Revising the Agenda

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Then Jesus 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."

Whenever I hear this Bible passage, I smell potato soup. One day when I was about fourteen years old, my mother announced we were going to church for something called a "sacrificial" supper. She said it had something to do with the season of Lent. That was curious, too. We were a low-church Presbyterian family. Liturgical seasons didn't mean much to us. Any talk of Lent didn't make much sense. At least, not until that night.

So there we were, one Sunday night in late winter. Fellowship Hall was half-empty. We sat at tables and waited to be served a great banquet. When the kitchen door finally opened, somebody brought out a pot of potato soup. It was white and pasty. It smelled like onions. I pushed my bowl aside and waited for the next course, which never arrived. It seemed like a cruel joke. The entire menu for the dinner was potato soup. There was nothing else to eat.

At the end of dinner, our minister stood up and explained we were doing this because it was Lent and Lent is the season of self-denial. On a normal Sunday, he said, we might be sitting down to a large meal, but this particular night we were giving up a fine dinner and choosing a simpler menu. And our minister said the reason we were doing this was because Christians are people who deny themselves, pick up a cross, and follow Jesus.

To this day I cannot understand what potato soup has to do with Christian discipleship, but the association remains fixed in my brain.

Here we are in the season of Lent. As we move toward the cross and prepare ourselves for the resurrection, there's no question that self-denial is a central theme for these days. For a lot of people, Lenten self-denial means merely giving up chocolate, much the same way I have decided this year to swear off exercise.

But when we probe deeper, we hear that self-denial is central to the story of Jesus. It is a central theme in the passage we heard a few minutes ago. Jesus tells his disciples he is going to suffer and die. This is the first of three occasions when he says it. Eight chapters into the Gospel of Mark the secret is out--that Jesus who saves will suffer. The One who confronts every kind of evil will be destroyed by evil. Jesus will deny himself and pick up a cross. He chooses to save the world, even if it means losing his life.

Simon Peter doesn't understand this and, frankly, I can't blame him. It's a difficult message to hear. If anybody wants help from Jesus, they must remember how he endured suffering and rejection. Jesus did not swoop down from heaven ready to snatch us from the earth. Rather, he came down to earth and stayed here until he was buried in the ground. Immediately before our text, Peter makes his great confession. "Jesus, you're the Messiah." And he was right as far as he goes. What Peter couldn't comprehend is that Jesus gives his life as an act of self-denial. He took the low road all the way to the cross. That's a hard picture to keep in focus. His sacrifice judges our perceptions of success and accomplishment.

But the word which is even more difficult to hear is the word Jesus says to all of us. "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me." The low road Jesus took is the only road available for anyone who tags along behind him. This is not an easy word for us to hear.

The three imperatives clang like a cracked bell: deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. What are we going to do about this?

It's particularly difficult because we often take these words to mean that we should put ourselves down for the sake of the Gospel, that we should deprive ourselves to the glory of God, even to the point of denying our God-given dignity. In my experience, the people who get most upset about this point of view are smart, capable women, and with good reason. Historically, a lot of women have been subject to a systematic put-down. They've been told they are second-class citizens, that they are expected to serve everybody else.

I have a friend who went to pay a call on a wealthy rancher in another state. He went on behalf of the college where he worked. The development office set up the appointment in the hope that this rancher might give some money for a scholarship to the college. My friend traveled out there, he knocked on the door, he was shown inside. As they began to chat, he realized he and the rancher were not alone. A woman in a gray shawl shuffled quietly through the back of the room. The rancher said, "Bring our guest something to eat!" She shuffled in, she sat down some food without saying a word. The men continued to talk. The rancher said, "Come and get his dishes." The woman in gray shuffled in, collected the plates, never making eye contact, and she left. The conversation between the men ended. The rancher said, "Bring his coat!" She shuffled in with his coat and then quickly disappeared. He was halfway home on his flight when the man from the college said, "I, I just can't deal with this." He got home, he said, "I couldn't sleep all night. I wanted to go back there, look her in the eye, thank her for all her kindness, and give some humanity back to her."

Jesus says, "Deny yourselves." You know, it's difficult for some people to even hear that word when they've had so much taken away. How can people in poverty believe it is a virtue to give up what little dignity they bear? How can the downtrodden ever hear this obligation of the gospel?

Sometimes we need to claim the love and dignity of God and then see what happens. Like the woman who made an appointment to talk about troubles at home. At one point in our conversation she said, "When my opinion of myself improved, my marriage got worse."

