March 18, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Fifth Sunday in Lent
The Way of the Disciple
What is your most precious possession? The world has plenty of expensive baubles to offer. For instance, how about a god-plated, diamond studded iPhone? The cost is $2.97 million and it’s only a 3G model!
Or you can own the world’s most expensive television called the Prestige HD Supreme Rose edition designed by Stuart Hughes. The outer frame is gold with diamonds and the inner frame is alligator skin. The cost is a mere $2.3 million for the 55-inch screen!
Or for you ladies who like purses, you can buy a Hermes Birkin Handbag for prices that start at a paltry $10,000. Or you can buy one with gold and diamonds for a sweet $1.9 million.
Or maybe you’re into watches. If you own a Rolex it’s probably a prized possession. But if you paid $25 million for a diamond and gold watch designed by Chopard, it might be your most precious possession.
Or if you’re an art lover, you can be the owner of a Jackson Pollard piece called Painting #5 for $140 million. Make sure you have room to hang it in your house, because it’s 4 foot by 8 foot, the exact size of a piece of plywood. That’s what it’s painted on.
What is your most cherished possession? I’ll give you a hint: “It’s not a thing.” In Matthew 16:26 and also in our scripture today, Jesus said, “What shall it profit a [person] if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Or what can a person give in exchange for his soul?” What is your most prized possession? It’s your soul. Your soul is infinitely more precious and valuable than anything or anybody in this life.
As someone once said, this whole scripture passage is shocking. First, as we learned last week, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, a title which Jesus promptly upends in a way that Peter never intended. Then there is the startling prediction of Jesus’ suffering and death. And finally, Jesus offers the bleak and cryptic call to discipleship as “losing one’s life.” After reading these verses today, it is a small wonder that anyone at all is left being a follower of Christ. More about that in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
In the passage before our scripture today, Peter just confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, for whom the Jews have been waiting from the time of King David. But Peter’s idea of the Messiah and Jesus’ explanation of the Son of Man couldn’t be more different.
Remember from last week? As soon as Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Why? Probably because of the exchange between Peter and Jesus that follows this warning.
I’m sure Proud Peter was busy patting himself on the back for the answer he gave to Jesus’ question, “who do you say that I am?” because Peter’s idea of a Messiah was the same as most other Jews. Peter likely has in mind a political liberator who would free the people of Israel from the tyranny of the Roman Empire. And yet, as soon as Peter identifies Jesus as Messiah, Jesus forbids him to speak about it and begins to describe the suffering that is to come to the “Son of Man.” Peter’s idea of a Messiah was a conquering hero. Peter had the right title but the wrong understanding of what the title means for Jesus. When Jesus declares “quite openly” that he is going to suffer and be rejected and be killed, Peter does not want to hear that.
“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” You wonder if Peter even hears the last part of Jesus’ statement, the part about rising after three days. Peter doesn’t want to hear about a suffering Messiah. He apparently is looking for a Messiah who will establish God’s rule with power and authority, and who will bring his followers glory and reward.
But in front of all the disciples, because they were thinking the same thing as Peter, Jesus rebukes Peter and basically says, “Get behind me, you tempter! You’re thinking like a man and not like God.” Why did Jesus rebuke Peter so sternly? Because he is putting into words the very temptations which are attacking Jesus. Jesus does not want to die. He knows that he has powers which he can use for conquest. But at this moment, Jesus is refighting the battle of the temptations in the wilderness. This is the devil tempting him again to fall down and worship him, to take his way instead of God’s way.
William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark, says “it is a strange thing, and sometimes a terrible thing, that the tempter sometimes speaks to us in the voice of a well-meaning friend. We may have decided on a course which is the right course, but which will inevitably bring trouble, loss, unpopularity, sacrifice. And some well-meaning friend tries with the best intentions in the world to stop us.” Jesus knew the right course to take and he knew the horrors that awaited him. But Jesus heard Satan in Peter’s voice. Who would ever have thought that God would design a method of saving the world that would include disaster, despair, and death? No one! Soul-saving salvation could only come through a suffering Messiah. There is no other way.
And then once again, Jesus uses this time as a teaching moment. He calls the crowd to him along with his disciples and teaches them the way of following him, the way of discipleship. This has to be most shocking to those who hear it. Jesus never sought to lure anyone to him by the offer of an easy way; he sought to challenge men and women, to waken the boldness and moral courage in their souls, by the offer of a way than which none could be higher and harder. Jesus came not to make life easy but to challenge people to greatness.
