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More to dying than just death

July 12th, 2012 No comments

“More to dying than just death” (John 12:20-33)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 25, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

American Dream: Achievement, Appearance, and Affluence
It’s often said that there’s more to life than money, and it’s true. As the old song goes, “Money can’t buy me love.” Even most non-religious types know that. Some folks say that rather than it all being about just money, there are three things to life; the three A’s of the American dream: Achievement, Appearance, and of course, Affluence.

Of course, after enough years chasing A’s in school or achievement on the field or in careers, we start to wonder if we maybe missed out on something else – like family or friendships or faith.

And everyone who’s ever gone through adolescence and lived to tell about it knows how exhausting it is to keep up appearances. Am I attractive enough? Am I good enough? Am I thin or tall or smart or funny enough? And then for those of us who add church life into the mix, the classic, Am I as happy as people think I should be? Do I know the Bible well enough? Was what I said in Sunday School wise enough? Do I have the right theology or ideology or perspective on faith to fit in with my church family?

And finally, I’d be surprised to find a parent who says, “Boy, I sure hope my kids have a harder life than I do. Life would be so much better for them if they had less money than we do.” The adult life is one of earning, providing, laboring, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but for many, seeking affluence becomes meaningless, or we find ourselves backed into making decisions at work that compromise our integrity.

Dream. . . or Nightmare?
The American Dream of Achievement, Appearance, and Affluence twists into a nightmare of exhaustion, alienation, and inauthenticity. Of course, most folks know in theory that there’s more to life than all this, but in actual practice between jobs, bills, obligations, and goals, well, how much more can you really fit into life?

Jesus of course knew just how nightmarishly alienating the life of achievement, appearance, and affluence really is. Those who served him discovered that there was more to life than just living, and whoever has followed him has discovered that there’s more to dying than just death.

When Jesus got word that the Greeks were looking for him, when he had heard that word of him had spread even across the seas, he knew his time had come. “The hour has come,” Jesus said to his disciples, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And they couldn’t have been more pleased. Finally some recognition. Finally some status. Finally a little comfort and respect after all the hard work. I tell you what, Achievement, Appearance, and Affluence isn’t just the American dream. It goes back a lot farther than that.

But that’s not the dream Jesus had, and that’s not the glory he was after. It was only a matter of time before the authorities realized that he was no longer just a backwater fascination with a ramshackle following, and they took action to eliminate that threat. The hour had come for the Son of Man to enter into God’s kind of glory. “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for the life of the coming age.”

More to life than just living, and more to dying than just death.

There are lots of people who try to protect their lives. There was once a peasant who came up to Jesus (Luke 12:13ff). All he wanted was his fair share of Dad’s estate – his own meager little helping of but the shadow of affluence, to give him a shot at life. After all, Jesus had preached about good news for the poor. “It’s story time,” Jesus said and told one about a rich man whose land produced abundantly.

And this rich man wondered to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? Can’t sell it on the saturated markets. No room left in the storage bins.” So he planned to tear down his barns and build them bigger. Appears to be a good retirement plan. Achievement. Affluence.

So he dreams of saying to his life in days to come, “Life, you have ample goods laid up for many years; You’ve earned the good life; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” Sounds like the American dream to me. Work hard. Invest wisely. Expand your holdings. Make something of yourself, and enjoy life and prosperity. Throw yourself a party!

But God said to him, “You fool! This very night they are demanding your life of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”1 And like that, the dream became a nightmare. “Those who love their life. . . lose it.”

More to life than just living
What happens if you do everything in your power to keep life the way it is? What happens if you “prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain?” Well, you find that life really is more than just living, and the life you thought you had really isn’t life at all.

Well, what should I do, for I do not want to lose my life; I want the abundant life. “Here is what I will do:” I will plan to fill up my life with stuff of significance. I will go to church every Sunday and I will read my Bible every day. I will be a loving and faithful spouse my whole life long. I will pray for God’s kingdom to come. I will give faithfully and improve the lot of the poor and the oppressed. I will write letters and advocate to establish the peace and justice of God in the world!

Now that sounds like life! And then I will say to my life, “Life, you are secure, for you have achieved. . . your. . . goals. . . ”

But will I not wake the next morning to find the world to be a broken and violent place, despite my very best efforts? Will I not find myself limited by the constraints of time and busy-ness and my own faults to love my spouse with the perfection that I ought? Will I not find that the poor and the oppressed are still poor and oppressed, and worse, that simply by meeting the basic needs of living where I do, in the complex interactions of global connectedness, my own economic activity is contributing to the poverty and oppression of people that I don’t even know are alive?

Will I not wake the next day just as burnt out and empty as I was before. Will I not wake to find I’ve got a life alright, but hate the fact that I can’t actually control my life in the world the way I’d like to, won’t I hate that I can’t by my own sheer determination make the world better?

