Count the Cost

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 16 we heard some of the first words that Jesus spoke to his disciples after accepting Peter’s acclamation of his messiah-ship.  If Jesus is the savior, then what is our response? Our gospel reading was from Mark 8:34-9:1.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

What Do People Think About Me?, Vasely Polenov (c. 1900)

Last week we picked up in our exploration of Mark’s Gospel by noting that the middle of Chapter 8 is essentially the opening episode in “Season II” of the Jesus story.  We noted that Jesus has taken the group to the farthest reaches of Jewish territory, in the community of Caesarea Philippi along the Lebanese border.  In this remote location, Peter almost hits one out of the park when he acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then loses his footing when he denies Jesus the opportunity to define what “Messiah” and “Savior” mean.

In this way, Peter is actually echoing something that had happened in the last episode of “season I”.  You’ll remember that on their way to Caesarea Philippi the band stopped in a place called Bethsaida.  As they went through, Jesus encountered a blind man and we heard a remarkable story of a two-stage healing.  Jesus touched him, and he could see – but not perfectly.  He reported that human beings looked like trees to him.  It took another touch of the Savior’s hands to bring complete clarity to the man.

I’d like to suggest that last week’s reading in which Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah, but then turns around and needs to be set straight almost right away is an echo of that healing.  Peter could see, but it was imperfect.  Like the sightless man in Bethsaida, he needed the “second touch”.

In our reading for today, Jesus continues to elaborate for Peter and the rest of the group what it will mean to live a life of faithful discipleship. As he first instructed Peter to “Get behind me!” in v. 33, he now uses the same exact word in telling those around him that discipleship is all about following. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  “Follow me” is the same word in Greek as “get behind me.” The life of discipleship is all about perspective – and the Lord is saying that if we define ourselves as his “followers” it can only make sense if we are willing to, well, followhim.

I’d like to suggest that Jesus chose this remote place in Northern Israel to bring forward what might be the hardest part of his teaching on discipleship. He’s starting, not with the crowds that might have adored him in his home town, nor with the masses who were happy to accept a free lunch, but with those hardy folk who had engaged in a long and circuitous route to this town somewhere past the middle of nowhere.

“If you want to get serious,” Jesus said, “You have to talk about discipleship.”  And, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote,

The first Christ-suffering which everyone must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is the death of the old self which is the result of one’s encounter with Christ.  As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death… When Christ calls to us, he bids us come and die.  It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at Christ’s call.[1]

In the first teaching on discipleship after accepting the acclamation of Peter and designating himself “the Son of Man”, Jesus points out that discipleship by its very definition means giving up our ability or perceived need to set the direction, to be in charge, or to “call the shots”.  The beginning of a walk in faith, then, is to yield to God in all things.

We are called let go of our fear.  We are called to seek God’s best in the reality of each new day.  And we are called to a denial of self.

I want to point out here that when Jesus talks about denying oneself, he does not say “deny some things to yourself” (the English majors amongst us will realize that is making the self an indirect object).  If we were to read it that way, we might be tempted to think that there is some real chance that God might be impressed by my ability to “just say no” to sweet treats or fancy cars or front-row seats at the game.

No, he says, “deny yourself.”  The “self” is the direct object.  There are only two objects here – the self and the Christ.  In order to follow the one, I must deny, or leave, or turn away from the other.   Following Jesus means a willingness to relinquish life on my own terms and to stop pursuing my own ends.

I’d like to take advantage of this moment to point out that none of this ought to be a surprise to anyone who has sought to be a disciple of Jesus here in Crafton Heights.  On the day that you were born – some of you, anyway – I read from Psalm 139 and reminded you that you were not an accident of nature nor are you the result of some careful human design.  In that scripture we heard – again – that you were made.  You were made fearfully and wonderfully in the Divine image.  You were given an identity by your Creator.

