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Mark 8, 27-38

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TITLE:   Dying to Live!

SCRIPTURE:    Mark 8:27-38

SERMON:    

Jesus asked, "Who do people say that I am?"  The disciples answered, "John the Baptist --or Elijah -- or one of the prophets."  Those were good answers -- complimentary toward Jesus -- but they didn't go far enough.  The people think of Jesus, not as the Messiah, but as a great man like one of the great men of their history.  They have their own ideas about the Messiah, and Jesus does not fit the mold.  They think of the Messiah as David's successor, who will drive out the Roman garrison, re-establish Israel's glory, and usher in a golden age.  To accomplish these goals, they expect the Messiah to use traditional power -- the ability to control people through military or economic dominance.  They expect the Messiah to be a super-man -- a man like other men except for his greater strength.

But then Jesus asked, "But who do you say that I am?"  In the original Greek, "you" is emphasized -- "But you -- who do you say that I am?" These disciples had been with Jesus for long enough to form an opinion --to understand that Jesus was more than just another great man.  "But you -- who do you say that I am?"

Peter answered, "You are the Christ."  What did that mean?  It meant that Jesus was the one for whom Israel had waited for so long -- the one who would return them to greatness.  They had been great once, under King David.  When David was king, nobody messed with Israel -- at least not more than once.  Israel, under David, was a force to be contended with -- a great nation -- mighty in battle and prosperous in peace.  When David was king, there were no Roman soldiers wandering the streets with authority to require Israeli citizens to carry their bags.

But that was long ago, and Israel's flower had faded.  Now Roman soldiers were everywhere -- sent to protect Roman tax collectors and Roman governors.  Israelis hated that -- hated seeing their money siphoned off to Rome -- hated answering to a Roman governor -- hated Romans telling them what to do -- hated not being great.

When Peter said, "You are the Christ," he meant that Rome's days were numbered.  The Christ would get Israel organized -- raise an army – drive out the Romans -- put God's people back on top.

But Jesus surprised the disciples with his next words.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer --" be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes" (v. 31). These three groups comprise the Sanhedrin, the ruling body for the Jewish
people-- and killed-- and then rise again.   "It is not humanity at its worst that will crucify the Son of God but humanity at its absolute best.”

The disciples could hardly believe what they were hearing.  Peter, always the first to speak, took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  He must have thought that Jesus was just having a bad day -- that he just needed some encouragement.  I can imagine him saying, "Jesus, get a grip!  You can't go around talking like that!  It upsets the disciples!  We left everything to follow you!  You can't let us down now!  This talk of the cross is -- well -- it is foolishness, Jesus!  Foolishness!"

Many of Jesus' teachings have been couched in parables or stories, which conceal as much as they reveal.  Here, however, Jesus "said all this quite openly" (v. 32).  Given this clarity, we wonder why the disciples fail to understand.  The answer, of course, is that Jesus' teachings run counter to everything that they believe.  Regardless of what is said, people often hear what they expect to hear.

 We should not be too critical of them for refusing to accept Jesus' talk of suffering
and death.  Even today, having known all our lives how the story turns out, we prefer a gospel that promises success.  The cross is a hard sell.

Note the boldness of Peter's rebuke.  He has just identified Jesus as the Messiah, and now he is rebuking Jesus.  How bold to rebuke even the Messiah!  We too are tempted to rebuke Jesus when he fails to meet our expectations -- when he fails to answer our prayers as we expect.

Mark tells the story this way so that we will recognize that the enduring temptation of Jesus' life was to resist the cross, to use his charisma to muster enough political clout to become what the crowds wanted him to become" (Johnson, 61).  It seems likely that Jesus finds Peter's temptation even more dangerous than Satan's earlier temptations, because Peter is a disciple and friend rather than an opponent – a well-intentioned man rather than the personification of evil.  We are much more inclined to be persuaded by a friendly voice than by an adversarial one.

Note the story's twists and turns.  First, Peter stuck out his neck and got the right answer.  How good it feels to get the right answer!  Then Jesus calls him Satan.  In one minute, Peter goes from Star Pupil to Dunce.  Imagine how confused he must feel.  Jesus' response makes it clear that the disciples belong behind Jesus.  They are to follow, not lead.

But Jesus often turns things upside down.  "Blessed are the poor," he says.  "Blessed are those who mourn."  His talk of the cross was like that.  Death on a cross was, indeed, foolishness, but, in God's hands, it became wisdom.  Jesus' death transformed the cross into a symbol of God's love.  The cross didn't make sense, except in God's New Math, where it added up perfectly.

