By Ellen Sims
Text: Mark 8:27-36
Imagine today’s Gospel story set in contemporary America. Picture Jesus as a political candidate whose platform is the Kingdom of God. He’s on the campaign trail working the crowds, delivering stump speeches, surrounded by his handlers. But Jesus is the worst politician ever.
On his way to the next campaign stop, Jesus debriefs with his aides at campaign headquarters in Caesaria Phillipi.
“Okay. What do the latest polls say about me?” he asks.
Out come the iPhones and iPads as each aid offers his summary of the latest stats. Says one: “Some are comparing you to that radical John the Baptist—who started strong and got the people fired up but, as you well know, he was assassinated.” Another offers: “One poll says you’re gaining ground with the conservatives in the Elijah Party.” Still another: “Jesus, my sources associate you with those long ago prophets who critiqued the current administration’s party.”
Candidate Jesus shakes his head. “Sheesh. No one seems to really get me. What do YOU think about me? Who do YOU think I am? Why do YOU think I’m going from town to town kissing babies and feeding thousands?”
Peter, his chief adviser, tries to pump him up. “Well, you’re the next Messiah. That’s who you are. We know you can do it, Sir. “
“Stop, stop,” says the candidate. “Do you even understand why I’m out here miles from home speaking about what our life together can be like if we truly love God and one another? Do not issue another press release. Say nothing else for now. You don’t get it.”
He pulls all twelve of his top advisers into a conference room and shuts the door. “Put down your smart phones and listen. This campaign is not about attaining power. We are trying to challenge those in power. But we want to upend systems that run over people. Don’t you realize there will be harsh consequences for that? We’re not headed for the White House. We’re headed for trouble. Likely we’ll suffer. I’ve been trying to tell you that we’ll be misunderstood and derided and rejected. I could be killed. But I’m not afraid of that. Because God’s light of justice can never be extinguished.”
The aides are aghast. Peter pulls the candidate aside. In hushed anger he warns, “Jesus, this is crazy talk. You’re going to kill any chance you had of winning over the people. The Messiah has to be a winner. The Messiah is likable. The Messiah triumphs rather than suffers. You’re off message.”
But Jesus looks at the campaign staff, then turns back to Peter and shouts, “Get out! Your values and goals are not mine.”
And then Jesus walks back outside to the crowd and the press and addresses them along with the disciples: “I know this isn’t what you want to hear. Other candidates will promise you peace and security through military might. They’ll say that if you keep the powerful in power, the economy will eventually redound to your favor. Instead, I invite you into difficult work. I’m going to lead folks willing to sacrifice their lives for others, to end the cycle of violence and vengeance. I’m saying you may have to be willing to lose your life in order to save it. I’m telling you there’s a high price to pay for freedom, integrity, compassion, justice. What good would it do if we use their tactics of violence and oppression to gain power—and we become the oppressors? You can put that on the front page of the Jerusalem Press-Register.”
. . . .
Let’s hear again the actual words of Jesus (verses 34-36) as he tries returning to his key “talking points” and express them as clearly, as starkly as possible:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
For the sake of the Gospel, we may lose our lives. Such wisdom seems foolish. Such wisdom will not win anyone the Messiah election. Such wisdom, in fact, contradicts the Gospel as many preach it today. Some say that following Jesus is about gaining, not losing: gaining admittance to heaven when we die; gaining prosperity here on earth, too, when we pray hard enough; gaining the favor of God by being polite and going to church and condemning the same people their pastors condemn.
Christians look to Jesus for salvation. Funny. Here Jesus says it’s not about trying to save yourself. If you are looking to save your life, you’ll lose it. If you are willing to give your life away, you’ll save it.
Now I do agree with scholars who cast doubt on whether Jesus actually said, “Take up your cross.” As Susan Durber explains, that saying probably “comes from a time much later when the people of the early Church were desperate to make sense of what happened to Jesus when he went to Jerusalem” (Durber, Susan. Preaching Like a Woman. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007). They had to construe the cross as something God intended for good. Otherwise, Jesus’s death would have been too hard to bear. But great harm has been done in the name of Jesus by people who told women and other oppressed people it was their Christian duty to carry a cross, to suffer at the hands of an abusive husband, for instance, or to submit to other injustices.
Yet we can’t ignore a consistent theme of reversal throughout the Gospels: this world’s ways are not God’s ways. Jesus’s paradoxical wisdom is this: in gaining the whole world, we can lose ourselves; in losing our life, we will find it. Jesus’s Gospel of Loss, which is the Gospel of the Cross, involves a spiritual path that other great religions also teach.
As a Catholic scholar of comparative religion, Paul Knitter says, “To have a mystical . . . experience . . . one feels transported beyond one’s usual sense of self as one grows aware of an expanded self, or a loss of self” (p. 16), a “shift from self-centeredness to Other-centeredness” (17). He later explains this unitive experience of love is one in which we “empty self and connect with others” (18). This spiritual experience requires that you care as genuinely about others as you do about yourself. And in this unity, “God is the activity of giving and receiving, of knowing and loving, of losing and finding, of dying and living that embraces and infuses all” (Knitter, Paul. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Oxford: OneWord Publications, 2009, p.19). We follow Jesus and take up our crosses when we love even our enemies that purely.
Folks, this humble way is NOT the path of demagogues and Messiah wannabes. “Losing your life to find it” was not a soundbite that that made anyone popular in the 1st century.
Nor is it a soundbite that will make a church popular in the 21st century.
Many are shopping for churches that talk about how much God will bless them for being faithful members and tithers, or that will feel good and require little; that will become a good investment of their time that eventually will result in new and attractive friends; well-behaved and well-connected children; blessings on earth; reserved seating in Heaven. Many churches have other perks: elegant sanctuaries, well-equipped recreation centers, talented musicians. They are large enough so that members can remain anonymous if they wish. Nothing is wrong with large churches. The more participants we add, the more impact we may have in our world. And the likelier that we’ll pass on this faith community to a second generation.
But just as individuals may choose between self-aggrandizement or self-giving, so congregations may make that same choice. And our congregation has courageously chosen to give ourselves away.
Who do people say WE are, Open Table? Conservatives may say we’re as radical and socially unacceptable as John the Baptist when we support marriage equality right here in Alabama and when we say we listen to a “Still Speaking God.” On the other end of the spectrum, the nonreligious may equate our religious commitments with ignorant superstition and lump us together with those who deny evolution, fear feminism, and champion American exceptionalism, militarism, and unbridled capitalism.
Even Jesus wondered what others were saying about him. We do, too.
But we also decided long ago that we weren’t trying to appeal to everyone. We wanted to live as authentically as we could in the Jesus Way—failing often, no doubt, but failing boldly. And in the Jesus tradition, we would give ourselves away.
That means that we are not playing it safe. We want to speak out even when it’s unpopular. We want to try new ways of being church even if the untried path is risky. We want to give our time and money and talents to those outside our faith community even if that means we can’t afford our own church building. We want to avoid the trap of committee-ing ourselves to death and instead root our life together in the hard work of self-giving relationships, spiritual discipline, social and personal transformation, and vital, thoughtful worship. We will never win a popularity contest.
Open Table, who do our friends and neighbors and coworkers and enemies say we are? I hope they say we’re folks who “deny themselves … and follow Jesus,” who are losing their lives in order to save their lives. We are a people who keep trying and trying to answer Jesus’s hardest question: “Who do you say I am?”
PRAYER: God of difficult questions, thanks for trusting us to find the answers. Amen