February 24, 2018
We’re in our second week of Lent. Throughout this season, we are considering what it means to be fools for Christ. We live in a world that values outsmarting the competition, and being on top of the game. But Jesus teaches a way of living that shines in sharp contrast to the world’s wisdom. Instead of always trying to get ahead, Jesus teaches the way of putting others first, of making ourselves vulnerable to suffering.
Jesus encourages us to be fools for the sake of the gospel. It will all come together on Easter morning, as Jesus gets the last laugh on Death and Sin. It’s no joke that Easter falls on April Fool’s Day this year. And in the meantime, we will see how God’s promises may seem foolish to people who don’t know him, but they are the source of life to all who believe.
Last week, we watched God send Noah on what seemed like a fool’s errand, to build an ark on dry land, and fill it with every kind of animal. We heard the words of God’s first covenant agreement, a promise to never again destroy the earth with a flood. We saw how the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Accuser, and how this fool’s errand prepared Jesus to begin his ministry of healing and teaching and proclaiming the good news that God’s kingdom had broken into our world.
Now we join Jesus and his disciples near the end of that ministry. The improbability factor is rising. We heard in the reading from Genesis how, given his advanced age, it was highly improbable that Abram would ever father children. Yet, Abram believed God’s promise that he would become the father of many nations, and God credited it to him as righteousness. In the gospel we are about to hear, Jesus tells us that, improbable as it might seem, the way to heavenly glory is the way of submission and suffering.
Then he 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those 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.” – Mark 8:31-38
Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. That’s Christian discipleship in a nutshell, isn’t it? But what does it mean to deny yourself, and what does it mean to take up your cross? To paraphrase Inigo Montoya in A Princess Bride, “We keep using these words, but I do not think they mean what we think they mean.” So let’s start with a couple of definitions.
Let’s take “Deny.” In the Greek lexicon, the word aparNEHomai means “to deny utterly, [or] disown.” In biblical terms, it means:
- to affirm that one has no acquaintance or connection with someone
- to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests
This word only appears in the New Testament twice: here, where Jesus is telling us to deny ourselves, and in the High Priest’s courtyard on the night Jesus is betrayed, when Peter denies knowing Jesus. Let that sink in for a moment. …
We aren’t talking about giving up this or that for Lent. This isn’t about abstinence or fasting. Bruce Maples puts it this way: “To deny yourself like Peter denied Jesus is to set aside your own interests in order to ascertain God’s interests. It is to state that, in effect, you do not know You, and since you don’t know You, you also have no idea what that You person would want. Thus, you are ready to do what God wants.”
Jesus says, “Deny yourself, forget that you even know yourself.” That sounds like foolish talk. But he doesn’t stop there. “Pick up your cross,” Jesus says.
I will tell you that this confused me for a long time. The disciples didn’t know yet that Jesus was going to die on a cross. The cross did not have the same significance for them that it has now for us. So their only frame of reference would have been something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Picking up a cross meant certain death, but it meant death in the most degrading and cruel way possible. Yet Jesus says, “Forget who you are, and get ready to die in a shameful way.”
In our affluent, 21st century culture, we have watered down the meaning of this kind of sacrifice. Maples writes, “bearing our cross” is NOT about dealing with some normal suffering or problem or part of human existence. That happens to everyone, every day.
“When Jesus took up his cross, what did he do? He chose (he wasn’t forced) to carry out the ministry that God wanted him to do. THAT is what “take up your cross” means — you make an active choice to live into the ministry that God has called you to do, every day.” And you make that choice, knowing full well that it will cost you your life. Not just your lifestyle. Not just a little inconvenience. Your life. Jesus says, “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. “ You will lose your life. Let that sink in for a minute. …
Before we go on, let’s go back for a moment. Let’s go back to the beginning of this passage, where Jesus has begun to teach the disciples “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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.”
In his devotional book, Lent for Everyone, NT Wright points out that the disciples were still looking for a military leader in their Messiah, so they probably weren’t too surprised to hear that they might be killed in the uprising they were expecting Jesus to lead. But there is more going on here than recognizing that anyone involved in a ‘kingdom of God’ coup d’état must be prepared to die.
We get a hint of this when Jesus rebukes Peter. Peter may have been “prepared (in theory at least) to risk his life to support Jesus, but it surely can’t be right for Jesus himself to die! Jesus is the one they need to be king, not to throw his life away. Without Jesus, the whole movement is nothing.
“Jesus …uses the sharpest possible language to scold Peter. ‘Get behind me, Accuser!’ he said. In other words, Peter has put into words not only the counsel of … common sense. Peter has blurted out what the Accuser, the satan, has been whispering to Jesus all along. ‘You can’t go and die; that will ruin it all! You’re doing fine; some more healings, some more parables, people will get the message. Don’t be silly; don’t be rash; don’t be melodramatic;’” – don’t be …. foolish… but “Jesus recognizes the voice for what it is, even though it’s coming through the lips of his own closest associate. It is the voice of the Accuser, the one who is always on the attack, always eager to undermine the work of God, always ready to lead people into more sin and more guilt so there will be more for him to accuse them of.”
It’s the same voice that tells us, “You don’t really need to reach out to people. Talking about faith is a personal matter, and you might offend someone you don’t know very well if you go there. Don’t embarrass yourself. Don’t be … foolish.”
Wright goes on to say, “There is a sense in the gospel in which, because Jesus dies, we do not. His unique death saves us from what would otherwise be ours. But there is another sense, repeated again and again in the rest of the New Testament, that because Jesus dies, we must die too. We must pick up our cross – bearing public shame, … as well as the prospect of pain and suffering – and follow him. That is not only the route by which we must travel for our own sakes. It is the path … through which Jesus’ victory is made real, again and again, in the world.”
This sounds crazy. It sounds foolish. Why rock the boat? Why put yourself in the position of having conversations that might get awkward? It’s so much easier to slip into a lifestyle that doesn’t make waves, that doesn’t call attention to the Accuser’s lies, that doesn’t require making ourselves vulnerable to ridicule or disdain.
“And behind this obvious, worldly advice there is the hidden message: don’t talk about the cross. Don’t mention Jesus. You don’t want people to think you’re a fanatic” (Wright, p. 36). You don’t want to look or sound like a fool.
But Jesus did. And Jesus says, “Follow me. Have faith in me. Forget yourself, and take on the ministry God has given you, and come with me.”
“Those 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.” But if you will deny yourself, so you can know me, and if you will take up your cross, as I have taken up mine, and if you will follow me, as foolish as it sometimes seems, I will be with you, even to the end of the age. Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Crucified One, You took up your cross for our sakes. Give us courage to take up our crosses for your sake. Help us to forget our own wants, so that we can focus more clearly on what you want for us. Lead us into your kingdom’s fullness, not as if it were a military conquest, but so that we can participate in showing the world that your kingdom is here, now. We want to follow you. We give our lives to you. Take us, as we are, and make us your own. Amen.
 N. T. Wright. Lent for Everyone: Mark, Year B (pp. 33-36). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.