And Christians, living in the shadow of Jesus' cross, have been bearing their own crosses ever since.  In the 1st Century, Romans lined the roadsides with crosses to kill Christians.  As time progressed, people found other ways to kill Christians -- burning them at the stake -- beheading -- and a host of others.  You would think, given the
persecutions that Christians have endured, that there wouldn't be a Christian left on the face of the earth.

The opposite is true, though.  Christ is alive and well in the hearts of men and women throughout the world.  Christ is alive in places where authorities have made every effort to crush the faith.  Christ survived Hitler.  Christ survived Stalin.  Christ survived Mao.  Christ is alive in Cuba.  Christ is alive in Vietnam.  Christ is alive in East Timor.

Christ is alive in those hostile places, because Christians have outlived their persecutors.  They haven't outlived them in years, but in the quality of their lives.  People have seen tyrants hating and Christians loving, and have been drawn to the lovers rather than the haters.  Where Christians live according to Christ's teachings, Christ never loses. Nobody can stand up against a truly Christ-filled life.


A Catholic priest, Fr. John McKenzie, was once asked this question:

"There were some people under Hitler's domination who simply refused to cooperate with what they recognized as evil, and they were executed for it.  That's a positive, valid way of living the Gospel, but does it work?"

Fr. McKenzie answered: 

"The thing about following Jesus is that you don't do the right thing because it works;
you do it because it's the right thing."

Jesus put it this way:

"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."

Jesus says that discipleship involves self-denial and cross-bearing. Sports provide an analogy.  Games are won, not just on the playing field, but also on the practice field.  To experience glory on game day, the athlete must first push himself or herself to the limit on the practice field.  Physical conditioning is painful and practicing fundamentals is
tiresome, but their purpose is neither pain nor boredom but victory.  So it is in the spiritual realm.  Spiritual discipline begets spiritual victory.  The church is always tempted to offer less costly discipleship in the hope of attracting more people.  A weak call, however, produces weak disciples


The challenge to lose our lives for Jesus' sake conflicts with modern values. Preservation of life is a major industry.  Modern medicine, proper diet, and exercise extend our lives.  Cosmetics and plastic surgeons preserve our appearance.  Funeral directors continue the work even after we die. We find it difficult to hear Jesus' call to lose our lives for his sake.

Persecution of Christians is alive and well.  More Christians died for their faith in the 20th Century than in the 1st Century.  The list of nations where Christians are routinely persecuted is a long one:  China, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, East Timor, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba -- to name only a few.

Since our challenges are not issues of life-and-death, we are tempted to feel that they aren't important.  We would be willing to die for Christ, if necessary, but find it more difficult to live for Christ day by day.

 Jesus gives a threefold standard for discipleship.  We are to (1) deny ourselves (2) to take up our cross and (3) to follow Jesus.  Jesus does not call us to deny our value

The game is for the biggest stakes of all -- life itself-- eternal life -- meaningful life --
life lived in the presence of the Father. There is no no-risk strategy where faith is concerned-- no safe but profitable harbor.  People speak of "the leap of faith" precisely because faith, at some point, involves letting go of traditional forms of security and leaping into the darkness in the faith that Jesus will help us to land safely.

I hope that you will never find yourself face to face with the kind of monstrous evil that many Christians have faced, but it could happen.  Christians are suffering persecution in many nations around the world right now.  Tens of thousands of Christians will die this year because of their faith.  Two years ago, on September 11, we saw -- not the first strike -- but the first strike on our soil -- of men who hate Christians and who would destroy us.  I think that it is possible that we will see many such acts over the next decade -- some targeted against churches and Christian leaders.  I think that it is possible that we will learn what it means to suffer for our faith.

Regardless of how that plays out, we can expect to face tough choices because of our faith.  Employers will expect us to shade the truth to improve the quarterly report.  Friends will expect us to do things that we know are wrong, and will ridicule us when we refuse.  We will be tempted to cheat on our taxes, because "everyone does it."  We will face a thousand temptations, each cloaked in the deceit that our decisions don't
really matter.  When faced with such temptations, remember the words of the priest who said:

"The thing about following Jesus is that you don't do the right thing because it works;
you do it because it's the right thing."

And remember the words of Jesus:

"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."

That's the purpose -- to save lives -- ours and others.  The self-denial and cross-bearing do not have suffering as their purpose, but life.

I would like to close by offering you a blessing:

Grant, O Lord, that in your wounds we may find our safety, in your stripes our cure,
in your pain our peace, in your cross our victory, in your resurrection our triumph,
and a crown of righteousness in the glory of your eternal kingdom.


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