Sermon on Mark 8:31-38 for February 25, 2018, Lent +2 B

Mark 8:31-38

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

The Russian author Dostoevsky wrote a novel entitled “Notes from the Underground.” That title has to go down as one of the best novel titles of all time – in my opinion.   I thought of that title as I was reflecting on this text from Mark’s gospel.   In many ways, Mark’s gospel is written from the underground.

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Many scholars believe that Mark wrote in the tumultuous days leading up to the Jewish revolt against Rome; actually, I read one author who believes that Mark was written after the revolt had started, during a lull in the fighting, but before it had ended in 70 CE.  No one knows for certain, but if the revolution had not already started, certainly it was in the air, and people were already preparing for it. 

So, when Mark was telling the story of Jesus in those days, he was both recording what he had been told about Jesus (Mark was not a disciple of Jesus, so he is not offering a first-hand account) and applying the meaning of Jesus’ message to his community.  So his gospel was like “Notes from the Underground” – something written to people in a tough situation in dangerous times. 

Mark’s Community’s Context

What would it have been like to be in Mark’s community?  It would have meant trouble.  In the early years, Christians in Palestine were mostly Jewish and thought of themselves as Jews who believed in Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.  But the closer they got to a Jewish revolution, the more dangerous it was to be a Jewish person in the Roman Empire.  Their situation was made even more dangerous because the central message was all about a kingdom – and it wasn’t the kingdom of Caesar. 

The Romans had no reluctance to crucify people who were suspected of treason.  They believed in group punishment, they believed in making public examples out of insurgents, and they believed that the more brutal they were, the less likely it was that there would be organized opposition.  So they crucified people publicly, in huge numbers. They crucified them naked – it was meant to shame them.  It was meant as a deterrent.

That being said, they mainly crucified the lower classes – people who did not own land, slaves, violent criminals, and the rebellious.  So it was doubly shameful to be crucified.  To make it even worse, they normally let the bodies remain on the crosses long after death to be picked over by birds of prey, and eventually dogs – not even giving a chance for a decent burial. 

I know that is difficult to hear.  But I think it is absolutely necessary to be reminded of what it must have been like to hear someone say, as Jesus said:

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

That would have been a startling and sobering thought.

Hearing it in Our Context

But we do not live in revolutionary times.  We do not fear dying a violent death.  We are not being targeted by the authorities.  We are not living in the underground.  So how do we read these texts from those days?  How do they speak to us, in our context?  Do we need “notes from the underground” anymore?

I believe we do need Mark’s version of Jesus’ message today – in fact, that it is crucial for us, in ways that are as deep and challenging for us as they were for Mark’s community. 

If we step back from the specifics of the context – the revolutionary times – and look into the deep meaning, we will see that we too need to hear this call in our context.  Jesus’ words call us to consider our response – and it is a serious and sobering call.  But it is not just that; I believe it is also a deeply liberating call as well.

Life and Survival

Let us start by reflecting a bit about life.  If we humans want anything, it is to survive. 

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The survival instinct is hardwired into our brains.  It is tenacious.  When life is threatened, it is unbelievable what people are able to endure in the effort to survive. 

I have been to the Nazi death camps in  Auschwitz and Birkenau, and I have read the accounts of survivors like Viktor Frankl of what they were subjected to – and of course millions died.  But not without as hard a fight as they were able to put up – mentally, physically and spiritually. 

So when someone says, “this is worth risking your life for” they are saying something that goes to our core human motivations and instincts. 

Jesus: an Inescapable Truth

When Jesus said,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”

he was aware that he was asking people to look deeply into their hearts and reflect on what their lives meant. 

Jesus is teaching a principle that is inescapably true:

“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.”

The very effort to protect your life will lead to losing it.  The act of losing your life for the highest possible good will save it. 