And there, there, Jesus says, is the answer. “Those who hate their life in this world will keep their life for the everlasting age to come.” Only if we hate the way we alienate our lives by worldly ways of living – seeking after affluence, appearance, achievement, or safety, superiority, and satisfaction – and the ways we get stuck in the world’s gears, if we hate that rat race enough to give it all up and start running after Jesus instead, then we will find God’s abundant life.

Jesus had a choice to make, and so do we. You see, if he wanted to make something impressive of his life, he could have chosen the path of self protection and self achievement. He could have tried to blend in a little better, maybe try to rise in the ranks of Jerusalem’s great teachers and climb the ladder of success to get to a place where he could “make some changes around there” finally.

Could’ve become famous and lived long if he wanted to make something of his life. But if he wanted to let God make something amazing of his life, well, then he had another option. If he kept relentlessly proclaiming and demonstrating God’s kingdom, eventually he would suffer for it. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” You see, the fact of the matter is, that if you live long enough, eventually you will discover, if you haven’t now already, that, contrary to almost every commencement address I’ve ever heard, there are some things you can never achieve no matter how hard you work, and no matter how sure your determination is. The will alone is insufficient in this world of massive powers beyond our control. If the grain never falls, never deigns to leave its place in the sun, it will remain always a single grain. No matter how much effort. No matter how much good intention.

More to dying than just death
But if the grain lets go and falls to the earth, and in a sense, if it dies, then, after a time, comes the sprout of new life and bountiful harvest. Jesus did not drive out the ruler of this world by sheer determination to hang onto life or by calling upon legions of angels to join him in battle. He did not free us from death’s grip by getting elected high priest or president; nor did he release us from sin’s tyranny by becoming a wealthy philanthropist who could toss enough gold and cash at the problem to make it go away, or by writing a book and going on tour. No no, Jesus won his greatest victory, secured our salvation, was lifted up to glory, by choosing suffering and dying, because, friends, for Jesus and for those who follow after him, there’s more to dying than just death.

What Jesus was saying is that suffering and dying may have a redemptive power. And one of the important parts of this story is that Jesus did have a choice. “No one takes my life from me,” Jesus said, “but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). There’s so much suffering in this world that has nothing to do with God’s kingdom. There is nothing redemptive in famine or genocide or abuse. Those who endure such suffering do not make a choice. The kind that is redemptive is the kind that Jesus chose – to be who God called him to be no matter what the cost.

Because Jesus was “willing to lose his life – because his message mattered so much to him that he was willing to show people what it meant instead of just telling them about it – his seed bore much fruit.”2 Because Jesus chose the way of faithfulness and was willing to die, God raised him from the dead. Because Jesus was willing to die, people found that there’s more to life than just living, and there’s more to dying than just death. “Because Jesus was willing to die, a new community could form in his name, one that redefined its life on the basis of his death.”3

Suffering and even dying were no longer to be feared and avoided at all costs. Suffering didn’t mean God was mad at you; it might actually mean God loved you, because when someone following the way of Jesus purposefully chooses the life of self-giving as Jesus did, that suffering becomes “one of God’s most powerful tools for transformation,”4 and it bears much fruit.

The greatest good, the most promising change, comes not through achievement, not through goals or sheer determination, but through dying. The solution doesn’t begin with greater accomplishment or initiative; it begins by dying, by self-offering. The New Testament talks about this quite a bit. Elsewhere, Jesus told his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. “It is how God breaks open hard hearts so that they may be made new. It is how God opens closed lives so that they can get some air into them again.”5

Paul spoke repeatedly of this. “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), he wrote. If we want the abundant life, what we really must do before any planning or goal-setting or new initiative to achieve, is to fall to the earth and die, to let go and to let God. Some of us who place such a high value on appearance and affluence need to die to the idolatry of the self, to our control on life. Dominating personalities need to die to their own power; proud achievers to their accomplishments, and to the idolatry of the mind. Then God may become the center, the standard, and we may become passionate about what God is passionate about.

Dying is not just for the powerful and confident either. It is also the path to freedom for the oppressed; for we must also die to hopelessness, fatalism, numbness, acquiescence if we hope for life God desires for us. Barbara Brown Taylor summarizes:

When Jesus died, this power was made manifest. By absorbing into himself the worst that the world could do to a child of God and by refusing to do any of it back, he made sure it was put to death with him. By suffering every kind of hurt and shame without ever once letting them deflect him from his purpose, he broke their hold on humankind. In him, sin met its match. He showed us what is possible. These are just some of the fruits of Christ’s death, things that could never have happened if he had not been willing to fall to the ground. . . If he had not died, we would not be here.6

Paul once wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives within me” (Gal. 2:20) The NT does not understand the cross and the resurrection as a one time event; rather, it is a story that is lived out in the body of believers who follow Christ over and over and over again. Jesus told his disciples to follow him by taking up their cross daily (Luke 9:23).

Paul said put it all together beautifully:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:1-11, NRSV).

