Yesterday was a great day to reflect on Jesus’ call to us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and to follow him. It is important to understand that Scripture is not merely meant to be read and understood in its original setting, but it is vital (i.e., life-giving) to know that Scripture is God’s very words to us in our time and in our various settings. Too often we can dissect and parse out all that a certain periscope meant, but spend very little time in the hard work of letting it dissect and parse our own souls.
One of the big pieces for me as I was studying was Jesus strange phrase: “If you want to follow me…then follow me.” What a strange thing to say. Really. “If you want to follow me, you must follow me.” And yet this is the story of Christian discipleship for the last two millenia. There are many who claim the name of Christ, yet live their lives like everyone else. The kind of Messiah we want too often is merely an addition to our somewhat happy lives. He provides us with a some insurance at the end of our lives.
Below is my manuscript from Sunday:
Last week we considered how suffering for the sake of the Gospel proclaims the beauty of the Gospel. It does this when we embrace the suffering in such a way that it points to the sufficiency and love and acceptance of Another. We also considered the fact that our suffering for the Gospel is derivative of Christ’s suffering. That is, only his suffering was sufficient to pay for our sin. Our suffering doesn’t pay for our sin, but it conforms is into his image.
Today we are looking at the passage I mentioned a couple weeks ago as being the hinge of Mark’s Gospel. Up to our passage today Jesus has been showing his authority and power over sickness and demons—over all Creation. At this turning point in Mark, there is a turn.
And it’s not merely a turn in the story, but it’s a turn toward you and me. It’s as if Mark is writing his gospel and he looks up from his parchment and looks at you and me and asks us—“What do you think about all this?”
Jesus just finished healing a man who was blind from birth. And just like it took a while for his eyesight to be restored from blind to fuzzy to clear, so also we will see the disciples’ sight of who the Messiah is and what his mission is will go from blind to fuzzy to clear.
Then Jesus and his disciples went to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 They said, “John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 Then he warned them not to tell anyone about him.
Mark 8:31 Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke openly about this. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But after turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.”
Mark 8:34 Then Jesus called the crowd, along with his disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. 36 For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life? 37 What can a person give in exchange for his life? 38 For if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Mark 9:1 And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
There are two edges to our passage today, so there are two points to our message. Both of these points fall under the main point of this passage, which is: Death is the cost of admission into the Kingdom of God. As we will see in our passage today, the death Jesus calls us to is representative and mirrors his death. He physically died as the payment for our sin. In light of that, he calls us to lay down our lives—not literally—but entirely. Entirely is an umbrella under which literally can fall. In other words, he’s not telling us the only way to enter the kingdom is through physical death. This, honestly, would make entrance into the kingdom easy and up to our whims and wills. Consider the deranged extremists who believe that if they blow themselves up, they will go to Paradise. He is telling us that entrance into the kingdom is much more demanding. It demands dying to yourself, while you are living.
The first point of our passage is The Cost of Messiahship (vv. 27-33)
Jesus has caused quite a stir in the Judean countryside. He’s made those sick all their lives well, by merely telling them to do so. He’s attracted large crowds of people and fed them out of nowhere. He challenges the religious—the ones who had a corner on the market of righteousness. Quite a stir! Indeed, in all of these interactions we see the Messiah has come!
What kind of Messiah, though?
Everyone is buzzing about who this wonder worker is. They had merely seen the miracles but never made the connection as to why these particular miracles. The crowds were amazed by the works, but did not consider the why behind them. Why did Jesus go to such lengths to heal and to rebuke—demons and the religious leaders? They, like us, make a superficial connection with who Jesus is and what we know about the world. That is, they saw Jesus heal people and they simply thought, “He’s one of the prophets. Perhaps even the great Elijah. Or a good moral teacher.” They were happy to have Jesus heal their son or daughter, but did not stick around long enough to find out why.
Peter makes the stunning claim, “You are the Christ.” This term “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word and concept of “Messiah” or “Anointed One”. Throughout the OT, God’s leaders are anointed with oil to set them apart for God’s purposes—priests and kings. But in each of these offices—prophets, priests, and kings—they pointed to a greater fulfillment that was to come.
This concept of the Messiah grew and grew to signify and highlight the power and strength of the One to Come. By the time Jesus arrives, there had been such a buzz about An Anointed One of God who would destroy all the Jews’ oppressors. Listen to one passage:
Gird [your Anointed One] with strength, that he may shatter unrighteous rulers;
And purify Jerusalem of the nations which trample her down in destruction.
In wisdom, in righteousness, may he expel sinners from the inheritance:
May he smash the sinner’s arrogance like a potter’s vessel.
With a rod of iron may he break in pieces all their substance.