A central task of the Christian life is discovering what it means to be faithful to God in the context of the image that has been given; I am called to discern, understand, and seek out what it means to be the me who is at this place and this time, and that can be hard work.  But I never, ever have to inventan identity.  I live a life of faith in which I seek to discover how to be the self that God made me to be.

And now, you might be thinking, “All right, Dave, this is interesting – or at least, it’s not deathly boring… But what does it look like in real life? Give us an example.”

I’m glad you asked!  Let me tell you a little bit about a hero named Epaphroditus.  Do you know that I have at least two books on my shelves which claim to be some version of Who’s Who in the Bible– and yet neither one of them mentions this young man who was commended by Paul in Philippians 2.  Listen:

But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs. For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill. Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety. So then, welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor people like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ. He risked his life to make up for the help you yourselves could not give me. (Philippians 2:25-30)

I wonder – is there anyone here who has heard of this man before?  I’m here to tell you he is an amazing example of the self-denying, Christ-serving disciple of which Jesus spoke in Mark 8.  Paul has been imprisoned for some time, and the church in Philippi has become concerned for his welfare.  It’s not practical or possible for the entire congregation to go and check on the old Apostle, so Epaphroditus volunteers to go.  He finds Paul in a tough spot, and immediately dives in to try to make life better for Paul.  He does, but in the process he loses his own health and in fact nearly dies.  Through prayer and the care of others, the young man’s health is restored and now Paul is sending him back to the church in Philippi, full of news and encouragement.  And please note that when Paul sends him back he does so with a lot of powerful words: Epaphroditus is an apostle, a fellow worker, a soldier for the Lord.  He proves this, says Paul, because he was willing to serve Jesus even at risk to himself. In fact, Paul chooses to use a word here that is used only this once in the entire Bible: he says that Epaphroditus “risked his life” or “exposed his life” for the sake of the gospel: the word is paraballo.  Can you see how in this little story from his own files, Paul gives us a great description of one who lived into the narrative of Mark 8? That Epaphroditus was more concerned about following Jesus in the service of others than he was about saving his own neck?

That might be interesting enough, but then in the fifth century we find a couple of very curious references to an order of disciples who were called the Parabolani. From what we can tell, this group began as a community of Christ-followers who saw their special mission as being to care for the sick – even at risk to themselves.  The Parabolaniwere so eager to reach out to those on the margins that they walked freely amongst those with deadly and communicative diseases offering the same hope and love and care as Epaphroditus gave to Paul.  Isn’t that awesome?

Yes.  Almost. But something happened.

The longer this small society pursued this mission, the more difficult it became. As they became more well-known, they were revered and honored.  They were admired.  Soon, someone would see one or two of them walking down the street wearing the little emblem of the Parabolaniand a crowd would gather.  “Hey, guys – seriously – thanks for all you do.  We don’t know what we’d do without you.  The world is better because you’re here…”

Along the way, in addition to being respected and admired, some fear crept in.  It may have been well-placed; I mean, if I think you’ve been out treating people with tuberculosis or hepatitis I am not sure that I want you making my tuna salad sandwich…  So eventually the bands of Parabolani created a bit of a stir wherever they showed up.

Maybe you can guess where this is leading.  It didn’t take all that much time for the group that had been established on the basis of selfless and anonymous service to those who were in horrible places to become transformed into a “goon squad” of enforcers sent out by the religious establishment.  The last mention of the Parabolani indicates that the local Bishop had them show up at a council meeting in order to ensure that everything went the way that the Bishop wanted…

Isn’t that the way of things?  We come to Christ, and we seek healing and life and we find hope and we are filled with joy that we didn’t think we could know.  We dive into the life of discipleship – sometimes by means of denying ourselves.  We yield privileges.  We give up what we want for the good of the group and the joy of our neighbor.

And sometimes, when we do this, people notice.  And they mention it.  And the first few times, I protest: “Ah, don’t mention it,” I say.  “It’s nothing.”