First, if anyone would follow me, Jesus said, he must deny himself or herself. For the most part, it is not Satan that gets in our way of serving God. It is ourselves, our egos, that cause us to fail to follow God’s way. We have to set self aside as best we can to be effective in God’s work, and that goes against our very nature.
If we would follow Jesus, we must say no to ourselves and yes to Christ. We must say no to our own natural love of ease and comfort. We must say no to every course of action based on self-seeking and self-will. We must say no to the instincts and the desires which prompt us to touch and taste and handle the forbidden things. We must unhesitatingly say yes to the voice and the command of Jesus Christ. We must be able to say with the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
First, we deny ourselves. Second, Jesus said, “if you follow me, take up your cross.” R. Kent Hughes writes in his commentary on Mark: “The Cross is for all who follow Christ. Christ leads the procession carrying his cross, and we, his followers, tread in his steps, bearing our own crosses. We march to death.
“What are our crosses?” he writes. “They are not simply trials or hardships. It is typical to think of a nutty boss or an unfair teacher or a bossy mother-in-law as our ‘cross.’ But they are not. Neither can we properly call an illness or a handicap a cross. A cross comes from specifically walking in Christ’s steps, embracing his life. It comes from bearing disdain because we are embracing the narrow way of the Cross – that Jesus is ‘the way and the truth and the life.’ It comes from living out the business and sexual ethics of Christ in the marketplace and world. It comes from embracing weakness instead of power. It comes from extending oneself in difficult circumstances for the sake of the gospel.”
There is a story about a man who complained about the cross that he had to bear. So, an angel ushered him up to heaven and took him into a room filled with crosses. The angel told the man to set his cross down and pick out another. The man looked and looked. Some crosses were large, some were thorny. He looked and looked and finally picked the one that looked easiest to bear. The angel said, “That is the one you brought in.” Folks, the cross we bear is not above God’s ability to help us bear it.
First, we deny ourselves. Second, we take up our cross, and lastly, Jesus asks us to simply follow him. There are people willing to deny themselves and willing to carry their crosses, and yet, don’t for various reasons. They may say, “I will do it later.” Or, “I am really not sure what to do.” Or, “I am not sure that God is calling me to do anything.” Yet, if we are really honest with ourselves, we can see the blood-stained path of Jesus going before us. Deep down, we know we need to follow and how to follow. We can hear the Spirit’s call and yet still not follow.
In chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells this parable. “A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John [the Baptist] came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him. Jesus says to follow. And that is what we must do. We deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. It is easier said than done!
When we want to follow our own selfish desires, then we will lose our eternal life with Christ. But when we follow in the way of Christ, we save ourselves for an eternity with him and lose our own selfish motives. Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
The commentary writer William Barclay writes: “There are certain things which are lost by being kept and saved by being used. Any individual talent is like that. If it is used, it will develop into something still greater. If someone refuses to use it, in the end that talent will be lost…. God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort and security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for those for whom Jesus died, we are wining life all the time.”
Folks, that is the essence of following Christ, giving our lives for others. Jesus did it for us. We are not out to gain the world, but to gain our soul for an eternity by following in Jesus’ footsteps. That is what our founder, John Wesley wanted for his disciples in Christ. To be perfect in this life time by loving God and loving each other.
And Jesus says, when the king, that is Jesus, comes into his kingdom in the presence of God and the holy angels, he will be loyal to those who have been loyal to him. Jesus, in fact, is saying, “In a difficult and hostile world, Christianity is up against it these day. If you are ashamed under such conditions to show that you are a Christian, [that is, a Christ-follower,] if you are afraid to show what side you are on, you cannot expect to gain a place of honor when the kingdom comes.”
Brothers and sisters in Christ. You do not have to die to see the kingdom of God. If each one of us follows in Jesus’ footsteps and we deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, then we will surely see the kingdom of God all around us. And we will see it in all its glory and power as more and more people follow in Jesus’ path.
Jesus carries our cross. Others carry their crosses. And we carry our cross. We are all in this together. Carrying our cross is our opportunity, a daily opportunity that is before us, when we can give our lives sacrificially in acts of love, acts of compassion, acts of justice, and acts of peace. We should all feel honored to carry a cross for the Lord. The cross is a symbol of the saving grace of the Lord. The cross to us represents new life, a risen savior, a God who loves us so much that he gave his only son for us.
Your soul is your most prized possession. And so I ask you now, can you take on the way of the disciple?