Truly there is more to life than just living, and more to dying than just death. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. “They are demanding” is the literal translation.
2. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Unless a Grain Falls” in God in Pain, 64.
3. Taylor, 64.
4. Taylor, 64.
5. Taylor, 64.
6. Taylor, 65.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Cleaning House

April 18th, 2012 No comments

“Cleaning House” (John 2:12-25)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 18, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Burdensome Religion
Some of you may remember how a number of years ago, there was a great culture war over the display of the Ten Commandments in public government spaces. And one of the leading generals in that culture war was then-Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. Now during one of the skirmishes of this war, Justice Moore commissioned a solid granite monument of the Ten Commandments to be placed in the rotunda of the state’s judicial building, which set off a wave of controversy.

Now for this morning, I’m not so interested in the culture war, or the controversy, or Justice Moore, but rather, in the monument itself, all political ramifications aside, just the monument. And when this monument went on tour across the country, a five-ton crane had to be used to move it. This monument weighs 5280 pounds, an average of 528 pounds per commandment.1 Talk about your “weightier matters of the law” – though I think Jesus was speaking metaphorically when he once chided the Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law of justice and mercy and faith” (Mt. 23:23).

And isn’t it easy for faith to become weighty, burdensome? I mean, these are commandments, after all. Heavy and solemn obligations that God expects to be dutifully carried out. And you don’t have to hear all the list of the “shalt nots” too many times before you see the finger wagging at you, and faith becomes a burdensome monument to be lugged around.

I have sat by the bedside of several of our saints who have gone on before us, people who led exemplary Christian lives and were the very model of faith in Christ. And they faced death with the assurance and hope that is all of ours in Christ, as we revisited life’s accomplishments and failures, struggles, and joys. And I discovered that we people of faith, we who take seriously the call to live in service to Jesus and are committed to living moral lives of discipleship before God, when we come to the knowledge that death is imminent, we often wonder to ourselves, “Could I have done more for the Lord?”

And that’s not a bad question; it’s probably one that many of us are wondering today, probably one that I will ask my pastor one day. It’s just that there is a weight behind that question, too, 528 pounds per commandment built up over a lifetime, that leaves us wondering if we’ve rightly carried the burden of obedience to God.

Now there are, of course, many who pick up that tremendous burden day after day, but you know what happens after a while – maybe a week, maybe a year, maybe a half a century – you start to get tired, and instead of it being meaningful ministry, our practice of religion becomes that of dutiful and unsatisfying toil with little respite. And even the most faithful eventually develop a phantom, gnawing sense of guilt and inadequacy before God, of being endlessly on trial for one failure or another, real or imagined, because the burden of faithfulness is so great.

A number of years ago, I read a story about a Bible Scholar who started out as a pastor, and this pastor recalled one of his first encounters in ministry. He hadn’t even finished unpacking his books yet when a member of the congregation knocked on his door and wondered if he had a few minutes to talk. “I don’t know why I feel this way,” she said, “but I don’t know if God can ever forgive me.” She had a strong feeling of being judged by God and unacceptable to God. The pastor reassured her that God loves her so much that in Jesus, God forgives all her sins. “I know that,” she replied. “I now that God loves me. I know that Jesus died for my sins. I know all that. I just can’t overcome the feeling that God stands in judgment of me.”

The pastor asked her if there was anything she could think of that she’d done that God can’t forgive. She was a good parent, a faithful spouse, an active member of the congregation. “I don’t know,” she said. The pastor later reflected that in some ways, it might have been better if she had done something so she could attach a name to her guilt and do something to address it.

It is said that the Puritans, who believed they should face death confidently as those who trust in God’s promises, nevertheless often greeted death with terror, some even crying out in fear as death inched closer, afraid of being confronted with the Holiness of Almighty God,2 because of their inadequacy in bearing the burden.

Never mind that Jesus said his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Mt. 11:30), anyone who strives to live a moral life knows the burden of failure and the weight of trying to keep each commandment, each moral dictate with perfection, of lugging around tons of dismal obligation and the impossibility of perfection, while trying to maintain its semblance.

Isaiah once lampooned neighboring gods that were burdensome idols to be hauled around. “These things you carry are loaded as burdens on weary animals” (Isa. 46:1), but haven’t we often made our religion to become weary, weighty, and burdensome?

Jesus and Problems with Religion
Jesus frequently bumped up against the seemingly immovable burden of religious duty. He ran into Sabbath regulations that would prevent him and his disciples from eating on the Sabbath (Mt. 12:1ff). There were purity laws that kept the sick, the lame, and the poor from experiencing the love of God, and a Temple Tax was levied even against the destitute.

One day while standing in the Temple in Jerusalem, he warned of the tendency that is in us all, to tie up heavy burdens that are hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, while being ourselves unwilling to lift a finger to move them (Mt. 23:4), but instead lock people out of the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 23:13).