But inside, it feels pretty good to be noticed.  In fact, I like it.  I like it so much that I keep on doing those things that show me as kind and compassionate and caring… and I do them in places where you can see me, and where you can affirm me for it.  That kind of affirmation can be like a drug to me, and I crave it.  I start to abuse it.  And before you know it, I’ve left Christ behind me.

You’ve seen it.  The person who started an incredible charity for the homeless is revealed to be living in a mansion that costs millions of dollars.  The youth worker who started out wanting nothing more than to help kids discover the love of Jesus winds up “falling in love” with some fourteen year-old and using that child to fill some perceived need in his life… The so-called “suffering servant” at the church who doesn’t mind doing all of the lowly jobs as long as he gets noticed doing them, credited for taking care of them, and thanked for being so humble and selfless.

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  Because it seems to me like a lot of that is my story over and over again.  This is, for me, the hardest part of discipleship – wanting to want the right things for the right reasons.  Wanting to stay in line behind Jesus, rather than getting out where you can see how good, how noble, how “Christ-like” I am.  For crying out loud, Dave, let them see Jesus – not you!

The path of discipleship may begin with something specific.  Maybe you remember one day when you “asked Jesus to come into your heart”.  Maybe you woke up in a fog, not remembering where you’d been the night before, and you said, “That’s enough.  Starting now, things are going to be different.”

In that way, following Jesus is a lot like any other relationship: it began with a simple act, a specific conversation, a seemingly “chance” meeting. All of our relationships are like that – friendships and marriages and parenting – they all begin with something that is observable.  And yet each of them requires the daily, if not hourly, embrace of a set of behaviors and ideals and commitments.  The life of discipleship requires that we constantly and consistently turn our eyes to the man who went to the cross.

Sitting amidst the symbols of power and wealth in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus looks us in the eyes and says, plainly, Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

That does not mean that we quietly walk towards oblivion because we are not important.  Rather, as Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon write in Resident Aliens, “…the cross is a sign of what happens when one takes God’s account of reality more seriously than Caesar’s. The cross stands as God’s (and our) eternal no to the powers of death, as well as God’s eternal yes to humanity, God’s remarkable determination not to leave us to our own devices.”[2]

In my discipleship, I am invited and called to live for Jesus in hope and in victory every day, not because of how good, noble, or holy I am or think that I am; but because he knows me, he formed me, he shaped me, and he invited me to follow him into goodness, nobility, and holiness. As a disciple, I’ve just got to remember my place.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

[1]The Cost of Discipleship, MacMillan paperback 1963, p. 99 (edited for gender inclusivity).

[2]Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony(Abingdon, 1989), p. 47.

Check the Listings

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On September 9 we opened “Season II” of this exploration with the passage that many writers see as the hinge to the entire Gospel.  Our main reading was from Mark 8:27-33.  In addition, we heard from Hebrews 12:1-2.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please visit the media player below:

Do you know how it feels when you’ve become acquainted with a television show or a movie franchise and then at the beginning of a new season or installment there’s a pretty radical change?  You think you know where the story is heading, and then all of a sudden there’s a new character? Or maybe a show that seemed to be really funny last year now seems to be steeped with political or social commentary.  Perhaps there’s a plot twist as a beloved character dies, or is revealed to be a “bad guy”, or you find out that the last four episodes were really only a dream…  You’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the way things are laid out, and then BAM! You’re in a different place.

Last season, in the hit series Preaching Through the Gospel of Mark with Pastor Dave, we witnessed the birth of the Jesus movement from two distinct viewpoints. We, the readers, knew where the narrator was going all along. We knew that because it’s all there in chapter 1, verse 1: “This is the good news about Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God.” That’s the introduction that the audience is given.

However, the characters in the story do not know everything that we know. To many of them, the Jesus story is constantly unfolding.  The central character seems to be evolving.  Is he a miracle worker? A wonderful teacher? A revolutionary sent to overthrow Roman oppression?

