“The Way Up is Down”
Preached at the Union Church in Waban on March 1, 2015
Mark 8: 31-38
Have you noticed that the standard greeting these days is no longer that cheery “How are you?” Instead it is a much more solemn “How are you holding up?” And that familiar response, “Just fine thanks, and you?” has become a litany of complaint about ice dams, roof leaks, snow plow bills that are the only thing higher than the snow banks themselves. It’s been rough, and the stress of lost work has pushed those already living close to the edge, to the brink of it.
So when I turned to the Gospel passage this morning hoping for some good news to share, can you imagine my dismay when I read today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark?
Deny ourselves? Pick up our cross? Lose our life?
And if we find Jesus words this morning rather dispiriting given all that we are suffering, can you imagine how they must have sounded to the people in his time?
The people who gathered around Jesus that day, were people who were no strangers to suffering. These were people who knew crosses, literally. They knew fear. They went to bed with their backpacks on because they never knew if they would have to flee in the middle of the night. These were people who knew hunger. They scrapped by each day trying to feed their families. These were people who were well acquainted with grief. They faced the threat that with no access to medical care, even the most minor injury or illness could quickly become life threatening. These were people who lived (in the words of civil rights theologian Howard Thurman) “with their back up against the wall.”
These were people whose lives were very much like the lives of the majority of the people in the world today.
So what in God’s name, is Jesus thinking when he looks out over these suffering people and tells them that if they are to follow him they must deny themselves, pick up their cross and lose their lives?
But before we go any further, let us pray: Holy God we know that your ways are not our ways and that there is much of you that remains a mystery to us. But send your Spirit to us we pray to open our hearts to hear your words this morning in new ways that we may see your son leading us through to the far side of fear, want and loss. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Our passage from Mark this morning comes well into Jesus’ ministry. For over a year now, Jesus has been traversing the Galilean countryside. He has been freeing people from fear. He has been feeding those who are hungry. He has been healing those who are sick. He has been bringing hope into places of despair and lifting the eyes of those who had been long used to looking down to a new horizon line of new life, joy, abundance and peace.
So what a shock it must have been for them to hear his words that day. “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.” Denying self, taking up a cross, losing one’s life? That’s not what following Jesus has been about? Following Jesus has been about being witness to and recipient of good things.
I think Jesus intends his words to be shocking. I think Jesus intends to shake up the crowd and his disciples a bit in order for them to take a good hard look at what following Jesus truly means. For up to this point the crowd had not really been following Jesus as much as they had been trailing him. They had been tagging along behind him.
What Jesus is talking about here is something different. Following is not just tagging along. Following is what disciples do with their master teacher. Disciples follow his/her master teacher’s every movement and word in order to learn to conform their doing and saying, their thinking and feeling to that of their master teacher.
This is the invitation and the challenge Jesus is calling to the crowd and all of us standing in it. “Do we want to be follower of Jesus? There is no judgment here just an invitation. Are we ready? Do we want it?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one who thought a lot about what it is to follow Jesus and the wanting that it takes to do so. Bonhoeffer, as you know, was a Lutheran pastor and a brilliant teacher and theologian. But when the war broke out in Europe he joined the underground convinced that it was his duty as a Christian to work for Hitler’s defeat. He was thirty-nine when in 1943 he was arrested and was executed two years later.
Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship” and in it he lifts up the difference between tagging along behind Jesus and wanting to follow Jesus as a disciple. The language he uses is the difference between “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He writes:
“Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship…
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s words are challenging but then so too are those of Jesus.
For Jesus’ call to the crowd is an if/then statement. If you want to follow me, then there will be things asked of you and the first of which Jesus says is that we must deny ourselves.
It is unfortunate that the greek word here is translated into English as “deny” because when we hear the word “deny”, we automatically think, especially in Lent, of restricting or prohibiting ourselves for having something that we really want. But the fuller sense of the Greek word means to completely break with a way of living where one’s primary concern is one’s own well-being and the well-being of those within our own household. Following Jesus means leaving behind, this narrow way of living.
Now it is important to remember that the crowd trails Jesus is living in this narrow way. They are following him in order to get what they need. And that is fine. There is no judgment here. Jesus loves the crowd. He has compassion on them. He tends to them as a shepherd tends to his sheep.
But the invitation Jesus is to more from being sheep to learning from him how to be a shepherd. How to make as one’s primary concern, as he says to Peter at the end of the Gospel of John, the feeding of Jesus’ sheep.
To be a follower of Jesus and to deny one’s self is not a call out of the world. Instead it is a call to immerse oneself more fully in it. To follow Jesus is not to go up to a mountain top and soak in the rarified air of enlightenment. It is to go down into the valleys, no below the valleys, down into the very trenches to love openheartedly and openhandedly the broken in body and spirit.
And what is it that enables Jesus to do so and for his followers to do so as well? It is love. Love that is freely shared, and freely given away. It turns out that to follow Jesus is to move from looking for what one can get to what one can give. The way of Jesus is the way of self-emptying love, or some of you may know it by its fancy name which is Kenosis. To go from tagging along behind Jesus to following him is to awaken to love. First to awaken to a love, a desire, a want to follow Jesus in all the richness of that word and then to go deeper and deeper into this love.
The greatest mystery and the most profound joy, that is at the heart of the gospel is that to give is to receive, to lose is to save, the way up is down.
And that is where the cross comes in.
Jesus says that to follow him is first to want to do so. To follow him is to love with abandon, but to follow him is also to take up our cross.
What does he mean by this? Does he mean that we are to acquiesce to suffering, or worse still to seek it out?
The world is full of suffering. We feel it within ourselves and see it in the faces both near and far. What Jesus is asking is that we take up this suffering as he did. Take it up and carrying it as far as we can perhaps all the way to Golgatha, so that, that suffering can be transformed. So that through our work and words, through our carrying that suffering we work to end it.
For Jesus gave his life to end suffering not to perpetuate it. The dawn of Easter morn is a “yes” to life, to the end of fear, want and grief. If we are followers of Jesus, we are to do the same, taking up the cross of hunger not to suffer it, but to work or a day when all bellies are filled; taking up the cross of homelessness not to endure it , but to work for the day when all have a place to call home; taking up the crosses of our time and giving our lives to it so that suffering shall be no more.
So here we are standing with that crowd listening to Jesus. We hear him call to us. Do we want to follow him? Are we ready for this mysteriously powerful walk of transformative love?
It is OK if we are not. It’s fine to be in the crowd. Remember Jesus loves the crowd. He feeds them, heals them, tends to them as a shepherd tends to her sheep.
But if now is the time, if we feel the love of Jesus pulling on our heart, let us go. Let us follow. Let discipleship begin.
“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.”