Give and Take (Part 2)

September 23rd, 2018

Give and Take (Part 2)

Mark 8:34-38

September 23, 2018

So, let’s review for a moment.  Last week, I tried to introduce you to literary genius of the Gospel of Mark.  In the very first sentence, he tells us that this is the good news of the life of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God.  “Perhaps you’ve been wondering…Here’s the answer!  Bam!” But then, the first half of the Gospel shows us why the Gospel needed to be written, namely, because everyone misunderstood the nature of this man.  Those who heard him preach thought he was a great teacher.  Those who were healed by him thought he was the best charismatic healer of all time.  Those who were in authority saw a rabble-rouser who was out to break all the rules.  Those with status saw a rebel who spent far too much time with the dregs of society.  Jesus is being the Christ but everyone is blind to the nature of what he is doing and who he is.

So, we made our way to last weeks’ text, the story of Jesus turning to the disciples and taking time out from being the Christ to ask a couple of questions.  First, he asks, “Who do people say that I am?”  After undoubtedly sorting out the less savory and more limited answers, the disciples offer up a sort of “best of” list.  Some people thing you are John, the Baptist, back from he dead.  (Wrong!)  Some people think you are Elijah, back after centuries of being dead.  (Wrong!)  Some people think you are one of the prophets. (Wrong!  (Seriously, were those people just hedging their bets?) My suggestion to you last week is that these answers are all the kinds of answers that human beings are prone to give.  Whatever it is that we are looking at, we tend to understand that event or person or thing in the categories of understanding upon which we already rely.  (Lady Gaga is the new Madonna; Bruno Mars is the new James Brown; all of which is a problem because even my “what’s new” is already “what’s old.”)

So, we have a bunch of people who only understand Jesus in terms of what he has done for them.  He taught them a great lesson and inspired them; he healed them; he fed them.  All of that mattered but usually not enough to actually follow him.  Out of all those people, the best answers that the disciples can give about who the other people think he is are worn out and tired and old. All of which leads Jesus into the second question:  “Who do you say that I am?”  

As we noted last week, it is no surprise that Peter speaks up:  “You are the Messiah.”  Now, the trick here is that this seems to be the answer with which Mark started the Gospel, right?  Jesus was the Son of God.  This seems to be the answer that we are supposed to be buying right?  It seems like we should hear Peter’s answer and “high-five” the man!  This is it!  The problem, of course, is that while we have been smugly thinking to ourselves, “No one gets who Jesus is except this writer and us;  Look at all these people who get it wrong;” we are about to learn that our understanding of Jesus might be wrong, too.  

What Peter and everyone else who has ever longed for a Messiah wants is a powerful leader, a savior who will bring Israel out of their Roman occupation, a religious leader who will set the faith right, a king who will carry the kingdom and everyone who has even been a part of it into unimaginable prosperity.  The Messiah will lead and guide and protect the chosen people.  When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, he might as well have started singing, “Happy Days are Here Again!”

Honestly, a huge amount of energy from Christians still today seems to me to go into trying to present that image of Jesus as such a Messiah.  Jesus isn’t going to overcome Rome.  He’s going to vanquish the devil and hell.  If you’re on Jesus’ side, everything is going to be alright.  You are going to get what you want.  You are going to get healthy or stay healthy and everyone you care about will stay the same.  You will not suffer injustice or unnecessary struggle because you will be on the Messiah’s team.  God won’t let the bad stuff happen.  What stands between you and your dreams will be removed.

Now, this dream got generations of Jewish folks through centuries of exile and occupation.  This dream has filled pews and sold books and made offering plates overflow for centuries in Christian churches, too.  In the end, though, this dream of the mighty, victorious Messiah is a misunderstanding—a misreading— of the Gospel’s truth.  That’s not what happened. That’s not who Jesus was.  

