Sermon text: Mark 8: 35 “For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.”
The story of our response to God’s grace and our call to share in His life of mission very much narrates the journey of the St Andrew Settlement these fifty years. It had its moments of high drama, when the issues were clear and the demands costly. At other times the issues were filled with ambiguity and decisive action, when for one reason or another operations had to be suspended. There were periods when faithfulness seemed more of a routine, consisting of simply keeping at the task, struggling not to be overcome by our weakness, sharing our resources with the community, doing things that often get un-noticed, but nevertheless made a difference.
The readings for today speak to these different conditions of our quest to find fulfillment in our response to God’ self-revelation. In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet is confident about his own fidelity to God, despite the enormous abuse to which he has been subjected. “I know I shall not be put to shame, because the one who will clear my name is at my side”. Yes! When we are tempted to loose heart we need that reminder of God’s faithfulness to us. The Epistle on the other hand, suggests that Faith without works is dead. In other words, there is hardly any point protesting our love and loyalty to God if we remain indifferent to the demands of God’s mission and especially to the conditions of the poor and needy. When we turn to our Gospel we hear Mark challenging us with the question about what it means to confess Jesus as the Lord of our life. In an almost strange way our Gospel begins by focusing on something as harmless as public opinion, a recital of what people other than the disciples think about Jesus. Then the question is put to them, “Who do you say that I am?” What follows in Jesus’ prediction of his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection, which brings into sharp focus the type of Messiah Jesus is. Peter’s objection is evidence that the point is getting across. It reminds me of a book I read and fell in love with some years ago. The title of it is “Meeting Jesus for the first time again”, written by Marcus Borg. What the author wants us to realize is that the Jesus we heard of long ago in Sunday school, the Jesus others spoke to us about is one thing. However, he becomes relevant only when we are prepared to answer for ourselves the question; who do we say Jesus is?”
Who do you say that I am?” And Peter – replied, “You are the Christ.”
Consider what this confession meant within the context of the cross current of opinions in that day. Initially, the disciples must have seen in Jesus, nothing more than a Jewish mystic, a wisdom teacher and healer with extraordinary insights and gifts, and a personality that drew people of all kinds to him. But, very soon Jesus, for them, outgrew this conception, for he seemed to possess a mysterious relation to the whole human race. His concern and compassion embraced all of humanity. But there was much more: the longer these disciples fellowshipped with him, the fuller they sensed, in his person, a presence unique beyond all ordinary experience; they felt that God was touching their lives through him, and they might well have said, “To know him was to know God.” This is what Peter brought into focus when he said, “You are the Christ.”
Peter is the one who gives the right answer about Jesus’ identity. But Peter is also the one who voices the objections to any idea that the Messiah must suffer, be rejected, and die. But it is a human perspective; it is self centered and self-serving. Jesus on the other hand, is offering God’s perspective. The question you and I must answer is this: Can we who seek to follow Jesus walk the same walk? If Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior of the human race, what is to be expected of those who were his closest companions? And what is our task as part of the community of Christian believers today?
Our first task is to reject any notion that Christianity is self-serving. For many people today religion is nothing more than what they can get out of it. There is a religion of self-centeredness published from many Christian pulpits and brandished continually on our television screens. Its sales talk is: “expand confidence in your own self and capture fame and fortune as your reward and prize”. Like Peter this brand of Christianity has everything backwards. Peter had connected the Messiah to his own hopes and dreams. But he had it wrong. They tell me what is in it for me. If I believe in Jesus, they tell me, I will experience a renewed and powerful sense of my own self-hood. If I believe in Jesus, all my physical ailments will leave instantly. If I believe in Jesus, they tell me, all my enemies will be taken care of. If I believe in Jesus, they tell me, my financial needs shall be met. If I but make it a point to give money to their ministries, I will prosper. I have heard all of these promises and many more. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by becoming a Christian, they tell me. These are voices that speak loudest today; telling you what is in it for you if you become a Christian.
But, according to today’s Gospel, Jesus rejected this “what’s-in-it-for-me” version of Christianity. Jesus rejected Peter’s interpretation of the Messiah, and Jesus will reject any such notions of Christianity that dance in our heads. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said to Peter. Jesus was filled with fear at Peter’s speech of rebuke. He might have identified Peter’s zeal to protect him from suffering as the work of Satan. In Peter’s words, Jesus had to do battle with Satan all over again and with those who claim to be most “orthodox” in making the fruits of religion into something for one’s own personal advantage. Jesus is saying the opposite.
Following on the heels of Peter’s confession, he said; “If any would come after me, let them deny self.” (v. 34) No one can put self at the center of his or her religion and be a Christian, for Christianity can never be separated from the One who gives it its identity. The founders of other religions – Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed – might point towards truth, but only Jesus could declare, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Those who shared in his company and the fellowship of his spirit discovered, in him, truth alive. And, when they accepted it, they found, through him, the only way to live.
