September 12, 2021, Out of the Box and Into the Way, Mark 8:27-38 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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I am one of those people who need to make lists. I have lists all over the place – lists on the refrigerator of the dinners I’m going to make this week, and grocery lists on the blackboard, and lists of ideas for birthday presents, and lists of books I want to read, and lists of home improvements that our house needs, and long lists of self-improvements that I need. And I make schedules for my workday that tell me exactly what I should be doing each day of the week so that I get everything done on time, without neglecting anything or anyone. And sometimes I’m a little neurotic and I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about things that somehow didn’t get put onto a list and if I don’t get up and write them down right away, I worry that I’ll forget them before morning.
Not everybody is a chronic list-maker, but I think that everyone has their own way of constructing their life as they think it should go. It’s the way of the world. Our parents raise us to make something of ourselves: to work hard in school and to have good manners and to get ahead. We get jobs and establish homes, and we become members of a church and join other organizations that do important things. And we have savings accounts and insurance and retirement plans in place to maintain the whole system we have created. And all these things, in the eyes of the world, and in our own eyes, too, come to define our life, who we are and what we are worth. Lists are just my way of keeping my little life in order, or at least of preserving the illusion that I am keeping my little life in order. But of course all of these ways we have of preserving our lives fall apart, sooner or later.
Because God in his great mercy doesn’t just leave us alone in our little self-made lives. In my own life, I have noticed that at least once a day and usually many times a day he puts a little bit of my list-happy life to death. It might be something small: I get a phone call when I am in the middle of studying, or someone needs a ride when I’m about to weed the garden. There might be an unexpected meeting, or some urgent need – whatever it might be, trivial or earth-shaking – in those moments I have an opportunity to let go of my agenda and follow God’s agenda. That’s what discipleship is. It isn’t covered by insurance, it doesn’t enhance my job security or my social status; following Jesus doesn’t fit into any of the careful lists I have drawn to define my life. That’s because it doesn’t belong to my little life at all – it belongs to the bigger, wilder, messier life of the Kingdom, the life Jesus called abundant, the real life we were created for – the life Jesus laid down so that we could share it with him now and forever. But if I’m honest, I have to admit that sometimes I would very much rather hang onto my nice safe schedule and turn off the ringer on my phone and just check things off my to-do list.
One of the reasons Peter rebuked Jesus when he said the Messiah was going to have to suffer greatly and be rejected and put to death, is that if his Master was going to travel that road, it meant that his followers would also be going the way of suffering and death. Peter had hoped very much that the man he was following was going to become the victorious hero everyone was expecting, because it is much, much more comfortable to be the disciple of a victorious champion than to be the disciple of the bruised and battered man hanging on the cross. But that is who we are. We can be sure that if we are really following Jesus Christ, our lives will never again be neat and tidy constructions of our own design; our days will rarely, if ever, follow the pattern we have laid out for ourselves. Jesus made that perfectly clear. “Take up your cross,” he told his disciples, “and follow me.” And a cross means death. No wonder it was kind of a hard sell. No wonder Peter preferred to see the Messiah as a great warrior and victorious champion of Israel.
The problem with that hope, though, is that in the end, every warrior falters and weakens and dies and is gone forever. But not the crucified Messiah – he gives up his last breath and then walks out of the tomb forever alive. That is the great mystery. That is our great hope. Jesus calls us to follow him along the way of death. But his plan for us is that we might have life, and have it in abundance.
Before he asked us to lay down our plans and our security and our comfort and even our lives, Jesus let go of everything that belonged to him – his equality with the God of the Universe and his glory as well as his own security and comfort, and his very life. Before he was born on earth, the Son of God had no experience of pain or fear or hunger or thirst. He wasn’t susceptible to illness or weakness or weariness. He couldn’t die. We human beings are on the road to death the moment we come into this world. But because of God’s great love for us the Son chose to be born into the way of death, so that he could lead us through death into abundance of life. Because Jesus took on our humanity, completely, even to the point of death on the cross, we have a share in his unstoppable life – but the way he shows us is the way of the cross.
So being a disciple means self-denial: denying ourselves those things that belong to the life of this world. When Jesus said, “If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself and follow after me,” it is certain that he meant that for some of his disciples – and perhaps even for some of us here in this room – that might even mean we would be called upon to give up our lives for our faith. We can never assume that it would never come to that for us. But the flip side of discipleship is this: that laying down the privileges and pleasures of our worldly life, we become partakers even now of greater riches than the world could ever give us.
If we walk in the way Jesus walked, if we seem poor and despised in the eyes of the world, even if we were to give away everything we own, we are still rich; we are spiritual billionaires. Because eternal life isn’t just human life stretching on and on like butter spread over more and more bread. Abundant life is quality, not just quantity. You can see that in Jesus. He had very little of the world’s wealth; he didn’t even have a place to lay his head. And yet he wanted for nothing, because he had the love of the Father, and as you read the gospels, you can see that joy radiated from everything Jesus said or did or touched. Love and joy flowed through his hands that healed the sick and restored sight to the blind and brought the dead back to life. That love, that joy, is what he shares with us, as his disciples. Nothing else can hold a candle to that, no amount of fame or fortune, not even life itself. That is the Truth.
But I still make lists for myself, and we disciples of Jesus Christ, for the most part, we still care for our houses and pay our insurance premiums and put away a little something for the future and generally concern ourselves with the life of this world. We are still in this world. But the key is, if we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we don’t belong to the world anymore. The things of the world no longer have mastery over us because if we are in Christ we have already died to everything they have to offer us.
Each one of us died with Christ in our baptism, but our discipleship is a daily, step by step kind of thing. We put to death the things of this world little by little, not once for all. We give up our time, or our schedule this morning. We set aside our indignation or our pride for this moment. We forgo our own pleasures to bring joy to someone else today. It’s a step-by-step process, this discipleship thing, a walk, rather than a blaze of glory or instant enlightenment. Even Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine for three years before he faced the cross – the writer to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. That should remind us to be patient with ourselves as we seek to follow in his footsteps, one step at a time!
The good news is that the path of discipleship is love. And the end is joy and life. And the best news is that our crucified and risen Messiah is with us always…even when it’s a real struggle to deny ourselves…even when we feel like we’re walking through the valley of the shadow of death… even to the very end of all the ages.