This is the truth Mark tells us.  He tells it to us by having Jesus speak it to Peter.  I will remind you: I think Peter was Jesus’ favorite disciple and favorite human being.  I don’t think he’s out to shame Peter.  I don’t think he’s setting him up for ridicule by the other disciples or by some bald-headed guy in a pulpit two thousand years later.  Peter is us.  He’s not blinded by self-interest. He’s not blinded by the categories of the past.  He’s blinded by his misplaced hope that Jesus is there to be everything that Peter ever dreamed he would be.  And honestly, Jesus loves Peter way too much to let Peter think something like that.  So, Jesus looks Peter in the eye and tells him the truth:  “I’m going to suffer.  I’m going to be arrested and tried and convicted.  I’m going to die.  And on the third day, I will live.”

Peter’s totally human response, hearing such news from someone he loves is exactly what our response would be:  “Over my dead body!”  And Jesus responds as a fully human being who is struggling to rise to his calling:  “Don’t tempt me!” I don’t think we really hear that exchange unless we hear the humanity of Jesus’ words.  It is tempting to talk ourselves out of sacrificial love, our of the cost of discipleship.  It is tempting to talk ourselves into being like everyone else.  The people we love the most are most likely to be able to talk us out of self-sacrifice.

Peter and the disciples are left dazed and confused and bewildered.  What in the world is Jesus talking about?  How could this be—that he could be the Messiah and suffer?  Were they following a madman or a guy on some suicide mission?  What were they supposed to do?

So, interestingly, Jesus expands the circle.  Up until this point, this has been a conversation between Jesus and the disciples.  Now, he calls to the whole crowd to join them.  In the words of the translation that we used this morning, here’s what Jesus says:  “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead.  You’re not in the drivers seat; I am.”  That’s enough to stop most of us right there, if we are honest.  Most of us are willing to let someone else drive as long as they follow our directions.  Most of us are willing to work as a group as long as the group does what we want them to do.  We want control.  We love to “drive the bus.”  What do you mean, “We’re not in the driver’s seat?”  We have to be followers of Christ?

As if that’s not enough, Jesus goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t run from suffering.  Rather, we should embrace it.  Now, Jesus, let’s just hold on for one minute.  It is one thing for you to want me to wrap my head and my heart around this whole “suffering Messiah” notion.  You get to make your own choices.  Maybe you have your own calling after all.  But now you want me to suffer, too?  You want me to “embrace” it?  Frankly, I’d much rather spend more time enjoying life than embracing suffering and I don’t think there’s a person alive who would blame me for that.  What meaning could there be in suffering?

Jesus goes on.  In our translation, he says, “Self-help is no help.” (Oh my gosh…there goes half the books published today!)  This is where the lines begin to become more clear.  You are free to choose to focus on your self.  You are free to make your life be about getting everything you ever wanted.  You are free to squander the life that you’ve been given pursuing prestige or power or money or pleasure.  Knock yourself out.  Make the pile as big as you can make it.  Build a fence so high that no one will ever be able to take it away.  Here’s the problem: “What good would it ever do to get everything you ever want and lose you, the real you?  What could you ever trade your soul for?”

Again, Jesus is really boxing us in.  At the level of human nature, next to the instinct to protect ourself when someone else attacks us, the second most natural thing for a human being to do in life is ask, “What do I want?  What’s in it for me? How do I get more? How do I keep what I have? How do I grab on to pleasure and avoid pain? How do I avoid suffering?”  It seems like we are, by nature, self-centered, pleasure seeking critters.  Jesus seems to somehow be expecting us to be…made new, to be a part of some new creation, to learn some different way of being in this world.

How would we ever find that different way?  We would follow him.  He’ll show us.  What he is going to show us is that if we really want to be who we were created to be, if we really want to be our true self, if we really want to not lose our souls, we will learn how to be self-sacrificing.  And, the biggest challenge may be not listening to the people who would talk us out of it or listening to the voice inside of our own heads that whispers to us that we are fools for even trying.

“Take up you cross…”  Learn what it is like to love and care and keep giving, even when things feel hopeless, because loving and caring and giving even when things feel hopeless is the very definition of faith.  Spend time caring for the person with dementia won’t remember you were there. Show up and feed that homeless person even though tonight’s meal is not the solution to homelessness.  Keep loving your child even though it can feel like a losing battle.  Dare to love, but know that you will suffer the way that way always do when we love deeply.  Lose yourself in something larger than yourself and you will meet the living Christ.

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