A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
in Fremont, on Sunday, September 16, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 8:27-38
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself!”  I have no memory of ever saying this, but my mother delighted in telling me – especially when I was a teenager wanting to do things my own way – about often echoing this refrain when I was a preschooler.  “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself!”

I was, without a doubt, an American.  Ralph Waldo Emerson had beautiful things to say about life and nature and contemplation.  But his most famous essay was on “Self-Reliance,” an ode to individualism and the sanctity of self-sufficiency.  The value of self-reliance is a deep part of the American ethos  “Rugged individualism is seen as heroic, as though the goal in life is to become some combination of Paul Bunion, the unsinkable Molly Brown, and the Marlboro man.”[1]

American Christianity – at least some streams of American Christianity – has assisted in establishing this value as part of our collective unconscious.  Look at the title many in Christianity give Jesus:  “Personal Lord and Savior.”  It’s like you’ll find him on your contact list between Personal Assistant and Personal Trainer.[2]

But that’s not the Jesus we meet in our gospel lesson today.  Today we meet a Jesus who says:  deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.  And if you try to save your life you’ll lose it, but lose it for the sake of the gospel and you’ll save it.

Jesus comes to this pronouncement after an interesting exchange with his disciples.  First Jesus asks them who the people say that he is.  Then he asks them who they say that he is.  Peter – and I sometimes wonder if he got that name, the Rock, because of his firmness or because of his stubbornness – says that Jesus is the Messiah (or in Greek, the Christ).  The only problem is, Peter (and I think we can safely assume the rest of the disciples) don’t understand what that means.

Jesus says that the Messiah (that Jesus) will face suffering, rejection, and ultimately death.  “Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death.   Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity.   He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last.”[3]

And the disciples just don’t get it.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  That’s not possible, Jesus.  We know what the Messiah is supposed to be.  The Messiah is supposed to restore the political autonomy and prominence of Israel.  The Messiah isn’t supposed to be killed.

Jesus rebukes Peter right back.  Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo notes that in this moment, Jesus uses the harshest words he ever uses against anyone.  Bravo says that this demonstrates that “Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.”[4]  Jesus has to choose what direction he’s going to go and he has to come to terms with the consequences of that choice.  “[B]y confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.”[5]

Jesus tries to explain to his disciples what this mean for them, what they will need to do to complete the work he will only be able to begin before he is cut down by the principalities and powers.  “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.”

Imagine being part of Mark’s community and hearing this story.  Some scholarship suggests that Mark’s gospel was written “in the midst of a civil war, after the first unsuccessful Roman siege of liberated Jerusalem and before the last that destroyed the temple.   It was a confusing time of revolutionary, or messianic, restorationist fever.  Conflicting allegiances competed for the community.

“Who, they were being asked in utterly concrete terms, is Jesus Christ?  And what is the form of discipleship for us here and now?  The gospel of Mark is the document that addresses both question and crisis.”[6]

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

Remember, “[t]he cross in Mark’s day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility.   It had only one meaning:  that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters.…  The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark’s time; in this recruiting call [offered by Jesus], the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the [supreme domination] of imperial Rome.”[7]

Mark’s community was wrestling with the question, “What does it mean to be followers of Jesus in such a time as this?”  This is a question that Christians have to deal with in every age.  This is the question drove a minority of Christians in Germany in the 1930s to write a sign “The Barmen Declaration,” a document that called for resistance against the theological claims of the Nazi state.  Almost immediately after Hitler came to power, the pro-Nazi ‘German Christian’ movement became a force in the church.  At Barmen, the emerging ‘Confessing Church’ adopted this declaration, expressly repudiating the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God’s revelation.  The signers took up their crosses – for every last one of them, was pursued by the Nazis and subsequently exiled or imprisoned or executed.[8]

This is the question that moved church leaders in the United States to stand up for racial justice in the midst of Jim Crow.  They took up their crosses – and many were imprisoned and some were murdered.

This is the question that moved church leaders like Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu to confront the principalities and powers of apartheid South Africa and demand justice and freedom.  They took up their crosses and suffered through years of oppression.

Friends, the call to deny ourselves and to lose our lives that we might gain them is the challenge of discipleship.  It is a nasty job description that has been abused and perverted.  We’ve all heard the claims:  “If you want to be a follower of Jesus you must deny your Queerness, pick up your cross of heterosexuality and follow him.  Or deny your dignity and pick up your cross of continued domestic abuse and follow him.  Or deny your experience and pick up your cross of trusting religious authorities to tell you what to believe.”[9]  That’s all garbage.

But perhaps there is in this nasty job description a call to deny our false-selves.  “Denying the self that wants to see itself as separate from God and others.  Deny the self that believes that spirituality is a suffering avoidance program.  Deny the self that does not feel worthy of God’s love.  Deny the self that thinks it is more worthy of God’s love than its enemy is.  Deny the self that thinks it can ‘do it itself.’  Deny the self that is turned in on the self.”[10]  Deny the self that is afraid.  Deny the self that wants to stay in the comfort zone, even though the magic happens out there.  Deny the self that denies the power of God’s love.

Of course Peter told Jesus that Jesus had it all wrong.  Of course Peter thought the Messiah he was expecting was the Messiah God would send.  Peter had not yet experienced Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  “Without experiencing how at the cross God can gather up all of humanity’s violence and abusive power and even gather up Peter’s own denial of Jesus into God’s own self and then respond with nothing but love and forgiveness … without experiencing the resurrection after what Peter saw as the complete loss of hope — Well, without having experienced all of this, he couldn’t know it just by being told it will happen.”[11]

But we’ve experienced Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  We have experienced how God takes the messes of our own making and makes something new in you and in me and in our lives – something you or I never would have chosen out of a catalog or created by ourselves.  It may be a small piece of wisdom, or an unexpected friendship, or yet another opportunity to be forgiven or to forgive.[12]

But that’s how God works out the resurrection, right here, right now.  Instead of rescuing us out of trouble, God rescues us by entering into the trouble with us.  Instead of helping us to avoid pain, God heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us.  Instead of fixing things for us, God addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness.[13]

This is the foolishness of the cross.  “And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other:  to enter into each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burdens and those of the world around us.  To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live.  It is the power of God within us.

“Each of us bears the responsibility, daily, of taking the cross more and more upon our selves, losing ourselves and finding ourselves in the process.

“If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we must follow in the way of God’s foolishness.  That’s where God calls us to be.

“As Frederick Buechner writes:  ‘In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool.   And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion.’”[14]



[1] Madia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Losing Your Life and How Jesus Isn’t Your Magical Puppy,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_120315_Bolz_Weber_Losing_your_life&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michaela Bruzzese, “An Upside-Down Reign,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_090949_BProper19&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[4] Carlos Bravo, Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, cited by Bruzzese.

[5] Bruzzese.

[6] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “A Confessing Church in America?” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj8908&article=890821&mode=sermon_prep&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).

[7] Ched Myers, quoted by Joe Roos, “The Foolishness of the Cross,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0708&article=070822&mode=sermon_prep&week=B_Proper_19 (15 September 2012).  Ched actually uses the term “hegemony” where I’ve inserted “supreme domination.”

[8] You can read more about “The Barmen Declaration” at http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/barmen-declaration.html.

[9] Bolz-Weber, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Attributed to Will Willimon by Joe Roos, op. cit.

[14] Joe Roos, op. cit.