Secondly, not only must the disciples learn what Jesus taught, they must embody his very Spirit. “If any wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves .. for those who want to save their lives will loose it, and whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.” The chief priests were bent upon saving their own positions and fringe benefits. The Pharisees cared nothing for the poor and outcast, but were concerned with legalistic details to preserve their institutional benefits. The Zealots wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire and return to the ancestral rule of David. All these factors and factions were eating at the heart of the nation.
Jesus felt the necessity, for the sake of his own people, to live out to the fullest the only lifestyle that could reform and save the human spirit and be an everlasting example before the world. “He who would save his life shall lose it … For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (v. 36) What is remarkable is that he still expects this of us today. “For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.”
Mother Teresa spoke about a second call. Her first call was to be a follower of Jesus. She said “yes” to that, and became a nun. The second call came when she was on a train riding in India, in 1946. That was a call to minister to the poor and the dying in Calcutta. She said “yes” to that.
A second call! That is what she called it. Hers was a special vocation. I doubt that many of us will have a similar call. But you will get a call. You will get two calls. The first call and the second call. The first call is to follow Jesus around Galilee and learn of him. The second call is to follow him to Jerusalem with a cross. That’s the call to serve.
Finally, Jesus expects that by sharing his life of service, we will ultimately come to appreciate the joy and fullness of living. William Barclay wrote, “God gave us life to spend and not to keep.” There are life hoarders whose eyes are always on personal comfort, worldly status, and financial security. They build around themselves walls of protection to keep every challenge and trouble out. Theirs however is a prescription for stagnation. They are unaware that, in spite of their caution, they are actually losing the life they have. But if they were to turn away from their protective security and let their lives, talents, and assets loose into the world of human need, they would accrue dividends of self-fulfillment, personal enrichment, and inner satisfaction nothing else can give.
According to the late Rev. E. B. Rodgers when the dedication of the Majesty Pen Mission, by the then Suffragan Bishop of Kingston, the Rt. Rev. P. W. Gibson, took place on the afternoon of the 9th of February, 1955, the Church of England in Jamaica opened a new chapter in the furtherance of Christ’s work among our fellowmen. The report on that historic day concluded with the question; “what then is our reason for doing? What is our motive? The answer is the love of God. The love of God compels us to do no other. Jesus is of course the incarnation of that Love and so are we.
In both the Gospels of Luke and Mark the writers record Jesus’ teaching on the subject of loving service following a dispute among the disciples about “who is the greatest”. That kind of argument Jesus said is how pagans think. “Among pagans it is kings who lord it over their subjects. This must never happen to you”. “The greatest among you must be your servant” – “For who is the greater, the one at table or the one who serves?” The world would say immediately, “The one at table”. “Yet” says Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus is saying in effect, I am telling you that the world’s way will not work. In John’s Gospel chapter 13 we come across the amazing story of Jesus on his knees washing the disciples’ feet. Here was the master and Lord, not lording it over others, but showing himself to be the servant and slave of all. In this act of intimate service Jesus underlines what has been true from the beginning and which must be true to the end, that his way and the way of those who would be his disciples is, before it is anything else, a way of service.
As we celebrate we of course wish to acknowledge the pioneering and tireless work of John Levy and the many volunteers whose selfless service sustained the mission against tremendous odds. Daily they said “No” to every temptation to give up, to quit.
You know as well as anyone involved in programs of social intervention the challenge of getting funds to support your organization. Sports and entertainment receive billions of dollars in sponsorship from businesses and government while a paltry sum is given to initiatives that can help rescue our young people from a life of crime. As disappointing as it may sound businesses and governments are not called to make a difference through service; but you and I are. To us Jesus still says: “He who would save his life shall lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Do we have within us the same investment of “time and gifts,” as our predecessors? Do we have the same kind of faith to believe our efforts in Christian service can indeed shift the balance of power between good and evil? Sometimes I wonder if we do in fact believe? Jesus constrains us to re-gain that sense of purpose, which comes through commitment to what God wants for his world. We can learn it from Jesus as we see him leave Caesarea Philippi and carry his mission to Calvary. From him we get a clear notion of the purpose for which we were born and, with it, we receive the vision, the passion and the resources to carry it out.
God turns our question and our expectation of life upside down. God in Jesus Christ offers us personal victory through taking up our cross. It is in the words of Scott Peck; “The road less travelled.” It is in taking up our cross, walking daily with it, that we find life. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in losing that we win. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
And so as we worship today, you and I are invited to walk the road less travelled with Jesus, not as some obstacle to be overcome, but as a necessary part of God’s divine plan which ultimately leads to renewal and change. The joy of it all is that our lives are given back to us for all eternity. A life transformed at every level in the likeness of Christ. That, my friends, is what is in it for us. What Christianity must mean for you and for me.
“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 loose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.” For Jesus it is the willingness to take that risk that matters. To move from a position of privilege, understanding and knowledge, down to a place where the gospel can have its greatest impact.
September 13, 2015