Second Sunday in Lent 2018 (Year B)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans: 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
by The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In the Name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if we put up a sign at the entry of the church that said, “Welcome to St. John’s! All those interested in learning how to suffer, be rejected, and die, please inquire within.” And, below that put in small print, “Eternal life is promised, but not guaranteed.” Perhaps not the best marketing plan for a church growth movement. But it is an accurate message about the nature of Christian discipleship.
As I reflected on this passage from Mark over the past few weeks, it occurred to me that not once in my life has anyone asked me if I was willing to die for my faith. Not when I joined the church at age 17; not during the discernment process for ordination or during my time at seminary, or during my long career as a theological graduate student. And, to be fair, I don’t think I have ever asked anyone that question either.
Contrast this, however, to the multiple times I’ve been asked if I was willing to die for my country. The first time I was asked this was when I was 12, as a young cadet member of the Civil Air Patrol. I was also asked multiple times in high school when I was a cadet in Junior ROTC. And, as I recall, I was asked this question within the first few minutes of stepping off the bus on my first day at the Air Force Academy.
While there are many similarities and differences that one might make between dying for our faith and dying for our country, there is one all-important difference. Dying for our country would mark the end of our earthly life. Dying for our faith, however, begins the instant we take up the cross to follow Christ. We begin to die for our faith when we are ready to die to our self.
The vocation to die for Christ is not reserved solely for the exceptional women and men who are our Christian martyrs of history. Rather, the call to die for Christ was made to each of us at the moment of our baptism. In calling the disciples to take up their cross, Jesus is calling them to start dying to themselves for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel right there and right then.
It is important to remember, too, that the cross is not just about suffering and death. But it is also about rejection. As we know, in the end, just as he said it would happen, Jesus was rejected by everyone. By the end of Jesus’ ministry, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders and the disciples were ashamed and scandalized that Jesus did not live up to their expectations of him. They were also ashamed and scandalized by what Jesus’ teaching was going to require of them.
Jesus was not going to be the powerful king with mighty armies who would enforce Jewish law and lead a new Jewish nation into a golden era. The disciples could not look forward to the wealth, political power and prestige that would come with being part of Jesus’ ministerial cabinet.
Indeed, Jesus had no interest in nationalism and earthly power. He wanted to break down the religious and national divisions among all the nations. This shocking alternative political program is not something the Jewish hierarchy and the disciples were prepared to help usher in. Who wants to be associated with a king who has no interest in power? How is that helpful to further our own ambitions?
But discipleship is not about earthly power. If you want to be my disciple, Jesus tells them, take up your cross and follow me. Be ready to suffer, be rejected, and die. That’s what you have to do to be with me.
The first kind of suffering that Jesus tells his disciples they must experience, and what we, too, must experience, is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. That is where we begin to learn to die to ourselves. And that call to reject our attachments to the world will inevitably lead to the world rejecting us as well. We can’t have the world and follow Christ at the same time. Discipleship doesn’t work like that.
To die to ourselves and take up the cross demands that we learn what it means to differentiate between our natural existence in the world and our Christian existence. Our natural existence, in this adulterous and sinful generation as Jesus calls it, is problematic because it celebrates and encourages sin, vice, and idolatry.
For example, the world provokes us to excess pride. It entices us to seek out status, prestige and celebrity. Most of us have no idea what greed actually means anymore, because there are no standards by which to discern how much is too much. The world creates jealousies and strife among us. War is unceasing across the globe. The world wants us to indulge our appetites. Eating contests are now televised sports. The world seduces us into thinking that it’s harmless to have sex with whomever we want, so long as the other person gives us their consent. The media delights in hyping issues that make us angry. They encourage us to believe we’re all victims of some injustice and it is always someone else’s fault. The rapid development of technology, to which we have given little thought to its proper uses, often entices us to laziness, separating us from the dignity of work and labor. Technology can also tempt us to be lazy in our relationships and in our communications with one another.
Our Christian existence, however, asks us not only to think differently about our place in the world, but to be differently in it as well. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian, but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped and one’s habits determined in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” Our Christian existence asks us to stand before God and before each other in ways that the world will find threatening and may despise.
We are called to stand before God and before each other with humility and look for alternatives to war. Discipleship calls us to be generous with our resources and be stewards of creation. It calls us not to envy our fellows, but to appreciate that everything we truly need has already been given to us by God. It calls us to temper our appetites and to exercise sexual self-discipline. It calls us to put away our anger and to take responsibility for our own sins and shortcomings. Discipleship calls us to forms of human labor which honors our dignity as people created in the image and likeness of God. Discipleship requires us to make ourselves vulnerable to one another in face to face human encounters, with real love, truthful speech and in enduring Christian friendships. When we take up the cross, the differences between our worldly and Christian existence become more clear to us. And in that gap, we find grace.
But the cross which Jesus bids us take up is not the same for each of us. The cross assigned to us by God is tailored and measured to fit us each individually. We will each carry our own cross, along our own path, and accept the kind of suffering and rejection that has been measured out to each of us. Some will be called to be the next Christian martyrs of history. But most of us will endeavor to work out the task of discipleship in the obscurity of our own particular lives and in the context of those challenges. But in every case it is the one cross of Christ and it is laid upon every Christian. The cross is not the terrible end of a pious and happy life. Rather, it stands at the beginning of our community with Christ and with one another. And it is the gateway to the only freedom truly worth dying for. Jesus died for our freedom as Christians. And, when we die to ourselves we will experience that freedom. It is only then that we will understand the true nature and depth of God’s grace.
Finally, the Gospel text seems to demand of me that I share a bit of personal testimony with you. It is not something I would normally do in the context of a sermon, but perhaps you may find it helpful in your own journey of discipleship.
As some of you know, I am emerging on the other side of a long period in my life when I was ashamed of the Gospel and denied the truth of Christ. I was so ashamed of it that I left the church for 7 years and nearly abandoned the priesthood. I found the world’s truth more compelling than the Word of God. I found carrying the cross too hard. I resisted the suffering placed on me, and resented the rejections it brought with it. Being a Christian seemed foolish and I didn’t think I needed the idea of God anymore.
Indeed, I had everything I thought I wanted. I was in good health. I was gainfully employed. I was respected in my field with a good professional reputation. I had financial resources, loyal friends, a loving family and hobbies I enjoyed. I was self-sufficient and I was independent. Wasn’t that the goal of every adult life in America? But during that time, I never felt completely happy. I never felt fully loved. And, I never felt truly free. Despite the outward appearance of my success, I experienced a constant undercurrent of despair, loneliness, and anxiety.
As I look back on that time now, I realize that I was gaining the whole world, but losing my soul. And, when God made the gift of himself and his grace present to me again in a way that I could not ignore, I felt deeply ashamed that I had rejected him and failed as one of his disciples. And, I believed that God was ashamed of me, too.
But even if we think God is ashamed of us, that doesn’t mean he still doesn’t love us. It doesn’t mean he won’t forgive us. It doesn’t mean he won’t save us. And, it doesn’t mean that he will not relentlessly pursue us, no matter how fast and how far we try to escape from him. And, when we stop running and allow him to find us, the only thing we’ll want to do is to take up the cross and follow him.