From Death to Life
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
February 28, 2021
Mark 8:31-38 NRSV
31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 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.”
34 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. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 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.”
How many things in life are truly “life or death?” Sure there are some, but sometimes we use that expression and it is clearly an exaggeration. So perhaps you think my title this morning is just that – an exaggeration. But let’s come back to that after we look at the message in our Scripture reading. Jesus is talking about losing our life and saving it. That seems to be an issue of life and death.
My theme for February has been “God transforms reality.” I have tried to show how each of the Scriptures we have read teach us God transforms Scarcity to Abundance, fear to faith, and despair to joy. I believe that what we call reality needs transforming, and I believe our faith teaches us God is the God of life and death, and the Christian Scriptures teach us God has the power to transform death to life. What does this passage teach us?
The reading from Mark tells us of a time when Jesus is teaching the disciples. And the lesson is not going over well. He is saying he, as the “Son of Man,” a title from the prophet Daniel as a conquering hero coming from the clouds to rescue Israel from oppression. But Jesus says instead of glory and power he must suffer, be rejected by the religious leaders of his own faith, and be executed by the political powers. This deeply disturbs Peter and he shouts Jesus down, saying, “Never!” And Jesus, just as adamant, tells Peter he is thinking the way most people think about power, about what Jesus’ purpose should be, and about the outcome of his life. Jesus finishes by teaching them a lesson about the values of God about power, purpose and life over against the values most of us prioritize instead.
Leonard Vander Zee, calvinseminary.edu, 9/10/18, writes that preaching on this passage is a dangerous thing. He says, “One of the great dangers of listening to this text and preaching on it is to assume the position of one who is in the know. Here we are, looking back at this crucial encounter and all the misunderstanding on the part of the disciples, but we know better. We know that Jesus must die and rise again. We know that this is what it means to be the Messiah. So we look with pity and a little impatience at those ignorant disciples. We are quick to point out that they are deluded by a false understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.” The result is we think this message is “for someone else, not for us.”
He says we ought to realize we are just as clueless as those first disciples. “We too are scandalized by a crucified Messiah. We too look upon discipleship as a fulfilling and pleasing life-style. We too expect success and approval rather than defeat and ignominy. We too want to raise the approval of our faith in the eyes of the world, and enable the church of Jesus Christ to be a seen as a positive and admired institution.” Why does he say this? Well, look at all the examples of “successful” churches and virtually every church you see on TV. The gospel they preach is one of success, positive psychology, and having a good life-style, not about “taking up your cross and following Jesus.”
David Lose, davidlose.net, 9/7/2015, says all this “calls into question our own understanding of Jesus. Because we have to admit that Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well. Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our military and sports teams onto victory, and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise.
“But that’s not what Jesus offers. Instead, Jesus points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. A God who meets us, that is, in those moments when we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are, quite simply, mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are. Jesus’ identity proves elusive precisely because God shows up just where we least expect God to be. Which means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need.
He goes on to say pretty much what I have been saying the past three weeks: “Jesus’ message was and is absolutely and totally counter-cultural simply because … we live in a world of quid pro quo and scarcity where there is never enough and the only thing you can count on are the things you own. And Jesus challenges all of that by telling us that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away: like love and mercy and kindness and compassion.
David Lose goes on to say this “is why this story is crucial (a word, interesting enough, that has its roots in the Latin word crux, or cross). And this in [brings us to] three questions. So what did you say gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? And when you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be? My guess is that it wasn’t something you bought, or even earned, but rather was rooted in relationship, in acts of service, and even in acts of what the world calls “sacrifice” when you are caring for another.
Self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, you see, but about discovering a real and abundant life – a kind of life the culture can hardly imagine – that comes in and through sacrificial love in service to another. That model has become muted in our day by loud voices shouting about their rights, freedoms, and their fears of sharing those with others. We cannot as Christians allow those voices or the actions of those who use their fear to fuel acts of violence and death to drown out the voices of life.
Christians have not always done the right things in the name of Christ, but there are examples that can inspire us in these times. Janet Hunt, dancingwiththeword.com, 9/9/18, talks about the work of the Underground Railroad, the name for the way many slaves escaped from death to life. She says she was “especially fascinated” by the role of local congregations in what was a heroic effort to change the world. Where she was “in Northern Illinois it primarily found its roots in the faiths of Christian men and women who took active steps to help change the world. They built their homes with hidden rooms and underground passageways, and constructed haystacks with hollow cores and wagons with false bottoms all for the purpose of providing temporary shelter for those who had risked everything for a chance at freedom. Indeed, who risked their lives and their livelihoods to do the right thing in getting those in whose faces they saw reflected the Face of God one step closer to Chicago and Lake Michigan and safe passage to Canada. Who yes, it seems to me, heard Jesus’ call to ‘pick up their cross’ to follow Jesus as a call resulting in ways of living which were substantially different had they never heard his invitation echoing in their own hearts.”
These days we need to listen to that invitation, that challenge, Jesus lays before us, as he did before those first disciples. What does it profit us if we gain the whole world, but lose our lives? Anyone who wants to save his or her life must be willing to take up the cross of Christ and follow him. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for His sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Hard words to hear. Hard words to do, but if we try to deny them, or forget them we will lose everything we hope to gain.
Last week I challenged us all to think about how we can “love our neighbor” each week of Lent. This morning I want to remind you of that and extend the invitation, the challenge to keep trying and keep noting what you did and sharing it with others so we can inspire one another. I offered you an index card and asked you to write on it “how I loved my neighbor this week” and then email us or text us or post it on our Facebook page for Arlington Congregational Church. The act of loving your neighbor in some specific way is one way we take up our cross and follow Christ. The way we turn from worrying only about ourselves and our own problems to do something to help someone with their problems is the way we save our lives, the way we find real life.
These can be very personal. I tell these stories not to brag but to illustrate, to give you examples of, ways you too can and often do love your neighbor. We live on the fourth floor of our apartment building, and there is an elevator, but carrying groceries in can still be daunting if it is a heavy load. There is an older gentleman on our floor who was struggling to carry his groceries and two gallon jugs of water from his car. I offered to carry them and he allowed me to bring them as far as the fourth floor for him. It was a blessing to me to be a blessing.
Some of you joined me this week when we met on Zoom with the Sheriff. We are asking him to improve his training for his officers because we are concerned that too many of our neighbors who are dealing with mental health issues are ending up arrested instead of finding resources to help them. He himself has admitted that it is true that the jail is the largest “mental health treatment” center in Duval County. But the problem is it is NOT a treatment center. It is a jail and the treatment there does not lead to saving lives. We want to urge him to improve his training and there are proven, cost-effective, and result-effective training methods to help JSO do a better job when they encounter persons who have problems like this. He believes they are already doing everything. We believe the statistics show this is not the best we can do so we will be working to love our neighbors who have mental health issues by pushing him to improve those methods and using a more complete process for dealing with those types of calls.
Some ways of taking up our cross are very personal and involve one individual. Some involve dealing with unjust systems, and large community problems. Either way, our Savior has called us to join him in his example and take up our cross and follow him. How will you do that this week? AMEN.