The problem we all face is that our lives, no matter what we do, are impermanent.  I was reading John McQuiston’s book “Always We Begin Again” which is his modern paraphrase of The Rule of St. Benedict in which he said it as well as I have ever heard it:

“… in the vast reaches and endless memory of the universe, our most profound idea is the merest fantasy; our greatest triumphs and our [smallest] actions are as lasting as footprints in sand.” 

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We all know that.  Is that a sad, depressing, ugly thought?  Or is it the kind of truth that makes you free?  Our lives are not our own to keep indefinitely.  We will all lose our lives as we know them now, in this plane of existence. 

How Should We Live?

So, how should we then live?  The alternative seems to be either a lifestyle of desperately clutching and protecting this fragile life; trying to deny and forestall the inevitable end, or, taking up the cross, by relinquishing the idea that life is all about the self and its insatiable desires and needs. 

In other words, the alternative is a self-focused life or a life oriented to the highest possible good; a non-self-oriented life. 

The fact that life is impermanent as footprints in the sand does not make it meaningless or insignificant.  Just the opposite.  It means that every moment is unrepeatable and important.  Everything matters.  Again from McQuiston:

“Everything we think, everything we do, everything we feel, is cast in time forever. Every moment that we live is irreplaceable, therefore each moment is hallowed.”

In every moment we can choose to live for ourselves or to lose ourselves for the sake of the highest good.  I believe that is what Jesus means when he says,

for my sake and the sake of the gospel.” 

The gospel is the announcement that the kingdom of God is here, now, present, among us, and within us, calling us to a life in God, which of course, calls us to a life oriented to the highest possible good.  The kind of life that Jesus demonstrated.

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We could put it this way: losing life, by denying the self and its vain quest for glory and the avoidance of all suffering, in other words, denying the ego of its pretensions and self-focus, is actually the way to find our true selves.  Our truest selves are who we are in God – beloved, blessed, and treasured.  In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, we are both “poor potsherd, patch, matchwood” and we are “immortal diamonds.”

[Quoted in Rohr, Richard. Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self . Wiley. Kindle Edition.]

Jesus said,

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

The selfish self does not like to be denied.  The voice of the ego that we all hear every day, that voice that narrates our lives to ourselves, making judgments about whether things suit us or not, whether things are as we want them to be or not, pleasing to us or not, good or bad in relation to ourselves, that voice is relentless and insistent.   

That voice is the ego-self, calling us to concern ourselves with ourselves – even when it is the voice of condemnation and judgment.  That ego voice carries our shame.  It tells us how we have failed already, and predicts our future failures.

Ego manifests itself in anger, in jealousy, in contempt, in un-forgiveness, in despising and even in neglect of needs of others.  It is toxic to relationships and toxic to our own souls.

Freedom

If there is to be any freedom from the soul-killing self, that ego-self must be denied; it must take up its cross and die. Which is why the practice of regular meditation or contemplative prayer is so crucial.  I know of no other spiritual practice that is more effective in turning down the ego voice than meditation. 

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In meditation, we learn that our thoughts are not ourselves.  Some of our thoughts are just random – we have no idea where they come from.  We can let them go.  In meditation we learn to become centered and still.  Meditation requires non-judgmental awareness of the present moment – whatever it is, so it teaches us to become non-judgmental in every aspect of life. 

Just like physical exercise, the hardest part of meditation is the start: sitting down and saying, “For the next 20 minutes I will be silent.  So the practice itself demands a kind of self-denial.  But the results are amazingly helpful. 

There is beautiful freedom here.  To be free from the constant need to justify ourselves and defend ourselves is true freedom.  To be free of the anxiety that one day I will be completely forgotten is to know that this moment matters.  To be free to relinquish the vain attempt to “gain the whole world” is to be free from the prospect of ending up with the world in exchange for the soul. 

To live a life oriented to the highest possible good, a life lived not for the self, but for others, life in which our highest quest is that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, is to live as a full and free human.  It is the life lived for peace and reconciliation, for goodness and courage; the life lived for justice, the life of wisdom, the life of generosity and compassion.  It is the Jesus way of living. It is to live in God. 

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