Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Take Up Your Cross" (A Sermon About Grace)

Mark 8:27-38
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah."
And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Though it won't be obvious at first, this is not a message about self-denial or the evils of Christian pop culture or, really, even about what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.
They're all in the sermon, yes, but this is a sermon about grace, about God's love and unmerited favor toward us. About how to face the challenge of Jesus' words in a real and effective and successful way.

I don't know if it started back in 2000 with Bruce Wilkinson's book on the Prayer of Jabez, but I think it's been going on a whole lot longer; this idea that part and parcel of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ should be a vehicle to personal wealth and comfort. It's a real multi-billion dollar industry, books and videos and seminars by celebrities and television preachers and megachurch pastors, all about how to be happy and successful using this or that prayer or this or that set of principles taken, ostensibly, from Scripture. Some of the titles I found on Amazon include: “Find Happiness, How to fill the void in your life, by Looking, Feeling, and Living better;” “How My Magic Refrigerator Sent Me To Paris Free. 7 Rules To Make Dreams Come True;” and “Spiritual Liberation - Fulfilling Your Soul's Potential.”

Now, there's a place for devotional reading, and some of the titles I saw were for books that really addressed problems like divorce and addiction. And lest we simply shake our heads in disgust or laugh at the rest, it's an indication that we Christians, like every other human being in modern American society, are largely influenced by the standards of that society. We are judged not so much on the content of our character as on our position in the corporation.
We are judged not so much on the breadth of our compassion as on the beauty of our appearance. We are judged not so much on the strength of our generosity as on the value of our possessions.

We are assaulted, like everyone else in our society, with advertising and media messages encouraging us to get the newest, the best, the upgrade, to supersize and go first-class, to get smaller phones and bigger TVs, faster computers and nicer cars, this season's fashions and this week's gadget. We are told that the economy depends on us replacing things that aren't worn out, upgrading things that are fine as they are, and owning things that have no practical use.

So it's really no wonder that this mad rush for wealth and popularity and acceptance would find its way into, and be celebrated by, Christian pop culture. But I wonder how Jesus would look on a book about happiness through being prettier or about magic refrigerators and free trips overseas. How would Jesus view this idea that He exists to make our lives easier?

I think he would say, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Now, if this were a sermon about self-denial, or a how-to on taking up your cross and following Jesus, we'd spend the rest of our time this morning talking about things like paying less attention to what our co-workers think of us and more time working to stop the genocide in Darfur. Or being less concerned over the price of gasoline and more concerned over worldwide kidnapping and sale of one million children every year as sex slaves. Paying less attention to where we eat lunch after church and more attention to the plight of the homeless. That kind of thing is easy to talk about, and I've done it – in fact, those three examples are from a sermon I preached here in August of last year.

If Jesus were physically here today, and if he left the streets around Legion Field and the homeless shelters and tattoo parlors long enough to speak to these things to say “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” it wouldn't take very long for an author somewhere to develop a book called “Forty Days to Self-Denial.” Soon after, a publishing company would produce a series called “Cross-Carrying for the Soul,” “... for Teens,” “... for Dads,” “... for Busy Moms,” … you get the idea.

Because one of the things that the Christian pop culture industry has recognized is that we Christians love a program. Give me six easy steps or a forty-day devotional or a workbook or a video series and I am good, and about one time out of a hundred, I'll complete the devotional, master the workbook, and do more than one or two steps.
I might change some habits, develop new ones. Maybe not, but I'll know the rules, I'll know where the bar is set and what the expectations are.

But when Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” he isn't talking about mere self-denial. He isn't talking about just deciding to give up the big-screen TV and the new shoes and the nice house and car and brightest and best and most current. He isn't even talking about a three-step process of denial, death to self, and discipleship.

He's talking about one decisive and permanent change... a change that takes a lifetime and more... and it's a change we cannot make.

Well, not on our own.

The self-denial, the loss of life that Jesus is calling for is where you and I look to Jesus and say, “There is no more 'I.' There is only You.” Possessions and reputation and status and position become not just unimportant, but irrelevant.

Impossible, on our own.

And we know it! I hope I am not alone in all the times I have read this passage and heard this passage and felt the depth of my inadequacy to even understand, much less do, what Jesus demands. Yeah, OK, maybe I can skip a meal every once in awhile for a donation to a shelter, maybe for a week or so I can get up early and have a devotion time, I don't know, but the whole losing my life thing, I don't understand what it is that Jesus wants me to do. Deny myself how? Take up my cross means what? Lose my life in what sense?

If we could do it successfully – get rid of enough stuff, visit enough homebound people and prisoners, work in enough homeless shelters, care for enough widows and orphans, pray and preach and teach enough to become good Christians, we wouldn't need to be Christians at all, because Jesus would have never needed to take up his own cross.

Which is where the subject of this sermon comes in: grace. God's loving grace toward us is such that God never makes impossible demands. God's loving grace toward us is why, in the face of the demand to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, God's Holy Spirit is here, in us and with us, guiding and teaching.

The passage is not without its direct demands upon us, though. Today, we are being called upon to commit ourselves to denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus.
This may involve buying less, stuff, having more demands on our time, talent and resources, but that's peripheral at best.

Our call to commitment is to be open to being guided, every moment of every day, by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. To listen and to be guided every day by God's perfect love. How can I best follow Jesus in this business decision, in this purchase, in this conversation with a hurting friend, in my dealings with this cashier...

Will we get it wrong? Will we forget sometimes? Sure, but that's why it's called “grace,” isn't it?

Join me in prayer...