Feb 25: For the Sake of the Gospel

Feb 25: For the Sake of the Gospel

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Feb 25 – 2nd Sunday of Lent

Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

Other sermons in this 2024 Lentent series
“Depths of Love”

You’ve probably heard it said, “I should’ve left home when I was 13 and I knew everything!” What parent hasn’t been accused by their teenager of being utterly clueless about teen-aged problems? It’s kind of ironic, though, that that the older we get and the more we do come to understand how things work, the more we realize just how much we don’t know, how much there’s still to learn.

A good example of this is when one of the students in a Confirmation Class I was teaching openly disputed the foundational Christian belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine—admittedly a difficult doctrine to comprehend. The student’s case against Jesus’ dual divine/human nature rested on human logic, and specifically, the depth of logic an average 13 year-old is able to muster up. No matter how I tried to present it, he simply wasn’t buying it because he was convinced he knew the truth based on his view of the matter.

Now, lest it sound like I’m coming down on teenagers for behaving like…well, teenagers, let’s just admit that seeing things only or mostly from our own perspective is really a human trait. Seeing life only or mostly through our own lens of life is common to us all. In fact, trying to see things the way others see them is something we have to consciously work at because our default is to do the opposite.

A significant part of pre-marriage counseling is helping couples learn how to effectively communicate with each other, especially when one or the other is trying to express a concern or a point of contention. Communication, of course, involves both speaking and listening. Typically, it’s the listening part that trips us up because human beings are not naturally good listeners. What we’re naturally good at is defending our own position, but doing that doesn’t make for effective communication. So, in one of the pre-marriage listening exercises I use, the person on the receiving end of the complaint or request is encouraged to begin their initial response to that complain or request with these words: “What I heard you say was…” Then, to the best of their ability they restate what they heard the other person say. Sometimes, they hear correctly, and other times they don’t. When they haven’t heard correctly, the speaker has the opportunity to clarify what was said, and the listener has the opportunity to again restate what they heard. In 30+ years of using this exercise in pre-marriage counseling, initially attempting to see the matter at-hand from someone else’s perspective has been a new concept for 99% of the couples.

Learning to view life through a new lens—one other than our own—is one of life’s biggest challenges. And yet, isn’t doing that very thing a central element of Christian discipleship — learning to view life through God’s eyes rather than our own?

Think back to the story from a couple of weeks ago of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. He was heading to Damascus to imprison followers of Christ because, as a faithful Pharisee, he truly believed that’s what most honored God. That was his perspective. Just outside of the city, the risen Christ confronted him, blinded him, and told Paul that he was in fact persecuting him, Jesus. Later that day, after a disciple named Ananias spoke the truth of Jesus Christ to Paul, something like flakes fell from Paul’s eyes and he could see again.

The restoration of Paul’s sight was both literal and metaphorical. In addition to being able to see with his physical eyes once again, he also “saw” anew the truth of Jesus Christ. With his new eyes of the heart he was able to perceive and understand the true ways of God, not the ways of God he’d previously been taught and believed as a Pharisee.

You and I are no different than Paul in this regard. At some point in life, we made the decision to follow Jesus. And following Jesus meant starting down a new path of life—in essence, leaving behind our old path, our old ways. Our old ways of seeing things. To follow Jesus is to adopt a new lens with which to view and understand life in all its complexities.

There’s a flip side to this, which is that following Jesus also entails responding to life in new ways, that is, in God’s ways, not the ways we think right or appropriate. If each of us is going to call ourselves a Christian, then how we view the world and respond to it had better reflect the One in whom we’ve identified ourselves.

It’s at this very place of discipleship that Peter, the unofficial leader of Jesus’ main cohort of followers, ran into some trouble with Jesus. A few moments ago, Barb read Mark’s version of Jesus reprimanding Peter, accusing him of being the voice of Satan himself and telling him, “You’re not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Mark 8:33). What did Peter say that warranted such a strong rebuke? Well, Mark doesn’t tell us. He just says that Peter “took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him” (v. 32)—him being Jesus. In other words, Peter felt the need to correct something he just told the group of disciples. Not unlike when the confirmation student felt the need to correct me in regard to something I told the class. So, from Peter’s perspective, Jesus was in error about something. What? you might ask. Well, probably about what being the Messiah entailed.

Just prior to where today’s Gospel reading picks up at v. 31, Peter boldly declares his belief that Jesus is the Christ!” (Mark 8:29) “Christ” is the Greek word for “Messiah.” Peter declared his belief that Jesus is Messiah, the Savior. Obviously, it wasn’t that statement that earned him a tongue-lashing from Jesus. It was something he said later. But what he said later is most likely based on his profession that Jesus is Messiah.