It was even happening right there in the Temple, and the tragic irony of people being excluded from God even in God’s very house was not lost on Jesus as he climbed the steps to the Temple. Jesus knew the Temple scene well. As a good Jew, he fulfilled the requirement for all male Jews to make an appearance in the Jerusalem Temple three times during the year for the Jewish festivals (Ex. 23:17; 34:23), and that is the occasion for his planned visit in this morning’s gospel reading. Jesus already knew all about the merchants selling cows and sheep and doves. It’s not too hard to imagine in years past Jesus and his family purchasing some of those animals for offering, rather than hauling their own all the way from Galilee.

One wonders if Jesus had even experienced for himself with his parents the weight of gouged offering prices, and the added burden it put on an already struggling family. Not only that; the Temple had become the symbolic center of burdensome religion co-opted by power and politics. And so Jesus ascended to the Temple mount with his disciples knowing that their plan would have to be carefully executed. The demonstration would have to create enough of a disturbance that people would notice and pay attention, but not so much as to alert the Roman authorities that something was afoot.

Taking a page out of Israel’s prophets, Jesus and his disciples enact this prophetic demonstration in the Temple courtyard. Jesus overturns tables, pours out money, and whips the animals out of the place, then turns to their vendors and orders them out as well. It was time for a house cleaning – too much clutter getting in the way of worship.

You can imagine what would happen if someone were to try to interrupt our worship here this morning. What’s the deal with this? What are you trying to do? There would be some explaining to do, and the local Jewish authorities ask Jesus for a sign of his authority to disrupt the Temple services.

The Temple was, after all, the social, religious, economic, and political center of the Jewish world. It was the center for worship, atonement, and celebrating the Jewish Feasts. God’s presence and glory were believed to dwell there in that sanctuary in a special way.

If you’re going to mess with the structures and traditions of religious practice; if you’re going to disrupt the system that had been working just fine as far as we’re concerned, thank you very much; if you’re going to mess with our favorite hymns, or put the offering elsewhere in the service; or worse, if you’re going to change the way we do our potlucks (not that I’m suggesting that, I like my job), or if you’re going to disrupt my Sunday School class, then you had better have a good reason for doing it, or you’re outta here, buster.

Now, what you have to realize is that amongst all those people, these rubber-necking passers-by whose curiosity Jesus had piqued with his prophetic demonstration, there were many people carrying the heavy, weighty burdens of religious obligation, but they were also holding onto a hope. You see, the prophets of old had dreamed of a day when God would come permanently to supersede and fulfill earthly houses of worship by dwelling personally amidst the people and providing a Messiah to shepherd them.3

Every vestment of burdensome religion will be dismantled so that the fullness of God’s presence and glory may once again be experienced unfettered among the people. “What sign will you give us?” To this, Jesus responds, “Destroy this sanctuary, and in three days, I will raise it up.” The Jewish authorities are incredulous. The temple had been under construction for 46 years; no one could rebuild it in three days! Ridiculous!

Now ordinarily, John, the author of this gospel, would let it be with that. He enjoys puns and irony quite a bit, and there’s always a deeper meaning to the story that he likes to let the reader discern so as not to remove its literary power by explaining. Normally, he’d allow the irony to mingle in our minds until it changes us. But here, John decides that this is so important that he cannot risk anyone misunderstanding what he is doing with this irony, and so he explains, “But Jesus was talking about the sanctuary of his body.”

Indeed, in the book of Revelation, the author is astonished to discover that there is no new, rebuilt Temple in the new Jerusalem, but rather, “its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22), that is, Jesus. We have a foretaste of that future now already. When Jesus’ body is raised, no longer will the presence of God be tethered to a building; no longer will access to God be restricted by the burdens of weighty obligation. Rather, as the prophets dreamed, God’s presence will dwell gloriously among God’s people in the resurrected Christ.

Faithful living is no longer about burdensome obligation, but rather, it begins and ends with Jesus. Jesus is driving out whatever does not begin and end with him, whatever is meaningless, whatever is draining our Spirit, whatever prevents us from coming to a true encounter with God. Jesus is the great hero and pioneer of faith; he is now the Way to God – not weighty requirements, and in following him, we encounter God. Our guilt over failure to carry the burdens of religious obligation becomes obsolete in Jesus, the new and raised temple, for he has placed not a cow or a sheep or a dove on the altar before God; rather, he has placed his very own life on the altar as an offering to God, making us whole not through our own imperfect obedience to God’s command but through his own perfect obedience in offering himself upon the cross (Heb. 10:10), and by placing us there with him.

None of this makes obedience obsolete, or unimportant. None of this changes our calling to lead moral, devoted lives in service to our God. But it all looks different when we worship in Jesus instead of in the Temple of religious obligation. When we see our duty through Jesus, it is no longer the weighty burden it once was. Rather, it is what God always intended it to be.

