The Topsy-Turvy World of Jesus ~ Mark 8: 24-37
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19], September 15-16, 2012
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA – The Rev. Roy Almquist
An American was on his first trip to Australia. He left the airport and jumped into a taxi to take him to his hotel. As he settled into the cab, he was rather shocked to have the driver asked him in a soft Australian accent: Did you come here to die?
The American knew he looked a little disheveled following a long flight, but still the question was a bit shocking. When he did not respond, the cabbie asked him again: Did you come here to die?
Wondering what kind of a nut case he had driving him, the man replied, Excuse me? I am not sure what you are asking me.
With consummate patience and good will the cabbie re-framed his inquiry, asking the man slowly: Did you come here to die, or did you come yester-die?
Well, Jesus was not Australian and so he actually does tell his disciples in our Gospel lesson, that he has, indeed, come here to die! He says without equivocation: … the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed …
The reading from Mark 8 is painfully familiar and for good reason. This story occurs in all three of what we call the Synoptic or similar Gospels and so, surprise, surprise; we get to hear one of these versions every year. So if you feel like you just heard this lesson, believe me I feel like I just preached on it!
Our Gospel lesson comes at the precise mid-point in Mark’s Gospel. This is a important moment for Jesus and his disciples. His little entourage of twelve observers has enjoyed front row seats as Our Lord’s ministry has unfolded. The disciples have heard his teachings, witnessed the miracles, and delighted in Jesus’ great skill in debating his critics. They have heard people call Jesus the Messiah or the Prophet Elijah come back to life. Others have called him a revolutionary, a heretic, and a trouble-maker.
At this critical moment Jesus elects to move the conversation from what others say to describe him to what the disciples themselves have come to believe about him. Who do you say that I am? … Jesus asks his followers.
There was, no doubt, an awkward silence and then Peter, the one who regularly shoots before he aims, blurts out: You are the Christ, the Messiah of God. Bulls-eye … Peter is commended by Jesus for his insightful observation.
But then, with little transition, Jesus begins to speak about what is going to happen as they move toward Jerusalem. In words addressed to both the disciples and the crowd that followed them, Jesus speaks those stark, but familiar, words about denying oneself, taking up a cross, and then makes the ironic contrast between saving one’s life and losing it.
These are the words we would like to overlook. And yet this concept of losing one’s life for the sake of the Kingdom becomes central to the continuing message Jesus came to proclaim. Indeed, we know that Jesus’ life became literally a model for what it means to lose one’s life for the sake of your vision and your beliefs.
When our Lord speaks about losing one’s life for the sake of the Kingdom it is not an argument that many people find compelling. Some people understand this concept but they do not want to buy into it. Most people want a version of Christianity that is pasteurized, sanitized, and popularized.
Our Lord speaks to us today about losing our lives as the perfect way to receive them back, but we are not sure how to react. In our narcissistic age the prevailing sentiment is not how can I give more, but rather how can I get more. Our natural instincts are to try to get the greatest payout for the least investment. By nature we hoard … unless we love, and then we want to give.
Several recent studies, however, support Jesus’ counter-intuitive statement. When we give to things, we start to care about them. That is what Jesus had in mind when he said: where your treasure lies, there will your heart lie also. One contemporary study indicates that the only way money truly makes us happy is when we give it away. Indeed most people who reflect on their lives will acknowledge that it is only by loving another that one can feel loved and the only way to truly have a friend is to be a friend.
David Lose, a professor of New Testament studies at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, has called this the inverted logic of the Kingdom. I would call it life in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus. This way of thinking is radically different from the thinking that governs life in the kingdom of this world. In what we might call the real world most people insist that the only way to be secure is to acquire power and possessions. This way of thinking insists that the only way to be happy is to have more and, given the scarcity of the good things of life, there is no alternative to engaging in fierce competition to achieve these good things.
So what do we make of this Jesus who insists we must give of ourselves, put others first, and voluntarily assume burdens and tasks, not for personal gain, but for the welfare of others? Is he crazy? Most would say, yes, this is crazy.
This week we were saddened as a nation by the senseless killing of our Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three other members of his diplomatic team. Ambassador Stevens and the others were in that troubled land to try to strengthen the new Libyan government and to help the people achieve a better life after decades of suffering under the tyrannical leadership of Muammar Qaddafi. In his tribute to these martyred men this past Friday, President Obama channeled the words of Jesus:
Chris Stevens was everything America could want as an ambassador. In Benghazi, he laid down his life for his friends, Libyan and American. … Four Americans, four patriots, they loved this country and they chose to serve it, and they served it well.
G. K. Chesterton, the British theologian, once commented: Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. There is much truth in this timeless quote, particularly in the world in which we live today. Many who bear the outward trappings of Christianity seem to deny their Lord when it comes to the way they live in the world.
So we come to church and invite others to do the same because this is one way we can try to discover what it means to be a child of God, to receive our identity as a gift rather than trying to earn it as an accomplishment. We come to church to practice living for others, serving a greater good rather than simply accumulating stuff.
We come to church so we can practice kindness and compassion and share life with others in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. We come to church to practice the essential baby steps that will allow us to stride with confidence as sons and daughters of the Living God in a frightful and confused world.
We come to church to discover what it means to take Jesus seriously when he says:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
May God grant us the strength to live into this amazing challenge … now and always. AMEN.