Carla Bailey,Senior Pastor
March 8, 2009
I once offered a job to someone whose immediate response was “Get behind me Satan”. I have to admit, I was a little shocked. And then I had to quickly decipher what exactly he meant. It is about the only thing I remember from the conversation, except that he did eventually accept the position. I wonder what Peter must have felt when Jesus said it to him. I wonder if he was as nonplussed as I was.
In retrospect, the man to whom I was speaking might have been on to something I completely missed. He might have sensed the high cost of his saying yes to my offer. He might have been aware, as I was not, that significant decisions of the kind I was asking him to make are accompanied by significant cost. Without any data to support this supposition, I imagine 99% of us 99% of the time have no idea, nor would we even care to know the cost of the decisions we make everyday. I’m not speaking economically though that is certainly on our minds these days. I’m speaking in terms of the Spirit – the cost of personal integrity, the cost of forgiving, the cost of withholding forgiveness, the cost of acquiescence, the cost of stubbornness, the cost of trusting God, the cost of not trusting God.
You can tell it’s Lent, can’t you? The Scripture readings, the questions, the struggle with these deep issues of our faith, all point to Calvary as if it is there that we will understand, fully, the cost of discipleship. Bless Peter for articulating our fears, our embarrassment, our minimizing Jesus’ message. Having heard Jesus openly describe his imminent suffering and death, Peter scolded him for being so transparent about these difficult and unpleasant things. Jesus’ response to Peter was harsh and swift. “Get behind me Satan. Your mind is on human matters, not the matters of God.” I imagine that Peter couldn’t really take in anything else Jesus said for a few minutes. Was he flushed with embarrassment, with outrage, with dismay? Could he hear Jesus tell the disciples to prepare for what was ahead? That they should shoulder the very means of their deaths to follow the one who had already accepted the shape and weight of his own?
Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry makes a significant shift at this point. No longer was Jesus telling his listeners to keep these things to themselves. No longer was he withdrawing from the crowds to instruct his disciples. Jesus’ ministry, which had been one of healing and teaching, turned dramatically toward confrontation, suffering and death. His teachings about discipleship from this point on include the consideration if its high cost. This theme is not unique to Mark. All the gospels, as they turn their attention to Jerusalem and the last days of Jesus’ life, described the exacting requirements of discipleship. A disciple of Jesus must take up the cross. A disciple of Jesus must be willing to lose his or her own life. A disciple of Jesus must not deny Jesus when challenged by others.
Since it’s Lent, and since, for these few weeks at least, we are willing to ponder these more difficult themes in our Christian faith, let’s look a bit more at the cost of discipleship.
To witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our comfortable, protected North American culture will make people uncomfortable or dismissive. Living as Jesus lived or as Jesus asks us to live is not practical, of course. The teachings of Jesus have quite a bit to do with economic justice and the injustices of our day, issues that are even more critical and unjust today than ever. Jesus had quite a bit to say about those who are on the outside edges of privilege, excluded for reasons the culture has determined appropriate and inappropriate - gender, mental health, physical disease, deformities, poverty. And now, in this recession and economic downturn (a sanitized moniker if ever there was one), people who over-borrowed, over-spent, and under-saved are the new stupid, aren’t they? Why should the government bail out people who were so greedy as to borrow more money than their houses were worth? Why shouldn’t bankruptcy laws be more stringent to weed out those who just want to avoid paying their credit card bills? “Never a borrower nor a lender be” is Shakespeare, not Jesus. Jesus’ admonitions about wealth have more to do with why you have it and your neighbor doesn’t, or whether you’re spending money to protect your wealth, rather than spending money to protect the wellbeing of others. Or how you became wealthy in the first place, or whether your neighbor has enough to eat, to keep her house warm, to pay his medical bills. Jesus spoke about money quite a bit, actually, and the cost of discipleship to Jesus has quite a bit to do with actual cost in dollars. Do you tithe? Do you give away, flat-out donate 10% of your money every year to organizations in whose mission you believe? The church? welfare agencies? prison ministries, schools, and so on? No? Until you do, let’s not talk about wasteful spending.
The teachings of Jesus are harsh when it comes to sexuality - physical embodiment - since they have more to do with faithfulness, forgiveness, exploitation and emotional fidelity than with attractions, shame, rules, and orgasms. The teachings of Jesus demand that we honestly evaluate the motivations that underlie all our relationships, those between lovers, between friends, between spouses and partners and parents and children and colleagues, and teachers and students and strangers. The teachings of Jesus call us to forgive and forgive and then forgive again. Oh, and then? Forgive again. The teachings of Jesus demand we care about and uphold the dignity of others – all others and in all ways. The teachings of Jesus ask us to look at our own sins before we judge the sins of others. The teachings of Jesus expect us to honor our physical bodies as the dwelling place of God’s Spirit, not use them to enthrone short-term gratifications. Do you care more about the emotional, spiritual, physical wellbeing of others as much as your own? No? Until you do, let’s not talk about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry or whether unwed mothers should get more welfare money. Don’t comment on A-Rod’s steroid use or Michael Phelps’ marijuana possession. Have you never said anything hurtful to someone you love? Have you never been tipsy? Never over-eaten? Never commented on a woman’s scanty clothes?
A disciple of Jesus must be willing to lose his or her own life. It is not likely that any of us will be called upon to suffer physically for the sake of our Christian faith. It is unlikely that any of us in this room today will be put to death for crimes committed against the state though some of us may choose to be jailed for them. Our contemporary life of ease and protection keeps us from living in the shadow of the cross. But does that mean we do not understand its cost? Can we not imagine its demands? Do we not understand the profound call to full Christian discipleship? Do we not know what Jesus said? What he meant? To whom he was speaking?
A disciple of Jesus must not deny Jesus when challenged by others. Being a practicing Christian does not pose a threat to our lives. In fact the reverse is more often true - our culture has come to expect religious rhetoric from our public leaders. The conflict over religious expression has to do with meaning and judgment and influence. In this environment of significant confusion about the separation of church and state, shallow and often vicious commentary about Christian values within and without the political arena, and an increasing population that adheres to Christian dogma rather than Christian faith, what does it mean for us to bear public witness for Jesus Christ?
Witnessing to the gospel of Jesus Christ will result in living our way toward the cross, even if it does not mean actually feeling the bite of its wood or the piercing of its nails. The cost of discipleship is very, very high. My hope is this – that we will count its cost and then accept it as worth every penny, every sneer, every betrayal, every dismissal, every embarrassment. Count the cost, and then say yes. That’s when we may claim to be disciples. Amen.