Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
Discipleship is not easy!
Discipleship is not always an easy path to follow. In today’s story, we hear about one of Jesus’ Apostles that was torn between his own agenda and the requirements of discipleship that Jesus demands. Mark’s gospel records that 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.” Then Peter, who clearly heard what the mission of Jesus was all about, “(he) took him (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him.” Imagine that. Peter had the audacity to scold Jesus. Peter the Apostle, who never seemed to get it decided that he knew best. This is the same guy, who a few days earlier boldly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Now, just a few days later, Peter corrects Jesus, reprimands him, and tries to convince him to take an alternative path of Messiahship.
This is where it gets interesting. In his response to Peter’s rebuke, Jesus does not mix words about what it means to be a disciple. In fact, he openly says that following him means a life of suffering, rejection, and the threat of death. We should not be surprised, because that was the path Jesus was on; the cross. Our dear, troubled brother Peter got his priorities a little messed up. Peter was thinking like James and John, who had a different idea of discipleship. Even their mother was hoping for seats of honor for them in the coming Messianic age. They too misunderstood the cost of discipleship, because they naively did not know, that those coveted places on the left and right of Jesus also crosses of torture.
Peter’s rebuke of Jesus ended with a definitive dividing line between discipleship and his own agenda. Jesus told Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (NRSV) Jesus called Peter the oppressor. In other words, he was saying, get behind me Peter and stop trying to “exercise authority or power over me in a harsh and burdensome way.” Peter was trying to keep Jesus from his mission, because his own needs, desires, and interests got in the way of accepting what it truly means to follow Jesus. Peter needed to re-align his priorities, and be willing to risk it all, in order to discover the way of life found only in following Our Lord. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Setting aside our agenda for Jesus’ agenda, means we are no longer the center of the universe in our own worlds.
We are Not Masters of Our own Universe
Our Lord points out that the requirements of discipleship is self- denial, and the willingness to lose everything, including our very lives, all for the sake of the Gospel. When Peter rebuked Jesus, he must have been thinking that Jesus’ self-preservation was the only path worthy of Jesus’ mission. Peter slipped into a conventional wisdom we have that permeates our culture today. That idea is that when our personal success is the only road we follow, we think it is the only way to happiness, joy, and fullness of life. This wisdom seems to proclaim that we are at the center of our own existence, but that is not what following Jesus, who is the true center of our lives, looks like.
Abundant life that God promises is not based on individualism, but on the Body of Christ, the church, living in harmony, sharing good news, and serving others. The ground of our being, the center of life itself is found in Christ. If that is the essence of our faith, and I believe it is, then our rightful place in the grand design of God is not at the center of life, but as a part of the amazing whole community of God. Jesus’ call to discipleship means we are a part of the larger human family and as such, we must release our own desire, our own interests, and our own priorities for the sake of others. Now that is not an easy thing for many of us to do. However, if we can release the hold we have on our own life, when we risk our very self for another, then we can come to know what it means to be in the family of God.
Discipleship: Self-Giving Love
There once was a young couple named Carl and Lori. They were very much in love and had everything they thought they needed: a new house, great jobs, and a bright future. After a few years of marriage, Carl noticed that something was not right with his health, and he decided to go to the doctor for a little checkup. A few weeks and after several tests, it was discovered that Carl was suffering from a life-threatening illness. Life suddenly changed as Carl began a regimen of treatments. Throughout all the procedures, throughout his recovery, throughout the physical therapy, his beloved Lori was right there with him.
Many times, Lori denied her own need for a respite from the long nights at the hospital. She denied her own frustration with Carl’s slow and uncertain recovery. She denied her own fear of the outcome. A friend was so concerned about her she asked, “Will you not take some time to rest, you must be exhausted.” Lori did not respond because she knew that the gift of her love and dedication to her beloved husband, emerged out of the depth of mutual giving, which she and Carl always shared. This kind of self-giving love that she demonstrated showed her resilient commitment to Carl, which went beyond her needs, her own comfort, and her own interests. She realized that her self-interest was secondary to the relationship and love she and Carl shared.
This revolutionary kind of love without strings or exclusive association is what our Lord means for we disciples. When he said, “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me,” it was because that kind of self-giving love led him to the cross. The journey to Golgotha for Jesus was one that began, not in the Garden at Gethsemane, nor in the High Priest’s court. It all started with a small baby, born in the poverty of a stable in Bethlehem. The journey to the cross began with God’s willingness to humble Godself and walk among us. That same journey continued when Jesus showed up for the healing of the broken, blind, and lame.
Self -Giving Love is the Path to Grace
When Jesus challenged conventional traditions in order to heal on the Sabbath, he re-prioritized self-preservation for the sake of self-giving. When he ate with sinners, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-giving. When he was on the cross of torture, he proclaimed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Rather than come down from the cross in power, he re-prioritized self-preservation for sake of self-denial and self-giving. Nonetheless, this self-giving love came with a price because it eventually meant giving up his own life for those whom he loved. The peril of self-giving love means facing death of self, and the threat of personal rejection.
Some Christians today, like our brother Peter, do not quite understand Jesus’ call to self-denial, taking up one’s cross, and following him. Some believe that taking up our cross and following Jesus means we have to give up joy and peace, or assurance and love. I do not believe Jesus’ intended his promise of life and life abundantly to be a miserable existence. I do believe that when Jesus said that if we “lose your life we will find it,” he meant that if we re-prioritize what is important, we will discover the life of freedom, peace, and joy found only in Christ. In today’s culture, to follow Jesus is a radical notion, which comes with a price, and one many of us may not be willing to pay.
If you watch television for 30 minutes on any given day, you will soon realize that self-gratification is the greatest value advocated for in our culture. With the right car, the right clothes, and the right gadgets, we are promised by society, a life of joy and happiness. That is not what Jesus teaches us. Jesus says, that if we focus on loving others at the expense of our own interests, we will participate in Christ’s ministry of pouring out from ourselves, the grace that is abundantly given to us. Pouring out grace is the church’s real mission in the world.
At our baptism we made promises that we will do the following: proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We promise to love others just as Jesus taught us to do. In these perilous times in which we live, all around us, the shadow of death abounds. Because of this pandemic, people are suffering from economic devastation, depression, broken relationships, and social injustices. A life without dignity, justice, peace, and love is not life giving, but life pilfering. The church has a God-given mission to respond to the plight of those suffering around us. That mission means that we the Church may have to lose our own internal communal interests, desires, and priorities, in order to participate in life and life abundantly.
Joel Marcus wrote an article in the Christian Century, in which he stated, “Through that victory (Jesus’ work on the cross) the church believes, a strange vitality has been released into the world, a spirit of hope that still erupts in arenas of weakness, suffering and death.”(1) “Death, the last enemy, has already been defeated by Jesus’ rising from the dead and thus, God’s love will never be squelched, it cannot be quieted, and it must not be taken for granted.” The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and punishment, but for us, it is a symbol of self-giving love and the symbol of our mission as the church. For each of us, we have a choice to make as disciples. We can, like so many other “wanna be” disciples, choose to “take up our cross and follow him,” or we can choose our own path, and decide to turn around and walk our own way. Jesus is asking us, like he did with Peter, which path will your discipleship take?
(1) Marcus, Joel. “Uncommon Sense.” Christian Century 117.24 (2000): 860-22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 28 Feb. 2012.)