Mark 8: 31-38
(With attribution to Marilyn Salmon at Working Preacher for portions of her exegesis on the Gospel.)
Are you frightened yet? I think maybe we should be. “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Think about this…Our reaction to these words is similar to Peter’s reaction to Jesus telling them about the crucifixion. It is doubt, and unbelief. It doesn't make sense. Surely, we think, Christ didn’t really mean for us to be willing to die for him. Surely he won’t be ashamed of us if we don’t speak out even when we are given the opportunity.
But that is NOT what he tells those following him back then, or now! This true life story of the Risen One is an invitation to living a radical faith, a faith that proclaims the uniqueness of God in Christ Jesus, the cross, and salvation. It would be so easy, like the disciples, to offer some turn of phrase that would reduce the meaning of who Jesus is, and what he tells us to do, but it would not be true. Here we are told to pick up our cross and be advocates for our belief in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Peter correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah. We know he is right because the beginning of Mark tells us this is the good news of Jesus, Messiah. But Peter receives no confirmation, only the command to silence. Jesus then teaches the disciples that the Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, killed, and three days later rise again. In Peter’s mind, there is a great contradiction between who Messiah was believed to be, and Jesus' words. Jesus rebukes Peter for focusing on human things as opposed to divine things. Then follows the paradox: One must lose one's life in order to save it. What could he mean?
Bishop Andy Doyle spoke to the Forming Disciples conference on Friday night, and he made it pretty clear that we are called, just like those people following Jesus, to lose our lives to Christ. He didn’t mean that we should expect to die on a cross for Jesus, but that most of us, if not all, have never really “bought into” what we say we believe. And he’s right. If we really and completely turned our lives over to God through Jesus, living and learning of him would be the prime motivation in our lives.
In today’s world, many of us who call ourselves Christian, and Episcopal Christians at that, tend to live two lives. We come to church when it is convenient, and together we pray and worship. But we have so many things to do, and so many things calling us away into the world that we frequently pay no attention to who we say we are. We go about our lives, trying to find the time between work and errands to run our kids from band practice to soccer games or basketball practice. Or we who have no kids at home are enticed into other things we enjoy doing, be it learning a new skill, playing golf, being with friends, or watching our favorite sports teams perform, that church and going out to proclaim the Gospel are far from our minds. We jump up when the morning alarm goes off, and hit the ground running, failing to begin our days with even a “Thanks be to God” for this day, much less a time spent in prayer and meditation. We forget to take God with us on our journey through the pitfalls and pratfalls of our days. We rarely if ever actually proclaim the Good News to those around us, or perform works of mercy that live out the covenant. And at the day’s end, we fall into bed, and may think a quick prayer to the Almighty, but fall asleep, or begin to worry, before we’ve even focused on the Almighty. We’ve become people who say we are Christian, but we don’t live the life Christ has called us to live.
As Episcopalians, we are blessed to have something that no other Christian denomination has: it is our Book of Common Prayer. No other church has anything like it, and we need to use it to increase our faith. In it are beautiful services for private worship as well as corporate use: Morning prayers, Noontime prayers, Evening prayers, as well as Compline, the short prayer service for bedtime. Please pick up one of the prayer books in the racks in front of you and look at the closed pages. It is pretty obvious in most of those copies that there are only a few pages that have seen lots of use -- that's our Rite II worship service. If you don’t have a copy of this book at home, please take the one you have in your hands with you. Take it home and explore it, read it, pray the prayers within it, use it. Read what we say we believe in the Catechism near the back of the book. It can change your heart, and grow your soul closer to God. It is a beautiful gift that our ancient church has given us.
Bishop Doyle suggested that if our faith were in the place in our lives that God has asked us to put it, we would be living our lives differently. If we can’t find a swim or soccer league for our kids that doesn’t have competitions on Sunday, perhaps it’s time for us to start a league of our own that respects our Sabbath. He suggested that even when we are on vacation or a business trip, it is, hopefully, our desire to find an Episcopal church and attend wherever we are, rather than miss an opportunity to be with others who are striving to live a Christian life.
As we drive through small and large towns, we frequently see signs that say, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” That’s what we tend to do: put something on a sign, and wait for people to come in our doors. In this day and age, that’s not near enough. If we truly love God through Jesus Christ, isn’t it something we want to share? Perhaps, no, not perhaps, DO: Let’s speak to our friends and neighbors of the joy we share in our church, and invite them to come.
Let’s leave this building and go out into the world where people are, serving them and helping them for the love of Christ, and show them the love that expands in our lives by doing good works in the name of God. As my friend Debbie Allensworth said to me on Friday: when you go out together to help people, they ask, “Why are you doing this for me?” And we too will be able to say, “I do this because it brings me joy to use what God has blessed me with to bless you. Come with me and learn about God’s love.”
We are blessed in living in this country where it is doubtful that we will ever come to the point of having to choose whether or not we will actually die for our faith. Many people in other places around the world truly are dying because they are Christians, and it is what Christ asks us to be willing to do. This statement of Christ to give up our lives is a call to live a radical Christianity; to refocus our mundane and worldly lives, leaving behind the selfishness of “me, first and always” that our society strongly suggests, and turn to live into the joy that comes with putting Christ first in our lives. I will not go to God with the possibility that Christ will be ashamed of me! I hope you feel the same way. So I say to you, as Christ told his followers, “Take up your cross”. And I add, it will bring us all to a joy that we have never known before. Amen.