I don't know exactly how many times in the four Gospel accounts of the New Testament Jesus asks other people to follow him. But it's well more than 20. The whole question of "Who is willing to follow Jesus Christ?" is pretty much the defining question of Christianity.
Some Christians may ask it personally of you in the form of, "Are you saved?" (which means essentially, "Have you claimed Jesus personally enough to really be a follower?") Other people may simply pose the question about following Jesus in terms like, "You mean you believe all of this stuff about forgiveness, and loving enemies, and this resurrection from the dead?" However it's worded, the whole matter of following Jesus is central to living the Christian faith.
The question becomes, "What does it actually mean to follow Jesus, especially in modern times, or in middle- or upper-middle class North America?" If you're going to take the words of Jesus seriously - those ones about "losing your life for his sake" and "denying yourself" - well, what's your life going to look like? Should you vacation in Cancun? Or would the Adirondacks be better? Which destination would express your faith more fully? Does camping versus staying in a hotel make a difference? Should you pursue a job promotion, or be content with where you are? What about expensive theater tickets? If you buy a pair of those, is that gross self-indulgence? Or if your house is full of all sorts of material possessions, what will happen to your soul the next time you pass over a person in need?
What does it mean to follow Jesus in your life, and in these times? We can worry over the stock market and argue over who holds the TV's remote control. We can get all fussy over keeping neighborhood kids and their basketball off the church's parking lot, even if we don't give a whip about the inner or outer states of their lives. But for the life of us, we struggle to keep focus during even the briefest of prayers. So what does it mean to follow Jesus in your life and in these times?
Well, these sorts of questions about following the Lord Jesus come to a head in today's reading from Mark's eighth chapter. The disciple Peter gets all excited to profess that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, when Jesus asks him the question, "Who do you say that I am?" But the instant that Peter learns that this also means Jesus must undergo great suffering, deep rejection, and ultimately death, Peter backs away. He critiques Jesus. He rebukes Jesus. The glamour of following Jesus is suddenly gone for Peter. It no longer seems like a life that he's sure he wants to undertake. But more than this, as far as we can tell, Jewish thinking had never before entertained the idea that the Messiah must suffer and die. This was ludicrous, they believed. If anything, the Messiah was supposed to inflict suffering, not live with it as a personal reality. And what good would a dead Messiah be anyway?
If Peter was nervous about his life in Christ imposing a certain degree of suffering and self-denial upon him, he wasn't alone. You've been there yourself. Most of us would choose a religion and come to believe important things deeply because we feel they're good for us. Suffering doesn't exactly sound good! If you were to offer me a scathed life versus an unscathed life, I'd go for the unscathed variety myself. For who would welcome the idea of suffering if there were other options available? Yet this is where we must suddenly get very honest about the Christian life. Christianity is not about solving problems and making life easier. If anything, following Jesus is going to complicate your life, and unmistakably so.
The late Quaker philosopher Elton Trueblood understood this complicating nature of the Christian way. "In many areas," he wrote, "the gospel, instead of taking away peoples' burdens, actually adds to them." On a number of occasions, Trueblood told the story of John Woolman, a successful Quaker merchant in the 18th century who lived a wonderfully nice life until God convicted him one day of the offense of holding slaves. After that, John Woolman gave up his prosperous business; he used his money to try and free slaves and even started wearing undyed suits to avoid relying on dye that slave labor produced. Says Elton Trueblood, "Occasionally we talk of our Christianity as something that solves problems, and there is a sense in which it does. Long before it does so, however, it increases both the number and the intensity of problems."
Accepting this assessment of Christianity is one of the hardest things in the world. Maybe this is why Jesus had to repeat these words so many times, these words we hear in today's reading. They are the words spoken by Jesus more times than any other he ever uttered: "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel, will save it." Frankly, this is an idea that's just hard to believe. It runs counter to what we want to believe. So Jesus is left to repeat it a good number of times, I suppose, hoping to get it inside of our thick craniums and our pleasure-minded hearts.
Following Jesus asks for a life that in one way or another has the cross deeply embedded in it. There is sacrifice expected. We give up our lives. Playing it safe no longer is an acceptable philosophy. Death stops being a reality to be feared. Check this out sometime: The first half of Mark's Gospel is all about "how to live." Jesus gives instructions of one kind or another on how we might best fashion our lives. And, then, at this pivotal point right in the center of Mark's Gospel account, Jesus makes a shift. He begins to show us "how to die." Now that we have been given a life, he demonstrates how to give it up … or how to give it away. This is a huge move.
If we've never caught it before this eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus makes absolutely clear here that God doesn't care about our creature comforts and safety. God cares about a holiness that can reside in us, a holiness that will bring joy and meaning that are far deeper than some mere comfort in living. If you want to have a worthwhile life, you're going to have to look for ways to give that life away. If you want to save your life, well, of necessity, you're going to have to hand over those petty obsessions and those mistaken priorities. You're going to have to think more of loving than of being loved, more of understanding than of being understood, more of forgiving than of being forgiven. Near as I can tell, we can try to safe-deposit-box our lives all we want and be very, very cautious about whom we even let into our lives. But this is not commendable living. In fact, according to Jesus, it's downright dangerous living. We'll lose our soul if we're not careful. Living a life that really matters in the name of Jesus will not allow room for clutching or hoarding or playing it safe. It asks instead for a less possessive way - a way that treats life more like a precious gift to be shared than a commodity to be stored up.
In the last paragraph of his great book entitled Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis has these important lines. "The principle runs through all life, from top to bottom," he says. "Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death - the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ," says C.S. Lewis, "and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in."
Keep nothing back. Look for Christ and you will find him, and with him, everything else thrown in.
I don't know about you, but I have found in my own life that sometimes I am more comfortable talking about Jesus than expressing some wild and passionate devotion to him. I think I'm holding nothing back, and then I realize that caring about Jesus with the insight of my mind or through the books on my shelf is not the same as giving over the full allegiance of my life. It's a little bit like the difference between talking about a loved one and actually picking up the phone and telling a person you really love them.
When Jesus asked his disciples that day, "Who do people say that I am?" they had no trouble answering that question. As many prominent names as they could pull out of their Bible or from their community, they offered up. It was a nice objective question to which they could give nice objective answers. When Jesus changed one word, however, they all went fetching for a reply. "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked them. Suddenly, their confidence and investment in him, and all that he was, was being tested. This was a much more difficult question to answer, because they had to answer it with their lives and not just with their brains.
Maybe you recall the first time you ever told someone (for whom you had strong feelings) that you really loved them. Your mouth got dry and your palms turned sweaty as you sought the courage to utter those words that are so powerful: "I love you." It's one thing to acknowledge that these three words are true. It's altogether something else to speak them and to realize how powerfully true they are. Because once they're spoken, you can no longer avoid the implications of them for your life.
Something like this happens when we hear Jesus ask not, "Who do people say that I am?" but, "Who do you say that I am?" The minute we hear this question rattling around in our heads, we have a choice. Either we can hold back and talk about this Christ figure whose sayings and deeds are written down in a precious ancient book, or we can decide to open up the fullness of our lives by using the language of love. If you should choose the second option for living your life in Christ, be prepared for a wild ride. Yes, there will be some hard times and some enormous suffering, I imagine. But you will also have an incredibly abundant life, complete not only with Christ, but with everything else thrown in.
Let us pray.
Oh, Lord, help us take fresh stock of our lives. When we're not thoroughly convinced that we're up to the sufferings and pains and tribulations that accompany life and you, give us the grace to hold on, the faith to hold nothing back from you. We pray this in your name. Amen.