about being on the verge of Spring sparks in me a longing for warmth and green and new life.
This experience seems to mirror how we long for a kind of Spring in our own lives. How many of us live in a form of perpetual Winter? How many of us are not satisfied with the way things are? I know that I am not satisfied. I am not satisfied with myself, with my life, and with the state of this world. Within this dissatisfaction lies a deep desire. Perhaps you have felt it too. That almost indescribable desire for new things, for a Spring that breaks through and transforms everything. We yearn for that moment when we are finally satisfied with our lives. So we try to fill this desire in all kinds of ways. We work harder at school or in our careers. We strive to make the perfect family with the perfect home. We try so hard to get the kind of body advertising companies tell us we need. Yet, as much as we try, life seems to keep on going in much the same way as it always has. Like Peter in our Gospel reading for today, we often settle for human things not divine things.
Indeed, I find it easy to sympathize with Peter in this Gospel story. Jesus tells his disciples that he has to suffer at the hands of his own people and eventually be killed. If I were Jesus’s close devoted follower, I would feel distraught to hear his plans. I can sense Peter’s heart sinking, his insides twisting, and his head spinning as he tries to grasp what he has heard. With the threat of losing his beloved teacher, his fight-or-flight response kicks in. His adrenaline starts pumping. Finally Peter musters up the courage to oppose his teacher. Peter turns Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus for explaining that he must die on the cross.
Surely Peter’s rebuke makes sense to us. Mark does not tell us what Peter said, but I imagine that he was motivated by the fear of loss and a change in the status quo. But Jesus rebukes Peter in turn: “you set your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Now, this cutting remark does not imply that Peter and the other disciples need to put their head in the clouds and forget human life. In fact, the specific “divine things” that Jesus refers to impact physical, material, human life. In this case, God’s divine action takes shape in this world when Jesus is publicly crucified. I also don’t think Jesus’s point was to pile shame upon Peter. Peter had a very natural reaction to the threat of loss. It feels safer to have things stay as they are. Instead Jesus calls Peter into a new form of life where he no longer focuses on his wants, his worries, and his shallow desires. That is, Peter turns in on himself, on his “self.” He puts his focus on something other than the work of God. But this new form of life to which Jesus calls Peter is a life where he sets his mind to divine things. It opens him up to the way God works and lives in the world.
Jesus describes a radical new life that God gives to us. But he describes it with a rather puzzling paradox: “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” Let’s sit with those words for a second. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake […] will save it.” …. This sentence is so simple yet so rich and full of power. With such heavy words, we must stay clear of dangerous interpretations. Jesus of course does not mean that we should all jump off a cliff together. And although we may experience hardship and pain in following Jesus, not all suffering and sacrifice necessarily leads us to life, especially not in instances of abuse or manipulation.
So how are we to make sense of Jesus’s words? The Greek word translated as life in this passage is ψυχή, from which we get the word psychology. It can mean life, soul, or spirit. It’s the thing that makes a person alive, our inner being. We might call it our “self.” So if we want to hold onto our self we will lose it. It seems to me that we in this society try desperately to save ourselves. We have somehow been convinced that we can make ourselves worthy of love and life; if we just work harder for longer hours; if we can just be the perfect partner, parent, or child; if we can just have that home or that body we always wanted. We lose ourselves in a world that demands exhaustion and perfection. We struggle in vain to fill that deep-seated desire for a new life.
But we are not bound to this kind of struggle. In the waters of baptism, God has given us grace to lead a new kind of life. God saves us from that self that we have tried to make by and for ourselves. We no longer need to make ourselves worthy or lovable or perfect. See, those old selves that we thought we had, they are already gone. It is not you who lives, but God who lives in you. Of course grace is not all sunshine and rainbows. As in any form of loss, losing that self to which we cling so tightly can feel painful. We may even find that we encounter dangers and suffering as terrible as Jesus faced. But the new self that God gives us opens us up to a joy that far surpasses the feeble pleasures of the old.
One of my favorite theologians, C.S. Lewis, writes powerfully about true joy that is the real object of our deepest desire. In distinguishing this joy from everyday feelings of happiness, Lewis writes: “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted [joy] would ever, if both [joy and happiness] were in [our] power, exchange [joy] for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” In other words, we cannot make joy happen any more than we can turn Winter into Spring. To strive for the joy that comes with a new life in Christ, in fact, contradicts the whole point. To save your life means losing it. There is no more “you” to strive, to work, and to worry. There is only God working, living, and breathing through your person. For ultimately God, not ourselves, gives us new life. AMEN.
Join the fun this summer as we experience the ride of a lifetime with God!
Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
Monday through Thursday, July 16-19, 9:30 am – 12:15 pm
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