You see, we often leave off the most important part of the Ten Commandments when we recite them. They begin not with the weighty obligations of faith, the “though shalts” and the “thou shalt nots,” but rather, with the deliverance of God. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is not God saying, “These are my rules. You better obey.” This is God announcing freedom from slavery and describing what that life of freedom looks like. “You are free from murder. You are free from the burdens of lifeless idols. You are free from stealing and greed and dishonesty and unfaithfulness. You are free!”

It’s no accident that Jesus was in the Temple at Passover, the feast that celebrates and commemorates that freedom, that deliverance out of slavery. There is now a new temple, a new Passover lamb, a new exodus deliverance from slavery to sin and death and every deathly misconstrual of religious devotion. Those who come to worship through the Temple of the crucified-and-risen Son of God in Spirit and in Truth, they are the ones who find that the life of discipleship is really the life of freedom, that the yoke truly is easy and the burden is light. Faithfulness is no longer a matter of “have to,” but “freedom to.”

And then, then there is no more weighty obligation, no more weariness, no more fear and burdensome guilt, but true happiness in Jesus when we trust and obey. Thanks be to God.

Notes:
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Moore
2. Thomas Long, “Bold in the Presence of God” in Intrepretation (January 1998), 60.
3. Zech. 2:10; Ezek. 37:27; 43:7, 9.

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

Getting in Line

April 18th, 2012 No comments

“Getting in Line” (Mark 8:27-38)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
March 11, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Opening Our Eyes
When we were in Israel and Palestine, on our last day before going to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Philippi, clear north of Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Patty, our leader, said to us, “Here begins the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering.” Here Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and here Jesus speaks for the first time about his death, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” Here our minds move from human thoughts to divine thoughts. Here our eyes begin to open to who Jesus truly is, and who we are called to be.

It’s like what happened in the village called Bethsaida, just before Jesus went on to Caesarea Philippi. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up, and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus had to lay his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time, and then he could see clearly. At Caesaea Philippi, Jesus’ disciples begin to see, though not yet clearly.

So they’re on their way into town, walking along, and Jesus says to them, with a twinkle in his eye, “Who do people say that I am?” Well, James and John are an eager pair, so they pipe up, “Some say John the Baptist.” And Andrew adds, “some say Elijah.” Thaddeus isn’t one of the more famous among them, but he speaks up, “Others say Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

And Jesus says, “But you all, who do you all say that I am?” Well, Peter’s only been quiet so far because he knows this question is coming, and his hand is the first to go up in the air: “You are the Messiah, the Christ,” he boldly declares.

Now the way we usually tell it, Peter adds some more and goes on to say, “You are the Son of the Living God!” And Jesus claps him on the back and says to him, “Peter, I’m going to build my church on you and the gates of hades will not stand against it. And I’m going to give you the keys to my kingdom.”

A great story! I could tell it all day – my namesake is even doing fairly well for himself!

Adventures in Missing the Point
Except that’s how Matthew tells it. Mark has something else for us to see and hear. The way Mark tells it, Jesus asks his disciples, as in Matthew, “But who do you all say that I am.”

Peter’s response is a little different. “You are the Messiah,” he says. The “Son of the living God” part is missing. Indeed it seems as though Peter was missing something, because in Mark – and most English translations miss this – in Mark, Jesus doesn’t just warn his disciples, he rebukes them so they won’t repeat what Peter just said.

Why such a rebuke? What did Peter miss? It sounds like a pretty good answer to me. “Who am I?” “You are the Messiah!” How could Peter give the right answer and still get busted for it? What wasn’t he seeing yet?

In college, one of my computer science classes was called Data Structures and Algorithms. And one of the units in this class was calculating the runtime for a particular algorithm. One day the professor put an algorithm up on the board and asked us what the runtime would be. Well, I’d done my homework and I’d seen something like this before, and I immediately piped up with what looked like to me to be a pretty obvious answer. And the professor got a big old grin and looked right at me, and with far more enthusiasm than I would have liked, said, “WRONG!” And he grinned as he pointed to a part of the algorithm I hadn’t seen.

Well, that was my last class of the day, but for Peter, it was all just beginning. What Peter hears next strikes like a death knell. “The Son of Man must suffer. . . and be rejected. . .and be killed.” In other words, “WRONG!” Peter, who had been so sure that the answer was so obvious, realizes his vision is yet blurred, and sinks back into confusion. His expectations are shattered. All he can do is rebuke Jesus (!) for talking such nonsense. Messiahs rule and save people from suffering! They don’t suffer and get killed!

And Jesus responds with some of the most striking words in Scripture, “Get behind me, Satan.”

But doesn’t Peter’s objection make sense, at least a little bit? Peter has left his family fishing business. He has left his home. He later even says to Jesus, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you.” Here Peter has staked his whole future on the hope that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.

