Scripture: Mark 8: 27-37
This Scripture asks two key questions of us.
The first is a religious one: who is Jesus? We might prefer to reserve judgment, but Jesus presses us for an answer that will get us off the fence.
The second question is an existential one: How do we find life that is really LIFE? None of us want to go through the motions, living a grey, robotic sort of half-life. We want a life that matters, a life that is full and meaningful and joyful. Can such a life be bought? Is it a matter of collecting wonderful experiences? Is it just luck? A matter of good governmental policy?
There may well be more than one good answer to these questions: our Scripture today offers, perhaps, the most challenging options of all.
The neighbors found Nasruddin on his hands and knees, searching the ground outside his house. “What’s up?” they asked. “I’m looking for my keys,” Nasruddin replied. Whereupon the neighbors, being helpful sorts, hunkered down and started looking themselves. After several minutes of fruitless search, one of the neighbors asked: “are you sure you lost them here?” “Oh, no,” replied Nasruddin. “I lost them in the house.” “WELL THEN WHY ARE WE LOOKING OUT HERE??” “Because the light is so much better here!”
The Scripture passage today is a very, very important passage. It is also a very difficult one, for many reasons. I think I’m probably like a lot of folks, in that I like to stick to the lighter, brighter parts of the faith – love, acceptance, healing, forgiveness. But of course, that’s not the whole story, and there is treasure to be found in darker places – and this Scripture points us to darker and more difficult places.
A week ago, yesterday and today, out near Drumheller, the annual Tough Mudder race was run. The Tough Mudder is a 20 km military style obstacle course, a fundraiser, I believe, for Wounded Warriors, a program for disabled veterans. There are walls to climb, barbed wire to shimmy under (in the mud)… One of the obstacles is called the “arctic enema” and it consists of a large shipping container filled with ice and water – you have to jump in, wade across chest deep, ducking completely under a bar in the middle, and climb out the other end. Some obstacles are physical challenges, others involve mastering your fear. There’s no prize at the end. No winner. The object is to get as many people as possible over the finish line.
Now, I don’t know why you’d sign up, and pay money, to slog through ice water and run through hanging live electrical wires. But a year ago, my son and his girlfriend did it. They trained for it. And on a much nicer Saturday than this last one was, they ran the race.
It is an interesting atmosphere. Because the object is for everybody to finish, everyone helps each other. Competing teams help each other. Strangers will step in and “take one” for another team. Everyone shouts encouragement for everyone else. The race is very hard, physically and even emotionally, but…
When they finished the race, my son and his girlfriend were tired, sore – but exhilarated, too. Alive.
On a somewhat deeper level, have you seen the most recent recruiting ad for the Canadian Forces? It shows rough, often dark handheld camera shots of an ocean arrest and an arctic rescue. There’s not much sound. Lots of tension. What few words there are are printed as the action ensues: FIGHT FEAR. FIGHT CHAOS. FIGHT DISTRESS. Fight with the Canadian Armed Forces. Seen the ad?
I don’t actually know how well those ads work. But what a challenge, really! As an armed forces recruiter, you’ve gotta know that you’re asking people to put their lives on the line. To be in the armed forces means tough, tough training, work that is at least sometimes incredibly stressful and dangerous – why would anyone sign up for that on purpose? But the ads don’t soft-peddle the difficulty. Most recruiting ads actually play up the difficulty. In essence, they tell us: this will probably be the toughest and most dangerous thing you’ll ever do. But there’s no life like it. This is the real deal.
Of course, we’re in the midst of an election right now. The various parties are trying to recruit us into their various camps. The contrast between the politicians’ recruitment ads and those of the Tough Mudder and the Armed Forces are notable. You don’t hear much, these days, like “ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather what you can do for your country.”
Essentially, what we have in our scripture today is Jesus’ recruitment ad. And it’s a tough one.
He and his disciples are near Ceasarea Philippi, and Jesus asks: who do people say I am? It’s like an election campaign, where the candidate is asking the campaign team: what do the focus groups say? What do people think of me?
The answer comes back clearly: prophet. People are calling Jesus a prophet, someone like Elijah or Amos or Jeremiah. These were the wise people who saw deeply into their societies, saw with the eyes of God, and drew people’s attention to what was truly important and deeply moral. They were usually calling people’s attention to something that had gone wrong, though, so their words were generally quite unwelcome – except in hindsight. Prophets drew people’s attention to things like global warming; continue on our current path, they’d say, and we’ll find ourselves falling off a cliff one day. Keep raising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, keep on letting the average planetary temperature rise, keep converting wildlands the way we do, and one day we will pass the point where the damage is repairable. Nobody wants to hear that! So by and large, we don’t pay a lot of attention to prophets – until later, if and when their predictions turn true. Who do people say I am, asks Jesus? A prophet – someone we probably ought to listen to but probably won’t.
