Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38
March 1, 2015
In Henry James’ 1903 novella The Beast in the Jungle, John Marcher had a premonition of a “beast in the jungle” that will ruin his life. So he adopted a wary, vigilant life avoiding anything that might turn out to be the “beast in the jungle.” At the end of his life, John Marcher realized that his caution was the beast that had deprived him of living to the fullest.
English poet A. E. Housman (1859-1936) said that Jesus confirmed this when he said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it.” But he never came to the place of accepting Jesus’ next line, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Alyce McKenzie, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, tells of a recruiter for Teach for America makes Jesus’ point when she asks bright, young people to teach in America's most deprived schools saying, “Here I stand, trying to recruit you for a salary of $15,000 a year in some of the worst schools in America, begging you to waste your life for a bunch of ungrateful kids. I will to talk to anybody who is interested.” Many students respond, dying to give themselves to something bigger and more important than their own selves.
Jesus taught his first followers, and us, that the way to save our lives is to give ourselves away for others.
Mark 8:31-38 is the fulcrum of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus turned directly toward the cross right after Peter’s great confession.
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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But 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.”
34He 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those 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.”
Peter prompted Jesus’ rebuke, but turning and looking at them warned all of Jesus’ disciples not to set their minds on human things but on divine things. Jesus called the whole crowd in to teach them, and us, that human things have to do with protecting ourselves, but divine things have to do with giving ourselves away for others. Jesus, not only taught this and practiced it, he embodied it.
Some have questioned whether Jesus would have referred to the cross before his crucifixion. I do believe it made sense to his listeners, but not as a symbol of Christian faith. A cross was the instrument of a torturous execution Rome used for political intimidation and humiliating the lowest of criminals. Though Jesus hearers missed that Jesus spoke of resurrection, that is what makes sense of losing his life for the sake of others as the path to saving not only his life, but ours as well.
Romans 4 tells how Abraham’s faith in the face of the impossible was reckoned to him as righteousness. So too, for us as Jesus’ followers, it is by faith that we journey through suffering, rejection and death to resurrection.
Many Christians from different backgrounds have recognized that Jesus taught his first followers, and us, that the way to save our lives is to give ourselves away for others. So they have called Jesus “the man for others.”
From his Nazi prison cell in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge that Jesus is the man for others. It is being there for others that marks the Christian. We encounter God in the middle of life when we are there for our neighbors. The church is the church only when it exists for others.
Our son Erik went to Jesuit high school hearing their purpose to build “men for others.” In 1973 Father Pedro Arrupe told the International Congress of Jesuit Alumni in Europe that developing men-and-women-for-others was the paramount objective of Jesuit education. Only by being for others does one become fully human, not only in the natural sense but is being a spiritual person.
That Francis, the first Jesuit Pope would suggest giving up indifference to suffering people as a Lenten discipline is not accidental. He quoted John Chrysostom (349-407). “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do not do good to others, you do nothing great.”
Congregations seeking a new pastor are naturally drawn to those who suit the preferences with which they have become comfortable. As Jesus taught in Mark 8, the way for Highlands Christian Church to follow Jesus into the future is to be a church who gives itself away for others.
Quite a bit of that is already going on. Worship at Brookdale. Cooperating with other congregations to serve your neighbors. Support for Week of Compassion. Even renting space to other groups, not just as a way to supplement the church’s income but as authentic service in the name of Jesus. A question to ask of ourselves is, “How can we grow in defining and identifying Highlands Christian Church as a church that exists for others?”
An important question for the Search and Call Committee and the whole congregation to ask of pastoral candidates is, “Can and will this pastor lead us to keep stretching to be more and more for others?”
Abraham’s faith in the face of the impossible was reckoned to him as righteousness. Jesus calls us to faith that by letting go of self-preservation, we will receive resurrection. Such faith, personally and congregationally means risking everything to be for others, trusting God to bring about resurrection life.