And so far, everything has looked good. There have been signs of God’s kingdom everywhere around Jesus’ life and work. Peter has watched with amazement as Jesus “bursts onto the scene proclaiming the Kingdom of God and doing mighty works: he casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, calms the sea and the wind, walks on water, and twice multiplies bread . . . Jesus. . . looks very much like a . . . superhero who exercises the power of God to subdue the forces of evil.”1

“Who do you all say that I am?” The answer seemed obvious to Peter: “You are the Messiah.” But when Jesus responded, it shattered his expectations for the Kingdom of God. Shouldn’t faith provide us with some protection from suffering, some security for life, some triumph of justice? Not suffering, rejection, and death!

But Jesus responds to such a blurred mindset, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting your mind on human things and not on divine things.” Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah is technically correct, but his vision, though coming is yet blurred. His mind is stuck on human ideas about Messiahs. Peter expects a great and powerful Messiah who will march on Jerusalem to claim his rightful crown and usher in a glorious new age in which his followers will be great and greatly rewarded for the hard work and will sit in honor at his left and at his right. But what kind of kingdom, what kind of age will a suffering Messiah bring, and what will it mean for his followers? Peter cannot yet see clearly.

“Take up your cross”
You might remember that a couple of weeks ago, we had Katherine’s friend from college in Winnipeg and her friend’s husband visiting here in Kansas and staying with us for a few days. One day as we were eating lunch, her husband told us about one of his cousins named Alfred, who is a missionary in Paraguay in a drug-ridden community.

Well, one night a couple of years ago, a young man, thinking that the missionary, Alfred, and his family were gone, broke into the house to rob the place. But the family was home at the time, and Afred was still awake. And this young intruder panicked and stabbed Alfred seven times before fleeing.

Alfred was taken to the hospital, and miraculously, he survived. Meanwhile, the assailant was apprehended and put in prison. Now, Alfred’s daughter was severely traumatized by the ordeal – just imagine trying to sleep again at night after the safety of your home has been so severely and violently violated.

But after Alfred had recuperated, he and his daughter went to visit the young man in prison, and his daughter gave him a small gift as a sign of forgiveness. This young man was so moved by that expression of love that he decided to give his life to Jesus, right there in the prison. A couple of months ago when he was released, Alfred was there waiting for him.

Jesus said to the crowd and to his disciples, “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. Indeed, what can they give in return for their life.” Alfred and his daughter accepted Christ’s cross and followed him to the prison and found new life and a glimpse of this suffering Messiah’s kingdom.

Jesus knows that only those who follow him to the cross will be able to see clearly who he is and what his kingdom looks like. If his disciples stop before getting to the cross, they will have only a blurry, distorted understanding of Jesus. Other miracle workers, other exorcists, other authoritative teachers, other political leaders have come and gone. In Mark’s gospel, no human being knows who Jesus truly is until he dies on the cross, and then it is one of his executioners, a centurion, who realizes, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Only at the cross can anyone truly see who Jesus is, as the suffering Son of God who gives and gives and gives even his life to wrest the many from Satan’s grip.

And only in denying ourselves, Jesus says, in taking up the cross, and following after the path Jesus has cut do we find the freed and abundant life of Jesus. Yes, it does mean leaving aside human thoughts of security, even survival, and even our ideas about justice. And it does mean facing a ghastly death, if necessary. But you see, Jesus foretold not only his suffering, rejection, and death, but also his resurrection. “The cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.”2

Saying Yes to God
When we take up the cross of Christ, we not only accept suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; we also join Jesus in trusting God’s ultimate vindication. We join Jesus in living a life not of retaliation but of costly, redemptive love. We join Jesus in forgiving even those who do us the most harm. We join Jesus in placing ourselves completely into the hands of God. We join Jesus in proclaiming the good news.

Because we join with Jesus, we find perseverance in renouncing selfish sinful passions and preoccupations. Because we join with Jesus, we experience fellowship in his body and blood across racial and ethnic lines, and whatever walls previously divided us.

Because we are joined with Jesus in the cross, we find reconciliation with God. Because we are joined with Jesus in carrying his cross, we are also joined with Jesus in experiencing resurrection life both now already and in the everlasting age to come.

This is the sort of Kingdom this suffering Messiah brings. Paul once famously said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me!”

These, friends, are “the most precious things in all creation: the priceless pearl.”3 We can’t purchase it. Indeed, what can we give in return for our life? But we can receive it, and we can find that there are unending stores of it. We can have it. We can yield to the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and accept the cross of Christ. We can be followers, not by our own power, but by God’s. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son. Do we love God so much that we will follow him?”4

The night he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Because when we join Jesus in accepting the cross, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace, and we can join Jesus in saying yes to God and yielding our will to God’s will, no matter what the cost.

If you have denied yourself, if you’ve given up human thoughts to seek after divine thoughts, if you’ve identified yourself with Jesus by taking up your cross, then the cross you take up isn’t exactly yours. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, you are realizing that the truest, fullest life, the true goal of all human striving, is not your life but his. We don’t go seeking for our “true self” as the teachers of this age opine.