You see, it was very soon after this declaration of Peter’s that Jesus spoke of his immanent suffering at the hands of religious leaders which would result in his execution. For Peter, though, what Jesus said made no sense. Jesus’ description of the suffering which he himself was about to endure probably didn’t align with Peter’s understanding of what Messiah would experience. You see, all good Jews knew that if anyone was going to suffer, it would be the Romans suffering at the hand of Messiah! Why? Because they’d been taught their whole lives that Messiah would be a political figure after the likes of King David. Just as David was the King of Jews who subdued the surrounding nations with the sword, bringing them all under his political authority, so it was believed that Messiah would do the same with oppressive Rome. With a sword he’d free them all from Roman tyranny and reestablish an autonomous kingdom of Israel with himself, the Messiah, as their king. Remember, Peter just declared his belief that Jesus is Messiah. And so, the idea of Jesus suffering, especially at the hands of Roman soldiers (who were the only ones with the authority to perform executions), was probably unfathomable to Peter. So, when Jesus revealed what was about to go down, Peter, out of his own human perspective, felt the need to pull Jesus aside and correct him. “God forbid, Lord!” he tells Jesus. “This won’t happen to you” (see Matthew 16:22).

The problem was Peter was viewing the matter through the lens of his own perspective. And Jesus told him as much. You’re looking at this all wrong, Peter. You’re not seeing it from God’s perspective. Fortunately, in time Peter and the rest of the Apostles did come to fully see and understand the truth that as the Savior—the Christ—Jesus had to suffer as he did for the sake of fulfilling God’s plan of redemption.

But then Jesus took this teaching on suffering to a whole new level. He said that choosing the way of the cross wasn’t something only Messiah would have to do.  It would also have be the chosen way of his followers. In Matthew 10:24 Jesus said that disciples are not greater than the teacher, meaning, whatever the teacher goes through, the students will go through as well. If the cross was a vital part of Jesus’ path, so it’s also a vital part of the disciples’ path.

Listen once more to how Jesus said it. “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them” (Mark 8:34-35).

Let me ask you a question. Knowing what came of Jesus by “taking up [his] cross,” does the idea of us taking up our own cross sound like something we’d be naturally inclined to do? From a human perspective, choosing the way of some amount of suffering is an insane thing to do! If given a choice between suffering or not suffering, who in their right mind would choose suffering? But that’s just it, friends; choosing the way of the cross isn’t something we would do because it’s the natural thing to do, but because it’s not the natural thing to do. Our flesh cries out that we choose self, comfort, power, acceptance of others, approval of others, safety, and certainty. We think those choices will lead to a fulfilling and prosperous life. But Jesus tells us that they lead to the exact opposite: dissatisfaction and emptiness. And ultimately, to separation from self and God, which is death.

Unfortunately, we don’t have time this morning to unpack what it means to “take up your cross,” something we’re called to do for the sake of Jesus and for the sake of the message of good news in Jesus—what we call the gospel. It actually has multiple meanings and implications. A whole sermon series could be devoted to unpacking what it means to take up your cross. For the sake of this message, let’s leave it at this: to take up one’s cross is to consciously and intentionally accept the “natural consequences” that come with choosing to follow Jesus Christ and to respond to life’s situations from a place of faith and discipleship. I kind of touched on this last week when I said that we practice trusting God by leaning into life’s challenges; by not trying to make them go away or get through them as quickly or painlessly as possible.

When you choose Christ, you choose the way of Christ. The way of Christ involves doing things like loving the unlovable neighbor, forgiving those who hurt you on purpose, standing up for justice for those whom the world says don’t deserve it, speaking the truth in the face of lies, defending the defenseless, even at the risk of being caught in the middle. It could also be talking about Jesus with someone you don’t know, or sharing your faith with another person, even if you’re not sure what to say. Each of these are challenging in their own ways. Anytime your decision to follow Jesus Christ results in some kind of conflict in which you know that choosing the way of your natural preference would be a lot easier than choosing the way of Christ, that’s when you know you’re faced with the opportunity to take up your cross. When, in prayerful discernment, you determine that the actions you’d prefer to take are not reflected in the life of Jesus in the Gospels, that’s when you know you’re faced with the opportunity to take up your cross.

I suppose if one wanted to try to evaluate how well they’re taking up their cross, one question they could ask themselves might be this: how easy do I find being a Christian to be? If there’s not a single aspect of being a Christian that you find challenging or difficult or that makes you uncomfortable, chances are good you’re not taking up your cross at all.If you can name a number of ways that being a Christian is challenging to you, but you also recognize that you tend to avoid those things, you probably know what your crosses are but try to avoid taking them up.If you can name the ways being a Christian is challenging for you, but that you’ve sometimes leaned into them despite how it felt, you’re getting good practice at taking up your cross.

The truth is, choosing the way of Christ isn’t supposed to be easy. And that’s because choosing the way of Christ is to choose the way of the cross. And choosing the way of the cross is about as natural to us as responding to a hyper critical complaint of you of you with, “So, what I heard you say is….” Choosing the way of the cross may not be our natural instinct, but it’s one we can learn do to, choose to do, and even live to do. Let’s pray.

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