Throughout season one, which covered the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ star seemed to be rising.  There are more crowds.  The miracles are spectacular.  His command of the room is just superb.  Almost all of last year, we noticed that Jesus was YUGE!

But near the end of last season, there were glimmers of a different narrative developing.  We saw conflict with the religious and political establishment; Jesus seemed to be intensifying his commitment to include foreigners, women, and others who had been marginalized in his culture; and perhaps most notably, we saw the narrative shifting from the center of Jewish life and moving further and further afield.  Much of the beginning of Mark takes place in the region of the Galilee – an area that was a hotbed of Jewish nationalism, even if it was considered “the boondocks” by the learned elite inside the beltway of Jerusalem.

But now, season two of the Gospel opens in, of all places, Caesarea Philippi.  This place was further away from the capital than Galilee!  In fact it’s almost on the border of Lebanon.  It had long been the site of pagan worship, and had only recently been rebuilt and dedicated to (and named after) the reigning Emperor of Rome! In this setting, the disciples would have been surrounded by symbols of human power, wealth, and accomplishment.  To say it’s an unlikely setting is an understatement.

And yet Jesus takes advantage of the remote location to ask the disciples if they’ve checked the polls lately. “How are we doing?”, he asks.  “Who do the people say that I am?”

The Charge to Peter (detail), James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

The response is divided.  Some are convinced that he is John the Baptist, the fearless prophet who’d been killed by Herod, come back to life. Others believe that he may have been a resurrected prophet, but not John: Elijah, the courageous spokesman who stood up to Jezebel and Ahab.  And there are a few who are willing to concede that he’s someone pretty special, but they’re not sure exactly who.  The good news, the disciples report, is that everyone thinks that Jesus is a pretty remarkable guy.  Yet in spite of this, it would appear as though, for the most part, people have given up on the idea that Jesus was a conquering, militant Messiah who had come to expel the Romans and restore to Israel its former glory.

At this point, we get to one of the most important verses in all of Mark, and a fantastic opener to season II: Jesus looks at his friends and says, “OK, great. Who do yousay that I am?”

And Peter, God bless him, doesn’t miss a beat when he pronounces boldly, “You are the Messiah.  You are the Christ of God.”

Now, you might not remember this, but for the entire first half of the Gospel, every time Jesus did something amazing, it led to questions. He drives out an evil spirit (1:27) and everybody stands around asking, “What kind of teaching is this?”  He calms the sea and the storm (4:41), and his best friends wonder, “Who isthis guy?”  He shows up and preaches a real barnburner in his home town (6:2) and people stare at each other and say, “Where does he come up with this stuff?”

Now, on the furthest edge of Jewish territory, surrounded by symbols of paganism and power, Peter pronounces matter-of-factly, that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter says, “Oh, yeah, we get it, Jesus. We gotyou!”  He exchanges a knowing glance with Jesus and there are, presumably, fist bumps and high-fives all around.  Peter returns to his seat and then Jesus launches into the next round of teaching.

And look at how that begins: “He then began to teach them…”  Jesus beginsto teach them.  They have said, correctly, that he is the Messiah.  Now he’s got to teach them what a Messiah is.  Season 1 is over.  We came out to Caesarea Philippi for something new, so listen up, team…

What does he teach them?  That “the Son of Man” must suffer many things…  In the Gospel of Mark, the only title that Jesus chooses for himself is “the Son of Man.”  In fact, you could argue that not only is it the only title that he chooses, but that he’s the only one to say it in the second Gospel. In choosing to refer to himself as “the Son of Man” so quickly after Peter acclaims him the Messiah or Christ, Jesus is reserving the right of self-definition.  That is to say that he is unwilling to act into anyone else’s view of what it means to be the Messiah.  Just after Peter gives the right answer, Jesus sits the folks down and says, “All righty, now let me tell you how this savior thing is going to work.  I need to stress that it’s not pretty.  It’s going to be rough.  The path to Messiah-ship is through suffering and death…”

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, James Tissot (between 1886-1896)

Well, quick as a wink Peter jumps up with an “over my dead body” kind of speech. “No, no, no Jesus – you’ve got it all wrong…”  The word that Mark uses is that Peter “rebukes” Jesus.