It’s not really about living life as an ascetic, and it’s certainly not about senseless suffering; it’s about denying one’s self as the “controlling center”5 and seeking first Christ and his kingdom as our center and chief loyalties, and receiving our “self” from him. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. Selfish human thoughts become transformed into the divine thoughts of costly love, joyful obedience, and unimaginable reward in glory. If we take up his cross upon our own shoulders, he will carry its weight.

Shortly, you will be invited to come forward, to offer your commitment to Christ, your commitment to God’s covenant, your acceptance of Christ’s cross, and in so doing, you will receive a symbolic new name, a new identity, a new self in Christ Jesus. Who do you say that I am? You are the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, who suffered and was rejected and killed, and rose again in glory. Truly it is no longer we who live, but this Christ who lives within us and who promises us new life in him.

Notes
1. Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament, 75.
2. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 211.
3. David F. Wells, “Holiness: Sacrifice (Mark 8:31-38)” in Christian Century (March 8, 2000), 271).
4. Ibid.
5. Geddert, 205.

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Signing On to the Way of the Cross

April 18th, 2012 No comments

“Signing On to the Way of the Cross” Mark 1:9-15
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
February 26, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Since the very beginning, God has been deeply committed to humanity and creation, though it has often come at a great cost to God. Out of deep love, God promised to never again bring such great devastation to the earth through the waters of a flood, even though humanity would continue to be corrupted by sin, to give in to violence, and to disobey the ways that God longs for humanity to follow; even though God appointed judges and rulers and sent prophets to remind people of the ways of God’s kingdom. And when the people still refused to give their lives and their hearts to God and to follow in the ways of the kingdom, God decided to finally “tear open the heavens and come down”1 through the sending of the Son.

And the Son is a sign of just how deep God’s commitment to humanity truly is, for the sending of the Son is the most costly thing that God has ever done. Immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he hears the Spirit speaking directly to him, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And one can almost hear an echo of God’s words to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt-offering.”2 Only this time, there will be no ram sent to take the place of the Beloved Son.

The sending of the Son is costly to God and it is costly to Jesus, who has promised through the sign of the baptismal waters to obediently follow God’s ways even though it will cost him his life. Yet the descending of the Spirit as a dove upon, and even into3 Jesus following his baptism in the Jordan, is a sign that God’s presence is with the Beloved Son from the very beginning of his ministry, that all that the Son does and teaches shows the true nature of the Father, and that Jesus will not be left forsaken by God’s presence despite all that is yet to come.

Even when Jesus is driven out into the wilderness and tempted by Satan and the wild powers of this world, God’s presence was with him through the angels sent to minister to him. One can assume that this was not the end of Jesus’ temptations, as he did enter fully into our humanness, but throughout his ministry, God’s Spirit was present within him.
Following Jesus’ temptation, he came to Galilee, after John (the one sent to prepare the way) was arrested, or better translated, after John was “handed over” and will go the way of suffering and death. Later, Jesus will also be “handed over” and himself go the way of costly suffering and death. And later still, Jesus’ disciples will be “handed over” themselves, and many will come to a similar end as their teacher and savior.4

John was sent to prepare the way for Jesus by preaching and baptizing. “Now he is preparing Jesus’ way by going that way himself. The way is the way of [costly] obedience even in the face of rejection[, suffering,] and death.”5 This is the way of the cross. Just as John, the forerunner of the Messiah has gone, so also will be the way of the Messiah.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus knows what is yet to come, where his path will eventually take him, yet he will not be deterred from the purpose for which he was sent: to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, which has finally come near and has begun to break into the world.6 And this is the good news: because of God’s deep love for and commitment to humanity and creation, God’s kingdom has finally drawn near. We know that we will experience God’s kingdom fully when Christ comes again and redeems creation, but even now, we can see and witness the many ways that God’s kingdom is already breaking into creation. This is not something we wait for only in the afterlife when we have been resurrected with our Savior. God’s kingdom is now; it is “not in some heaven light years away, but here in this place, the new light is shining; now is the kingdom, now is the day.”7 And because God’s kingdom is now coming into the world, all who encounter Jesus are called to repent, to turn from the ways of this world, and to turn instead to follow Jesus and the Way of the kingdom. And this is exactly what Jesus calls his followers to do: because God’s kingdom is come into the world, all are called to repent and believe this good news.

Never again will Jesus explicitly call for people to repent and believe, yet this is what Jesus’ entire ministry is about. Jesus will obediently follow the Way of God’s kingdom and will continue to call people to respond to its offer and its costly demands. Every time Jesus encounters other people, he will, in one way or another, call each of them to repent and believe. We see this right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry: immediately after his baptism and temptation, he goes on to call a group of disciples to come and follow him.8

Our worship throughout this season of Lent will focus on the theme “Where do I sign?” which will provide us with an opportunity to reflect on our relationship with God and to ponder God’s invitation to sign on to the Way of new life in Christ. We know from our Scripture readings this morning9 that God has already “signed on” and is deeply committed to humanity, though it will come as a great cost to God. We know that in his life here on earth, Jesus “signed on” and was deeply committed to living a life of obedience to God and the kingdom, though it would cost him his life.

