a sermon on Mark 8:27-38
He had talked about the importance of following him from the very beginning. The first time Jesus saw his first disciples Peter and Andrew fishing by the sea, he invited them to follow him and start fishing for people. Over time, he accumulated a notable little band of followers—tax collectors and sinners, among others—soon joined those first fishermen, and others came and went from the large crowds who gathered to witness his healing and hear his teaching in his ministry across Galilee. By the time of our story from Mark this morning, they were quite experienced at following him. They had become accustomed to his strange detours across the lake and his sudden departures from the beaten path so that he could find a quiet place away from it all, though they never quite could figure out what all he was up to.
So it wasn’t a total surprise when one day Jesus addressed the disciples and the crowd who had gathered with them and began to tell them what it meant to follow him. He had just talked with the disciples about his identity, and for the first time one of them—Peter—had identified him as the Messiah, leading him to describe what this would mean for him along the way. Jesus had planted the seeds then with the disciples that this would not be an easy path: he would undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, all before he would rise again three days later. But the disciples didn’t seem to understand this, and Peter even confronted him to vow that this should never happen. However, Peter’s insistence that Jesus should never suffer like this only seems to have made him want to help others understand what he meant even more.
Jesus’ instruction to the crowd was a bold response to Peter’s attempts to sanitize his message:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
He took the core idea of following him that he had been talking about since the very beginning and used it to shape his teaching to a new place. No longer could they think that wandering around the Galilean countryside was enough—even though many of them had already left behind their homes and families to follow him, they needed to deny themselves completely. No longer was it enough to just carry a knapsack worth of belongings along the way—they had to carry a cross, the ultimate sign of disrepute assigned to the greatest criminals who had threatened the Roman empire itself. And no longer could they come and go, following Jesus when they wanted—they were to follow everywhere he went, even to death.
If that wasn’t enough to sort out the imposters from the real followers, Jesus continued to explain things a bit more. Next he explained that their attempts to save themselves would be futile:
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.
If they were following him just to be saved, then they weren’t denying themselves after all—they were seeking their own well-being rather than truly following to join in Jesus’ mission and ministry.
So Jesus insisted that the real profit came from giving everything up, from the biggest loss imaginable, as the great hymn writer Isaac Watts declared so well:
My richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.
And finally Jesus made it clear that acceptance of this seemingly-disgraceful path was not optional—those who were ashamed of it would find even more shame directed at themselves “when [the Son of Man] comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
As much as Jesus talked about following with his disciples, you’d think that we would take it just as seriously. The Christians of the early church probably thought about it quite a bit, for they faced many challenges from the culture around them and struggled even more with a government that didn’t welcome any group claiming any other way than the Roman way. But over the centuries, the idea of following Jesus put forth so clearly by Jesus in the gospel of Mark has largely been replaced in the church with a focus on belief that builds largely on the word of Jesus as told in the gospel of John. The sort of radical, self-giving action proposed and lived out by Jesus has become a much less demanding challenge, for it is far easier to affirm a creed and accept belief than to take action that has the potential for consequences as it did for those who first journeyed with Jesus. In our day and age, following Jesus has become about as difficult as following someone on Twitter, where all it takes is to click a button to start getting status updates and keep up with what is going on.
So what does it look like for us to follow Jesus in our world today? What is required of us if we are to truly deny ourselves and find a new way? How can we take up the cross of Christ in our own lives today? Following Jesus today is not about wearing a cross around our neck every day, about showing up to church on Sunday, about writing a check to show our financial support of the work of this congregation or some other good group, or even about getting others to join us on the journey. Instead, following Jesus today means taking his words seriously in our lives and standing up in our world as he did for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.
When he tells the crowd to deny themselves, he is speaking to us too. He is not telling us to deny who we are or set aside the gifts that we have been given to share. Instead, he is encouraging us to place our hope and trust in God, not in ourselves. He is calling us to set aside any personal benefit that might come from the work that we do or the things that we believe, for we cannot do these things out of hope for a better life for ourselves or our children or even the promise of eternal life but rather for the sake of God’s reign to be realized in our world.
When he tells the crowd to take up their cross, he is speaking to us too. He is not telling us that we must carry a cross everywhere that we go or display it in a way that shows off our faithfulness, for the goal here is not so much to make those around us aware of our faith but to commit ourselves to a path that we do not fully understand. And so in calling us to take up our cross, Jesus is encouraging us to go where he goes, to sacrifice the things of this world so that the world might be different, to walk and talk and live each day in a way that points not to ourselves, our human government, or our particular culture, to place the transformation of this world at the forefront of all things, not our hopes to be around in the next.
And when he tells the crowd to follow him, he is speaking to us too. He is not telling us that we must live exactly as he did or spend our days worrying about the number of people who will join us along the way. Instead, he is calling us to get on the move, to step out of the ways that we have lived for so long and seek people along the road, to make our way into the world where the great need stands ready and waiting for God’s presence to be realized in people like us.
In these Lenten days, it seems incredibly important to recommit ourselves to following Jesus in our changing world, but we can’t approach this following in the same way that we have approached it before. We can’t just do what we’ve always done and say that that is enough. We can’t simply acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and go on about our lives as if nothing has changed. And we can’t leave ourselves or our world the same as before we set out on this journey.
The specifics of this path are not mine to set before you. The specific path for each of our individual lives to follow Jesus will emerge as we spend these days in prayer, penitence, and exploration. The path before us as a congregation as we seek to follow Jesus will only become clear when we commit to this individual exploration and begin to share what we learn along the way. Even so, what is clear to me is that we are called to follow Jesus in the same way as those who first heard him, denying ourselves and the things of this world that get in the way of our relationship with God and taking up the challenge of whatever cross we must bear in our lives and in our world.
So as we journey this Lent together, may God open the path to follow all the more so that we might join Jesus in both the challenges and the glory that lie ahead. Thanks be to God! Amen.