a sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent [Year B]
“And that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.” (Just As I Am, Charlotte Elliot)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” We’ll hear more about Bonhoeffer this week during our Lenten Wednesday worship service, but those blunt words in his most famous work sound like Jesus’s own words in Mark’s gospel. When Christ calls a man—or a woman, or a person who’s never heard of the gospel before, or a person who was baptized as a baby, or a person who’s memorized the Bible or a person who’s wary of organized religion—Christ bids that person to come and die. It’s that simple. And it’s that central to Jesus’ message.
In fact, in Mark’s gospel, it is literally and numerically central, coming smack in the middle, like the fulcrum of a see-saw, or the Grand Central Station of the gospel. Eight chapters before it, eight chapters after it, and all sense of who Jesus is runs through it. Or—more like a brick wall—runs into it. The life with Jesus Christ—the life we hold fast, the life extended to us by God’s grace—is first and foremost a life about dying and losing, forgetting and letting go. Just as Abram loses his name to become Abraham once God establishes his covenant with him, and just as Sarai loses her old identity to become Sarah, when we respond to the call to follow Jesus it involves loss. And this is not limited to those who hear a call to enter seminary or to serve the church in some professional fashion. The call to follow Jesus and to live as one of his disciples is issued to everyone and can be lived out in any scenario, situation, or setting. When Christ calls you he calls you to come and die.
We always hear this with a bit of shock, I believe, for we live in the midst of a culture nowadays which adores pretty much the opposite. We are raised to assert ourselves, our rights and privileges. We live in a society which loves to talk about freedom and honor, which rightly holds in high regard things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But into all of that Jesus comes and talks first and foremost about death, self-denial, and the pursuit of suffering. It’s a contrast we have to deal with. We are fixated on taking up arms, for example. Jesus says take up a cross.
Maybe it’s comforting to know it’s a shock to the first disciples, too. They’ve watched him for a while now be the center of wonderful scenes of life and rebirth. He seems to be building a kingdom on winning, because in situation after situation he defeats things—disease, hunger, angry opponents. Then he brings them to the gleaming new town of Caesarea Philippi, the town built by the high cliff near Mt Hermon and near an ancient worship site to a pagan god. Caesarea Philippi was impressive and contained countless monuments to the Emperor. With that as the backdrop, Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?”
After running through a list of names and identities that other people think Jesus might be—Elijah, John the Baptist—Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Another way to say this is “the Christ.” Messiah and Christ are synonyms—one is Hebrew and the other is Greek. They both mean “the anointed One,” or the one specially identified by God as his chosen leader.
It happens to be where we get the middle of our mission statement, worship the Christ. To make a faith statement about Jesus is to say that Jesus is the Christ, even though it often gets shortened to Jesus Christ.
So, as soon as Peter correctly confesses Jesus as the Christ, Jesus starts talking about his upcoming suffering and death. And whereas before Jesus has been very hush-hush about everything he does, now he talks quite openly. He once would heal someone or cast out a demon and immediately tell everyone to be quiet about it. But here, as soon as he begins talking about dying and being rejected, he becomes less secretive. The reason is because before anyone can really know who Jesus is, they have to come to terms with these crucial things about him. He comes to suffer, to be rejected, to die and to rise. His kingdom is built on those four actions, the first three of which involve losing. They are woven into the fabric, built into the foundation, baked right into the cake. We can’t really know who he is and what he’s about until we come to terms with this Grand Central Station part of his story.
And Peter’s response to this is our response to it. We don’t initially want to be a part of a kingdom or follow a leader that is going to die or be rejected, especially if it means we’re going to die and be rejected too, if it means we have to leave some things about ourselves behind.
Our almost-two-year-old was given an Elmo doll and a Cookie monster doll about two weeks ago, and he pretty much hasn’t let them loose since. He sleeps with them in the night and all day he walks around with them, one in each arm. They’ve become a part of who he is. It’s interesting, though, to watch his little thought process when he realizes he’s going to have to let one go in order to hold onto his cup for a drink. There’s always a bit of a pause, a bit of reassessing just how thirsty he is, and sometimes attempts to see if he can grab a drink while still holding on to one of them. Eventually, though, he realizes he has to lose one of them to gain the drink.