For those who struggle to feel empowered, for those who believe for the first time in their lives they are worthy of love and appreciation, it can be harsh to hear Jesus say, "Deny yourself." It's particularly true if you have recently discovered that you have a self.

Today I want to suggest that the best way to hear these words is to hear them within the entire context of Mark's Gospel. According to Mark, Jesus is the Strong Servant of God. He comes to make a constructive difference in the world. Jesus comes to confront every force that disturbs and destroys human life. Throughout this Gospel he is sent by God to give back dignity to all who have it taken away. Picture the leper who was segregated from the community by his disease. Jesus restores him to health and community. See the woman who lives on the fringe of town suffering from a hemorrhage--Jesus heals her and gives her a name. Look at the sinner who cannot undo the effects of his misdeeds--Jesus cancels all his debts with God.

Listen. Mark tells us how Jesus comes to give worth and value, not take it away.

And so, I've begun to think and rethink the order of those three imperatives: deny yourself, carry a cross, follow me.

Which comes first? Which is most important to God? We can deny ourselves, but like I've been saying, we run the risk of ignoring our God-given dignity. We can go out looking for crosses to carry, and I'm sure you realize there are people who love to do that, always looking for a cause to annoy somebody else, always dressing in the armor of a martyr, always saying, "Hit me again." There are some people who are never happy unless they are suffering in some way, and they get so smug about it.

The point is, Jesus never says, "Go out into the world and get yourself beaten up!" But he does say, "Follow me." In my reading of the Gospel of Mark, that's what matters. We are invited to follow Jesus. We are called for and called upon to follow him. His invitation comes before every other claim on our lives.

Following Jesus means two things. First, we become his disciples. That means we put ourselves in the position to learn from him. We give up the allusion that we are experts in leading our own lives. We revise our personal agendas and we learn from Jesus. Second, if we follow Jesus, that means we will engage in the same work that Jesus has been doing, which is to say we will speak out against every mean spirit, we will feed the hungry and heal the sick, we will speak the truth, we will touch the untouchable, forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable. We will do God's work in the world, just like Jesus. When we do that, we have every reason to expect that what happened to him might happen to us.

As one New Testament scholar reminds us, the members of Mark's community are not called to suffer. They are called to preach the Gospel. Because of the confrontational nature of that calling, the world they confront will persecute them in order to stop them. Suffering is the result of the call, not the call itself. What happened to Jesus, for the same reason it happened to him, will happen to those acting and preaching in his name.

Friends, we don't wake up every morning and say, "How am I going to let the world beat me up today?" But we are called upon to get out of bed to ask, "How can I let the whole world know the life of Jesus is the hope of the world?"

Once I thought those three commands had to stay in the same order that they appear in the Bible: Deny yourself, go looking for a cross, and then follow Jesus. But the more I reflect on this the more I realize the emphasis moves in the other direction. The most important thing we can ever do is to follow Jesus Christ, to learn from him and to do his work. And then if the world hands us a cross, we shouldn't expect anything different.

Jesus says, "Come, follow me." That does not mean we will intentionally put ourselves in positions where we will be put down, beaten up, or killed. But it does mean we will take God more seriously than we take ourselves.

In one of his books, John Calvin said that self-denial is "the sum of the Christian life." He claimed that it is the heart of true piety, the basis of generous stewardship, and the source of our helpfulness to our neighbors. Denying ourselves in this context means we hold back because we have put God's purposes before our own. It's the kind of spiritual discipline, says Calvin, that "erases from our minds the yearning to possess, the desire for power, and the desire for the favor of others." True self-denial "uproots ambition and all craving for human glory." Why? Because it means we choose to put God's ways before our own pursuits. We choose to follow Jesus and to do his work. And nothing else will ever come before it.

"Follow me. Pick up your cross. Deny yourself." During these days of Lent, this is his invitation. It never means that we give up our dignity, but it does mean that we will take on the mantle of faithfulness. We will speak as Jesus speaks. We will act as Jesus has come to act. And if a cross is given to us, we will not carry it alone--for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

Let us pray.

We are your children, O God our Maker. This day we offer our lives to you and we acknowledge that we are unfinished disciples. Give us the clarity to see where Christ rightly leads us and, more than that, give us the courage to follow in his steps. In all things release us from the burden of our own independence, that we might belong totally to you, heart, soul, mind, and strength. Amen.

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