Monday, March 2, 2015

Get Behind Jesus

MARK 8:31-38
31Then 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He 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. 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? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”

Remember that game follow the leader in childhood? If you were like me, you spent half your time as a follower planning what you might do as a leader. Usually there was an adult in the room who made sure everyone got a turn being the leader, so you could be sure that your time to lead would eventually come.

That doesn't happen in this story. In this game of follow the leader with the disciples, Jesus makes it pretty clear who gets to be in front. In no uncertain terms, he tells us who the leader is and who the followers are. He tells the disciples and all those listening that they are to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him. His path ends up being very different than the ones the disciples imagined. 

The story opens with Peter trying to advise Jesus on how to do his ministry. You see, Jesus starts to teach that he must undergo great suffering and be killed. He openly and plainly says he will die and be resurrected three days later. Peter suspects this is not the way to win friends and influence people. Peter knows that such messages do not preach well. Promises of victory and glory are a better way of attracting people. Teaching about suffering and vulnerability makes all of us a little nervous. Peter wants to hear more about the GOOD news. And he lets Jesus know that.   

Peter had one idea about what it meant to be the messiah. But, Jesus had another. For Peter, confessing Jesus as Messiah meant they were on the road to victory over the Romans and glory meant being in power. But for Jesus, it meant he was on the road to the cross. Peter had his mind set on earthly things like who’s in charge and who’s got the money while Jesus has his mindset on divine things. Peter wanted to lead the charge to change the world and Jesus very clearly says No. He tells Peter, Get behind me Satan.

Talk about a rebuke.

Peter makes a mistake that many of us do. It’s easy to charge on ahead thinking we know exactly where Jesus is going. But Jesus' ways are NOT our ways. Jesus takes the way of the cross, not the path of glory and invites us to come along. 

If any want to become my followers, Jesus says, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. To be a disciple, we have to get behind Jesus. But what does this mean? What does is mean to follow Christ? Does following Jesus mean we are on a path of glory or a path of suffering?  

This teaching on discipleship calls us to do two things to follow Christ: Deny ourselves and take up our cross. This is a hard because it's often interpreted that we have to give up all that we have and all that we are. I'm not saying that's not true, but I do think we need to take a close look at Jesus' life and ministry to fully understand what that means. 
Reading the teachings of Jesus and witnessing his life, we can see that the denial of self isn’t about beating ourselves up or living life as a doormat. When we see Jesus at work, he’s taking away all of the things that hold people back—their illness, the social status, their addictions, their sin. For the downtrodden this is great. Take it all, they say, of course we'll follow you.

But for the well off, the message sounds different. When Jesus teaches that they give up the things that hold them back--their social status, their wealth, their addictions, even their piety--they balk. They don't want to give up those things that have made them feel safe, secure and successful.

But in the long run everyone who encounters Jesus and chooses to follow him ends up better off than they were before. I don't mean safer, richer or more powerful. I mean they end up in deeper relationships with God and each other. They discover a richer meaning to life, not an easy life.

I used to love the shows the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman. After terrible accidents, they were given new life. They had new body parts added on that made them better, stronger, faster. And they used those skills to help people week after week.

Following Jesus does this for us in a spiritual sense. When we deny ourselves and take up our cross we discover that we have God-given gifts and skills that allow us to reach out to others week after week. 

There are a lot of ways to think about what it means to "deny yourself." But today, I'd like to focus on denying the things that we use to build a false self, a worldly self. The kind of self we see in Peter that is focused on worldly things. Perhaps Jesus is saying deny YOUR self so that your GOD self can shine through. 

All of us put stuff around ourselves like a protective shell—things we use to create a OUR self that is loved and respected by the world. We create OUR self by the car we choose to drive or the beer or wine or even water we pick to drink.  Go to a fancy restaurant and they’ll ask do you want sparkling, still or tap water? God forbid you drink lowly tap water.

We create OUR self by wearing logos or achieving job titles or identifying with political parties or sports teams or Facebook groups. Some parents create a self through their children’s education and accomplishments. Some children create an identity with their family heritage.

With all this stuff of self we wrap around us, it can be hard to remember that at our core we are, all of us, God’s beloved. We come into the world and go out of the world with this naked truth. We have a God-give self. But here in the middle of life we lose it. We cover it up with OUR self. But Jesus says, deny your self. 

Have you heard of the monkey trap?

It’s a container that that has a hole cut that is just the size of a monkey’s open hand. Inside the container is something that the monkey would like to eat—an orange, a banana or rice. The monkey reaches his or her outstretched hand into the trap to get the food, grabs it and makes a fist. But the fist is too wide to get back through the hole. The monkey has a choice, let go of what’s in the container and be free or continue to hold on and stay trapped.

So often this is how we are. We are holding on to those things that we think that we need in order to feel successful or secure--OUR self. We're trapped by them even when we know they’re not good for us. We divert our energy and resources trying to holding on and when the best thing that we can do is let go. Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, knows this about our nature and tells us let go. Deny whatever it is that is trapping you.

Deny the voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough.
Deny the voice that tells you that you are too old, too poor, too rich, or too young.
Deny the voice that tells you can’t or you are too stained, that your sins are too deep to undo.
Deny the voice that says you have to join a political party or a gang or a sports fan club to belong.
Deny the voice that says protect yourself with labels and elevate yourself with cars or trucks or food.
Deny the voice that says cover and protect YOUR self at all costs.
Deny that negative voice, because it’s not God’s voice.

God's voice tells you that you are beloved.
God's voice reminds you that you are forgiven.
God's voice calls because you are wanted. 
God's voice beckons because you have been gifted with love and forgiveness to share.
Jesus says, Follow me.   

I'd like us all to take a moment to sit quietly. Think about what you use to create YOUR self.

What is it that you fear?

What is it that you crave?

What negative thoughts play like a broken record in your head?

What do you do to soothe yourself? Eat? Shop? Sleep? Watch TV?

How do you cover up your God-given self?


Recognizing what traps us is one way we can begin to deny it's power and start to uncover our God-given selves. It's a way to open our hands and let go of what holds us back. It's only after we open our hands that we are able to pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

Notice that when Jesus says we should take up our cross, he doesn’t say take up MY cross. He doesn’t say take up THE cross. He says take up YOUR cross. God has placed a call upon each of our lives. We each have a cross. We each have a ministry.

I invite you forward to take one of these crosses. Each one is unique, cut from pieces of wood with slightly different grains. The stain is applied slightly differently on each one. We are like these crosses. Each of us is born with a unique constellation of gifts and failings. Come, take up your cross and reflect upon how Jesus is calling you to follow.

The congregation comes forward.

I pray that today you have started to open your hand to let go of whatever it is that traps you. That you have thought about how God might use you--the gifted, beloved God-given you. I hope that you have begun to think about what your cross--your ministry to others--might look like.

Use this little cross as a reminder that Jesus is calling on you to follow on a path of love, healing and forgiveness. It could be that the first person you have to learn to minister to is yourself. It could mean you have to learn how to deny YOUR self the power to create fear. It could me you have to forgive YOUR self so that you can embrace your God-given self and all of it's vulnerability.

Remembering that God’s love and forgiveness are already ours makes this easier. We don’t have to earn God's favor with heroic acts of spiritual fortitude. We didn't have to come forward or say a special prayer to receive God's love. Our salvation is through Christ’s work on his cross. We deny ourselves and take up our crosses in response to God's steadfast love. 

Jesus says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

Are we following on a path of suffering? Or a path of glory?

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ promises us both.

The only way to really understand it is to take up our crosses,  get behind Jesus and see where he leads us.

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