Reoriented in the Way of Jesus - a sermon on Mark 8:31-38
February 28, 2021
You have probably heard Jesus’ words from Mark today before, and perhaps many times. Here is verse 34-37 again: “Jesus 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?”
The words “bear your cross” make people think of all sorts of things. My own ancestors were Plymouth Brethren homesteaders who thought of God as a task master who wanted them to suffer. For most of them, God’s love was like a disciplinary parent wit
h a strap. Jesus’ words in Mark today have often been used to prove that belief, and this understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is not dead.
I was talking with a priest friend of mine a year or two ago because he was going through a difficult time. I was surprised when he said, “Well, God asks us to carry our crosses, so I guess this is mine.” Now, I don’t know about you, but I have enough guilt and fear of my own without having God come along and dump on top of it. So it’s no wonder that people have grown tired of following a God like that.
On the other hand, our culture encourages us to look for a God who takes away all the discomfort in our lives. Just look at any selection of ads and you will get messages like, “You deserve better,” and, “The most important thing is you.” But our obsession with wealth and power isn’t limited to capitalistic individualism. Jesus’ disciples were also really hoping that his fame would take them to the top when he overthrew the Roman Empire. Jesus has just admitted to the disciples that he is the messiah, so they assume that being buddies with someone who holds that kind of title is going to have some major payout for them.
But Jesus tells them not to tell anyone who he is because he knows the
y are going to miss the point. Jesus came to exemplify a completely different way of being human in the world. To follow the messiah is not to gain wealth and power and privilege, but actually to reject those things as priorities at all. In fact, Jesus’ way of doing things is so different that it undermines the entire system upon which the Empire is built. In the end, it is going to get him killed. Following Jesus is not easy, not because God wants to
heap guilt and suffering upon us arbitrarily, but because it necessitates living life so differently that we will become a threat to the empire establishment.
I believe that what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples here is that he is more concerned with right action than right belief. God showed up as a human to show us how to best be human. Have you ever seen a unique piece of pottery made by the potter for a very particular function? Like those little egg separators. You could try to pour milk out of one of those, but it would probably spill and not work very well. The pottery always functions best when it serves the purpose for which it was created. You and I are those unique pottery pieces created for something particular. When our lives are oriented in a way for which they were not intended, we will not be our best selves. Jesus spends his entire life and death exemplifying the way in which the potter created us to live.
Jesus’ concern about how people live rather than what they say is always getting him into trouble with religious leaders. At the beginning of the reading today, he says that he will be rejected specifically by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. You can have all the titles, the education, and the answers in Sunday school, but you aren’t following Jesus until your life’s orientation makes a dramatic shift.
Jesus teaches that the reign of God is breaking into our world right now and it doesn’t look like power or knowledge or wealth. If you want to be part of it, your life is going to turn upside-down. The priorities of the Empire are things like money, comfort, autonomy, power, and privilege. But the priorities of Jesus are feeding and housing the poor, taking care of the earth, gentleness, humility, and compassion. When your life is reoriented in the direction of Jesus, it is going to make people uncomfortable. It is not going to make sense to the empire and it will probably be seen as a threat.
In Jesus’ time, this reorientation of people’s lives was threatening because it meant that women and slaves were no longer considered disposable property. It meant that subservience to Caesar was not a Christian’s top priority. If these ideas spread widely enough, it would cause serious damage to the economy and threaten the entire system upon which the ruling elite relied for their own wealth and power.
Today, having your life reoriented in the way of Jesus is unlikely to get you killed. But it will upend your priorities to such an extent that people around you will feel uncomfortable. For example, I know of people who give their wealth away before they die. Some choose to live in a poor inner city neighbourhood to connect more personally with people who are hurting the most. Others choose to get rid of their car or use solar power or buy only used clothing or work part time to free up space for volunteering.
But I don’t give you these examples as a list of shoulds or to make you feel guilty. There are many, many ways that people make difficult changes in their lives in order to free themselves from the demands of the empire and live more like Jesus did. The point is that following Jesus is not just an idea or a club to be part of. Following Jesus requires a paradigm shift which is likely to take your life in a whole new direction.
But this is not the sort of shift which makes life arbitrarily more difficult. If the potter created you to be an egg separator and you have been trying to be a milk jug, you will actually do much better once you realize how to function as an egg separator. Reorienting our priorities in the way of Jesus helps us to more fully become who we were intended to be. It’s much like the story of my friend Christina. She had been working at a job she hated for years and one day she made the difficult decision to quit and go to culinary school. It was hard on her family financially and it was tough being mid career and feeling like she was starting all over again. But the result was that she ended up with a job she loves, and that in turn has made her a more joyful, more fulfilled version of herself.
Jesus’ message about shifting our priorities was not something the disciples were able to understand overnight. Like all of Jesus’ followers after them, it took a lifetime to reorient themselves. In fact, Peter is so confused about Jesus’ message that Jesus calls him an adversary, a “satan.” I feel like this is one of those places in the bible which would just be comical if you were reading it in the ancient Greek. To us it sounds like Jesus is being mean, but he is trying to make his point clear: if you think that following me is about power and privilege, you have completely missed the point. If you are with me, you will place so much importance on radical love and forgiveness that you will follow me to the cross.
But in the coming weeks, we are going to see that Peter is unable to really understand this until Jesus is killed. He is not going to follow Jesus all the way to the cross, and neither are most of the other disciples. Only a few women go all the way there with him. But Jesus doesn’t give up on them. He continues to show them again and again, even after his resurrection, how to shape their lives differently.
If Jesus had that sort of patience teaching Peter, we can trust that he will have gentleness working with us too. What Jesus asks of us is that we keep showing up and asking to follow. Peter had crazy ideas and was a serious pain some days, but that is exactly what he did. If we keep asking Jesus to help us let go of the values of the empire and reorient ourselves in the way of life, he will walk with us just as he walked with Peter.