May he destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth.
This was a psalm at the time. People were singing that God would devastate their oppressors. This is why Jesus told people to keep the healings a secret. And this is why Jesus immediately teaches them that the Anointed One, the Son of Man, must suffer and die and be raised again.
And like us, Peter focuses only on the part he wants to hear. He didn’t hear the being raised again part. Even if he did, it didn’t compute with the suffering and dying part. We want resurrection and glory before we want suffering and death.
Which brings us to Jesus’ question to you and me. “Who do you say that I am?” Before you too quickly answer that, “You are my Savior!” Let’s consider our daily actions in light of Jesus. Perhaps here are some other questions that may help us parse out who we say Jesus is:
—When difficulties come, do we merely want the cup to pass or do we ask for the strength to drink the cup of suffering?
—When there’s a break in our relationships, do we indict all the wrong that someone else has done to us or do we confess our sin and ask Jesus to forgive us?
—When we are hanging out with friends and the topic of conversation turns so that we could share the beauty and worth of the Gospel do we keep our mouths shut so that we don’t sour the conversation or so that they don’t think we’re weird?
—When we seek to make more money to make more sales or to do better work, who does the work revolve around? Is it merely to make yourself look better or is it so that you can be promoted in order to serve even more people?
—When we consider what kind of church we want to go to, do we consider the kind of disciples that are there or are we merely looking for a place that looks and sounds cool. Has good music and the people dress like me and talk like me and act like me?
Much of our lives end with ourselves and show that our thoughts hardly ever get past ourselves.
What kind of Messiah do we want? Who do we say that Jesus is? Is he merely my wonder worker or my wish giver or the one who makes everything better? Jesus challenges our notions of glory and grandeur.
And so we hear Jesus say to us in our second point—The Cost of Discipleship (vv. 33-9.1) “If anyone would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The Cost of Discipleship is death. As one commentator put it, “The way of the world is conquest and subjugation. Human weakness and depravity desire a path of least resistance and greatest power.” The economics of the world teaches us to give less than we can get. Give as little of yourself as you can get away with so that your revenues can be even greater. The Economics of Salvation teaches that to get your life, you have to first lose it.
Consider the three levels of what Jesus is defining of following him.
Deny: This means to renounce. In order to follow Jesus we need to renounce any claims to ourselves. This is not simply self-discipline. This is, like Peter denying that he even knew Jesus, a denial of our own self-sufficiency and autonomy.
Taking up our Cross: The cross was the punishment reserved for the worst of criminals. It was humiliating and excruciating. This is not simply embracing hardship when it comes. It is choosing to take the path of being thought less in others’ eyes. It is a path that really is a result of first denying ourselves.
Follow: What a strange thing to say. Really. “If you want to follow me, you must follow me.” And yet this is the story of Christian discipleship for the last two millenia. There are many who claim the name of Christ, yet live their lives like everyone else. The kind of Messiah we want too often is merely an addition to our somewhat happy lives. He provides us with a some insurance at the end of our lives.
But between the now and then, he has very little to say and definitely no demands on our lives. And so we we live our lives fooling ourselves that we are Christians and saved, when our lives demonstrate the opposite. When he takes us into deeper truths of who he is in the path of suffering, we give up. We walk away—this teaching is too hard. Instead of a life determined by Jesus, we still are self-determining.
This is not following Jesus.
And lest we think we’re giving up everything just for the sake of giving it up and being ascetics and austere, Jesus asks two rhetorical questions to assure us that this death to self is worth the cost.
Imagine if you would that you win the lottery…even if you don’t play the lottery. Not only do you win the lottery, you find out that you inherited all the possessions in all the world. In fact, the whole world is yours. You get to enjoy it all you want. It’s all yours. But…you will still die at 100 years old. Pretty good deal? In this way, none of it was really yours. You didn’t retain ownership. In fact, at the end of the deal, you are the slave to another.
And Jesus reminds us that we cannot give anything in exchange for our souls.
Both of these questions lay emphasis on our souls…the infinite value of our souls. The price of your soul is to give it over to Christ. You know the beauty of all of this, though? He doesn’t want your soul to merely put it in a cage and shrink it. He wants to breathe life into it and expand it! Indeed, he wants to give you all things. And all those who are his will reign with him when he returns.
—BUT— That’s still not the beauty of the Christian life. Because we are merely stuck with stuff. No, the life he wants from you is with the purpose of opening your eyes, unstopping your ears, giving you strength in your legs to walk and not grow weary. To experience life right now. And this is done in reference to him. Laying down our lives costs us everything, but we get true life, who is Christ. We are found in him and enjoy him and savor him and are captivated by him now. If we will have eyes to see and ears to hear.