Uh-oh.

“Rebuke” is Jesus’ word.  It’s what Jesus does to evil spirits and angry winds.

Disciples do not “rebuke” the Son of Man.  In fact, as Jesus shows us one verse later, it’s the other way around. He insists that the path to faithful living is one of sacrifice and obedience to God.

Here in the relative isolation of Caesarea Philippi, the Son of Man lays out the ground rules for season II: disciples are not to “handle” the Son of Man; they are not to “protect”, “advise”, or “interpret” Jesus. Disciples are to follow.  Jesus goes so far as to call his friend and beloved disciple “Satan” because of his refusal to allow Jesus to be the Son of Man. “You get behindme, Peter”, says Jesus.  In the next verse, which we didn’t read, he uses the exact same words when he says that all are invited to “come after” him – to “get behind” him. We follow.  That’s what disciples do.

We don’t watch a lot of live television in our home, but we enjoy using using a DVR to skip the commercials.  Whenever we finish an episode and the announcer says, “Stay tuned for a preview of next week’s program…”, my wife insists that we watch the recording until the end.  She doesn’t want to miss the teaser about what’s coming next.

So here’s your preview: most of season II of the Gospel of Mark involves following Jesus on a journey to Jerusalem and exploring, in that context, what he means when he calls himself “the Son of Man.”

But before we leave today’s scripture, we’ve got to wrestle with the same critical question that he put before Peter.

Who do you say that Jesus is? And what does that mean to you?

I would suspect that there are some in the room who hold Jesus in the highest respect and admiration.  Jesus is a really, really good guy.  He’s someone to whom we can point our children at various times and hope that they’ll choose to follow his example – in this way, we think, he’s not unlike Thomas Jefferson, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Rogers.

And there are those who rely on Jesus to be their go-to backup when it comes to political arguments.  I mean, you can go ahead and post your partisan stuff all you want, but when I trot out my Jesuswhen we talk about immigration or abortion or refugees or sexuality… well, that’s just a cosmic mic drop right there.  I may flounder when I try to debate the issues, but if God said it, then, BOOM. And isn’t it amazing, and wonderful, how frequently God agrees with my political opinions? I guess you could say that Jesus has my back.  Which could mean that Jesus is behind me… which could mean I have something backwards…

Of course there are some of us who rely on Jesus as a wonder-working hero who is on call when it’s time for me to find a parking place in a hurry, or get a new car, or fix what’s broken in my marriage.  Like a good wingman, he’s always around, ready to jump in whenever I need a bit of a hand.

But this passage indicates that Jesus, apparently, is not interested in offering advice, or providing muscle, or even saving my bacon.

Instead, he seems to be concerned with whether or not I am willing to follow him where he leads.  Jesus invites us to walk behind him into an uncertain future.

He will not tolerate being manipulated, advised, or controlled.  He expects to be followed.

When I think about the question, “Who do you say that I am”, I have to say, “You are my lord.  You are the one who sets the agenda and establishes the priorities. I am a follower. I am a disciple.  I am a servant.”

And here’s the thing – and we’ll get into this more next week, I’m sure: when we follow, where are our eyes? On the leader, right? We do not choose the other pilgrims.  We can only decide how we will treat them as they come alongside of us in service to the one we follow.

So if you came to church looking for a motivational speaker, or some theological fireworks, or a chance to have all your problems solved… I’m sorry.  I don’t have much to offer you.

But if you came looking to invest yourself in a lifetime of service and adventure and learning and wonder and growth – a journey that will cost everything you have and more – then I can only say that I hope you’ll come along and join me as I follow to the best of my ability.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.