Throughout our lives we sign many different commitments. We sign our rental agreements or mortgage contracts, that we promise to pay the price in full. We sign up for credit card offers. We sign a marriage license and promise our love and fidelity to our spouse for our lifetime. We sign a contract when we begin a new job. The youth are asked to sign a document before each service trip that they will behave in such a way that is representative of Christ, rather than engaging in destructive behaviors. Many of you will sign up to bring baked goods or to volunteer for the MCC Relief Sale.

Yet the most important decision we will make is whether or not to “sign on” to give our hearts to Jesus and to follow his Way of obedience to God and to the kingdom. We formally sign on for this lifelong commitment when we are baptized into the church, yet it is also a decision we make every day: Will I continue to turn from the ways of this world and to turn towards God and follow the Way of Jesus?
This is not a journey we take on our own, however. When we decide to be baptized, we commit ourselves to give and receive counsel within the church, to walk with fellow believers, to ask each other to share about our faith journeys and ask “What is going well for you? Where are you encountering God? Where are you struggling? How can I pray for you?”

And just as it was for Jesus following his own baptism, when we commit our whole selves to following after Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters into us and begins to transform us, so that we can be faithful ambassadors for Christ. We do not remain slaves to Sin, but instead become slaves to Christ and to the good news, not by our own doing, but by the very power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet just as it was with Jesus who entered into our humanness, we too still find ourselves tempted and tested by the powers of Satan and of this world. For though God’s kingdom is coming into the world and we have committed our lives to living obediently, we still live within a world that has yet to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. It is as though we have one foot in God’s kingdom and one foot yet in this world. So when we find ourselves tempted and tested, God’s presence is still with us, through the “angels” of fellow believers, of prayer, of immersing ourselves in God’s Word. Jesus’ promise to us is that he will never leave nor forsake us, especially not in times of hardship and temptation.

Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news continues to beckon and invite us. We can “sign on” to repent and believe and follow in the Way of Jesus. For he has prepared the way for us as his followers to live in the Way that is obedient to God. Jesus calls all of us to repent, to turn from following the rulers and powers and ways of this world, and to turn instead to Jesus, to God’s good news, and to follow the way of the cross.

Signing on to Jesus is costly for us. “Saying yes to Jesus does not guarantee a life of unmitigated blessings. To follow Jesus is to begin a life of costly discipleship; there are rewards, but there are also costs.”10 Jesus will later tell his followers in the same breath that they will experience the hundredfold reward as well as persecution all for the sake of the good news.11

It is not an easy road that we are “signing on” to, for the way of the cross is foolish to the “wisdom” of this world. Many will not understand why our allegiance is not to any political party or country, nor why we do not place our trust or hope in any political ruler to save the world. Many will not understand why we do not give in to the consumerism of the culture around us and lay up for ourselves treasure in the possessions of this world. Many will not understand why we do not place our own happiness first, but instead give of ourselves for our brothers and sisters in Christ, even when we do not always agree or see eye to eye. For just as Jesus chose the self-giving and very costly way of the cross, so too are we to completely devote our lives to the Way of God’s kingdom and to give of ourselves for the sake of our fellow brothers and sisters for whom Christ died to save.

Many of us have already committed ourselves to the Way of the cross through the baptism covenant. Some of you are taking catechism in preparation for baptism and a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus. Others of you have yet to make this decision. Yet each of us, regardless of where we are in our journey, have daily decisions on how we best will follow Jesus in our lives. So here at the beginning of Lent, regardless of your age or whether you have been baptized or not, I invite all of us to prayerfully consider the ways that we can commit ourselves to follow after Jesus. Each of you were given a Lenten Commitment sheet at the beginning of the service with ways that you can “sign on” to continue your walk with God, perhaps through prayer, or a renewal of your baptismal commitment, or through reading the Gospels and being reminded of the way that Jesus lived and calls of each to live in response.

The life of discipleship is costly, but it is God who paid the ultimate price, and who has empowered and invited us to follow after Jesus. So the question I invite each of us to ask ourselves is, “How will I sign on to follow the way of the cross?”

Notes:
1. Isaiah 64:1
2. Genesis 22:2
3. A more literal reading of the Greek “eis.”
4. From Timothy J. Geddert’s Commentary Mark from the Believers Church Bible Commentary Series.
5. Geddert, Mark.
6. Jesus himself proclaims this as the purpose for which he was sent in Luke 4:43.
7. Lyrics from song “Here in this place” by Marty Haugen.
8. Ideas from Geddert, Mark.
9. Mark 1:9-15 and Genesis 9:8-17.
10. Geddert, Mark.
11. See Mark 10:28-30.

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