"Discovering Authentic Life"
Scripture - Mark 8:31-38
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 1, 2015
Have you read Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych?" It is a favorite of preachers and is a perfect fit with the season of Lent. During Lent, we pull out the microscope and place ourselves on the glass slide; not in order to magnify our minute mistakes, but to focus the lens on those thoughts and behaviors that prevent us from living the beautiful and bountiful life God intends. For Ivan Ilych, it is not until his impending death that he scrutinizes how he has lived.
Although set in 19th century Russia, his story is universal. Throughout his years, he poured his energy into the good life, which he believed resulted from gaining possessions, power and prestige. He heaped effusive praise on himself for all that he accomplished. It is only when the bugler is warming up to play "Taps" that he realizes he has wasted his years. He has not lived a rich life because he has lived only for himself and the allurements that boosted his status in the eyes of others. Nearing the end, he says to himself, "I did not live as I ought to have done ...It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death...What if my whole life has really been wrong?"1
There's a question to wake you up at three o'clock in the morning. You might be able to block it from your consciousness during the day, but you cannot prevent it from rumbling around in your sub-conscious mind. At some point, it rises to the surface: What if my whole life has really been wrong?
This morning's passage is the quintessential Lenten text. Jesus spells out in dramatic fashion what he expects of those who follow him, and in doing so, he establishes the criteria for a life well-lived. Yet he must have skipped the course in marketing, because rather than emphasizing only the positive benefits that would accrue, he details the sacrifice in blunt terms.
Today's text falls directly in the middle of Mark's gospel. To this point, Jesus has been chalking up impressive victories. He has been anointed God's beloved son, sent Satan packing, attracted a number of followers, cured numerous people with various diseases, imparted wisdom to crowds that are swelling in size, opened the eyes of the blind and fed masses of hungering souls.
No doubt the disciples were counting their blessings that Jesus had invited them into his inner circle, and congratulating themselves for their clever decision to join his band of brothers.
Then, an incident occurs - described in today's passage - in which Jesus delivers a sobering message.
It begins with a question. Jesus wonders if they have nailed down who he is. He says, "Who do people say that I am?" The disciples rattle off a few of the best answers they have heard. "Some say you are John the Baptist" (the cousin of Jesus who has recently been murdered by King Herod). "Others say you are Elijah or one of the other prophets" (from bygone centuries). Then Jesus hones in on them like a laser: "But who do you say that I am?"
Peter answers, but we do not know if he blurted out his response immediately or if there was a lengthy pause before he offered his assessment. Either way, he was on target when he said, "You are the Messiah."
At that moment, you might expect Jesus to say, "Well done! Congratulations Peter! You have answered wisely." However, our text says, "Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."
Peter, his confidence boosted by his keen insight, pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for uttering such things. The Greek word used here for "rebuke" is the same word that is used for silencing demons. In other words, Peter is saying to Jesus, "You are possessed by an evil spirit."
The problem was that when Peter correctly named Jesus the Messiah, his answer was astute, but his concept of the Messiah was askew.
The prevailing concept of the Messiah was of one who would overthrow the Roman occupiers and govern the people with justice and with mercy. Surely those in his inner circle could expect to be appointed to key positions. Thus, when Jesus declares that he will be killed, not crowned, Peter's dreams are destroyed. That is what triggers Peter's volatile reaction.
Jesus counters Peter with a fiery response of his own. "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Why did Jesus react so vehemently? Because when Peter told Jesus he did not want him to be a Messiah that suffered, he revealed his personal motives. Peter was pursuing his own vision of success. The allure of self-serving desires had captivated him and Jesus was determined to break their spell.
Jesus knows it is easy for anyone to fall prey to such enticements, so he called for the nearby crowd to gather around. When they do, he delivers the challenge with which every follower of his must struggle. "If any want to become my followers," he says, "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."
What does Jesus mean when he calls on us to deny ourselves? Some have interpreted this to mean we are to deny ourselves pleasure. They view the religious life as renouncing anything that feels enjoyable, entertaining or pleasing. In their lexicon, synonyms for the spiritual life are limited to solemn, sober, serious and somber. Conjure up people you know who are stuffy and sour, and you have the right mental image.
The deny-yourself-pleasure-people who were contemporaries of Jesus vilified him because he was not sufficiently dour. It drove them mad that Jesus enjoyed the good things of God's creation. So what did they brand Jesus? "A glutton and a drunkard."
If Jesus does not mean deny yourself pleasure, what does he mean when he says, "Deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me"?
Some have thought this to mean: do not think well of yourself. Think of yourself as a sinner who deserves to be punished. Our Puritan forbearers, many of whom imagined God to be a stern judge, applauded this severe outlook on the human condition. But Jesus did not pound on people as pathetic sinners; he was constantly lifting up those who had been battered down. He said "Love one another, as I have loved you."
In fact, it is his deep love for us that prompts him to say, "Deny yourself." What Jesus wants us to deny is the urge to focus solely on ourselves. This temptation lures us to believe that satisfaction comes from acquiring possessions, power and prestige. But when we pursue this path, we find that it is not ultimately fulfilling. This is the illusion that Ivan Ilych pursued most of his life. But when he reached the end, he realized that what genuinely satisfies us is knowing that we have boosted the well-being of others. We derive a certain degree of satisfaction from receiving, but it is in giving that we make things right in our soul.
Jesus also wants us to deny the anxious part of ourselves that cannot take our hands off the steering wheel and trust God to be our guide. This is especially difficult for people whose default position is to be in control. But, if you attempt to control your life and those around you, you will never find internal peace. That is counterintuitive for people who attempt to orchestrate every event. You may believe that life will unfold best if you are in charge, but regardless of the energy and effort you exert, there will always be matters beyond your control and subjects you do not fully comprehend. Further, letting go allows for creative approaches to emerge. Following the way of Jesus guides us into rich territory where we just might become the whole person God wants us to become.
Edmund Steimle was a gifted preacher in the middle of the 20th Century. Shortly after World War II ended, he went into the shop of a friendly neighborhood tailor whose name was Mr. Birnbaum. As Steimle was leaving the shop, the tailor grabbed his arm and said, "Mr. Steimle, I have a problem. As you know, I am a Jew. My brother-in-law was a violent Nazi when my wife and I lived in Germany. He hated me and did nothing to help us. He was happy to be rid of us when we came to the United States. But now, he is in prison camp and he has written us asking us to send him some food. My wife says, "No. He did not help us and we will return the favor." But, I think we should send him something. What do you think Mr. Steimle?"2
If we rely solely on our own judgment and cut Jesus out of the equation, it is easy to get off course. But if we follow him, we will hear him when he says, "Pick up a cross. Reconcile a broken relationship. Take up a cause for justice. Find a way to spread peace."
When you reach the end of your life, you will not want to be faced with the question: What if my whole life has really been wrong?
The way to erase that question is to lose your life for God; then you will become fully alive.
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