Okay, says Jesus. What about you? Who do you say I am? I probably don’t need to tell you that this is a tremendously important question for Christians. Jesus presses his followers for an answer here, a personal answer. It’s not to say that you’re not welcome here if you don’t have that answer – it is to say that the question is not one to be brushed aside or abandoned. Who do you say Jesus is, and what difference does that make for your life? Peter, famously, replies that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah. Not a prophet! Not a voice from the margins, complaining about the status quo! “Messiah” is the word for the king, for the leader of the people, the one we follow to freedom and glory. Messiah was the one to break the yoke of Rome and restore the dignity of Israel. Messiah is not a voice to be heeded but a leader to be followed.
You are the Messiah, says Peter – and generation after generation of Christians have said that his answer is correct. But it immediately gets him in trouble with Jesus. Because to follow this Messiah is not to follow into glory. At least, not straight into glory.
Jesus calls his disciples to gather ‘round. He calls the crowds, too, the curious and uncommitted who are hanging around. And here’s his recruitment pitch: “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 lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.” Now, just to be clear about how tough a recruitment pitch this is… Jesus does NOT say “if anyone wants to become my follower, let them deny something TO themselves – he says deny themselves. Give your self up. And a cross is not something difficult, something inconvenient, something painful even. In the first century, a cross was simply and only a method of capital punishment. It was the particularly cruel and humiliating way Rome killed dissidents. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. In other words, the cross is not something Jesus did for us, so we don’t have to. Jesus is telling us if we’re going to follow, we need to follow there.
Anyone that wants to preserve their life will lose it. But those who give up their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, will save them. Find them. Live them.
If I was Jesus’ campaign manager, I’d give it up for lost. This is NOT going to get you elected, Jesus. This is NOT a recipe for church growth! What are you thinking? Who wins an election by asking people to give UP safety, give UP security, give up their LIFE, for crying out loud?
Whoever would preserve their life will lose it. Whoever gives their life finds it. Trouble is, it might just be true.
Peter got in trouble for wanting Jesus to play it safe. And I must admit, playing it safe seems wise sometimes. But playing it safe is not a recipe for a full, rich, passionate life. The image I have in mind is of a Jr. High dance, where playing it safe means pressing your back up against the wall, watching others on the dance floor.
Canada has been relatively slow to get into the action with respect to Syrian refugees.
The reason, we’re told, is that there are security risks involved. Which there probably are. But I wonder if playing it safe is the wrong idea, this time. I wonder if this might be a time to take a risk, and get out there on the dance floor.
Think, too, of the ways you have tried to seek and find happiness, and been left somewhat empty. I think of that U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” When I try and find happiness for myself, I always seem to come up short. I can find enjoyment, fun – but that intense and meaningful life is pretty elusive.
On the other hand, think of the times that happiness and joy have found you. In my experience, it is usually when I am lost in pursuing something else, something more important than my own happiness. Parenthood is the prime example. There’s nothing harder, nothing more demanding – and yet there’s also nothing deeper, nothing more alive and intense. Parents would cheerfully give their lives for their kids – the do that, actually, most days – and it’s wonderful (often!).
Here’s what I think Jesus is saying. The only way to really live is to give yourself to a mission that is more important than you are. The only way to really live is to give yourself to the gospel, to God’s loving hope for the world. The only way to really live is to give your life to something worth dying for. Do you think he might be right?
Now quickly: I am sure that Jesus does NOT mean we should become daredevils. I am sure that by selflessness he does NOT refer to those who really have no healthy sense of self – which is something that happens, for instance, when people are abused, especially as children. I am sure he is NOT asking us to kill ourselves in service to the church, like a workaholic, or to give ourselves in passive-aggressive or co-dependent ways. I don’t think Jesus is referring to anything unhealthy at all, here.
I think Jesus is simply saying that the essence of life is not found in playing it safe. And it is not found in seeking for yourself. The essence of life is found in giving yourself to a mission that is worth the giving of your life.
If we are doing anything less than that here at Knox, then we need to start over. I’m over fifty now. I don’t want to “play” church anymore. This institutional church is not worth your life or mine. But what we stand for, the reign of God that is so near at hand, the mission of God that this building stands as a witness to – if that’s not worth our lives then we’re missing the vision and we need to start over.
It’s not a tough mudder – but it does ask us to face our fear and go beyond what we thought we could. And it’s not the armed forces – but it does mean putting our lives on the line. In order to live, give yourself to a gospel and mission worth dying for.