In a nutshell, that’s the call of Jesus to the disciple. Let go. Die to yourself. Change your name and move on. After the loss will come a new gain.
Much of the nation was moved this week by the death of Billy Graham, the great evangelist of the 20th century. His body will lie in state at the U.S. Capitol this week, only the fourth private citizen in history to receive that honor. Like many strong, religious leaders, Graham had both ardent followers and people who really didn’t care for him. Depending on who you talk to, his legacy is mixed—but then again, all of our legacies are somewhat mixed, aren’t they? I came along after his most influential years, but I do know of the crusades that he popularized where people would be offered a chance to come forward and respond to Jesus’ call, to commit their lives to God’s kingdom and, in their language, “be saved.”
To say having that particular kind of religious experience is required in order to follow Jesus is wrong. Quite simply, not everyone is built to experience that kind of emotion in that way, nor is God limited to reaching people in such a setting. Nor is there a set formula for receiving and confessing the Christ, as if it is a once-and-done affair. However, it does sound as if Graham’s crusades did evoke that sense of leaving one thing behind, risking change, risking rejection in order to gain what Jesus offered, and that was powerful and true and meaningful for many people.
But for many others, the life of baptism that Martin Luther talks about is also powerful and true and meaningful. Baptism, itself, is a death. Paul talks about how it’s a drowning. It’s a losing of self and gaining of Christ that is a daily event, once begun at the waters and ever continued. It is a realization that each day, in each moment, we are called to let go of the Elmo and grab the sippy cup…that God’s grace is ultimately so powerful and so good we let loose of ourselves and gain the life the Christ is.
When our self, for example, tells us we’re priority numero uno, to die means heeding the needs of those around us. When our self tells us to shout so that others can hear, to die means to listen and observe. When our self is sure it is right about something, to die means to entertain the thought we may be wrong. When our self says that we are sufficient on our own, to die means learning how dependent we actually are on each other. It goes on and on like this. The crusade, as it turns out, isn’t an event in a stadium. It is a life of handing ourselves over and taking up the cross.
People in recovery from drug addiction and substance abuse can articulate this better than I can. Maybe better than anyone, in fact. Their lives are wonderful examples of losing and gaining. I certainly got a better understanding of this last night, in fact, as we gathered with dozens of people for the candlelight vigil for people who’ve lost their lives to addiction. Going into it, I was unsure of exactly where the most suitable spot for the vigil would be. I had offered the flat area in our grass by the thousands of crosses, but then thought perhaps they needed solid ground to stand on. Maybe the parking lot and sidewalk in front of the church would be better. But as the vigil began, the crowd naturally gathered right under the cross, without any direction from me at all, and the person leading it stood on that little stone marker right at its base. So fitting. And there, under the towering sign of God’s great loss in order to gain us, with candle-glow reflecting off of teary cheeks and glistening eyes, we heard the woman speak openly and bluntly about her own losing and gaining, about the hellish life she had to let go of eleven years ago and what freeing life of recovery she is gaining. It was clear that it was not a once-and-one event, that her salvation from addiction was not something finished, but, like the life of baptism, it is ongoing. Each day she’s learning to set her mind on divine things, not on human things. The life she knows now—her recovery—is a life she holds fast.
I think that’s what Jesus is going for there at the base of Caesarea Philippi, with all his disciples standing around. He’s getting them to see they’ll be in recovery once they follow him, recovery from an old life they’re losing and a new life they’re gaining. We could learn a lot about ourselves by listening to their stories and their descriptions of what recovery means to them.
And we’d learn a lot just by listening, period. Like Jesus wants Peter to listen to him. We could learn a lot just by listening. To others. To the Christ who suffers. To the One who loves us unconditionally, life without end. We can do that—we can listen and follow—as we die ourselves. And know that the God of steadfast love always has us, always calls us. Just as we are, without one plea.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
 The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer