The text for this sermon is Mark 8:27-38
Evan is being baptized this morning at our 9:30 service. After reading this text, my initial reactions is what are we getting Evan into?
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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.
Welcome to the church, it is all about self denial, cross bearing, and what’s the third thing? Oh, yeah, losing your life. Attendance and participation in our churches are down. At first glance downer texts like these seem to be a problem. I don’t claim to be a marketing genius, but I did sell shoes in High School, so I know a thing or two about closing a deal. Maybe, if Jesus had been a better salesman back then, we would be doing better now. C’mon Jesus give us a few promises, like a guaranteed tripling of any money put it in the offering plate, or absolutely no one who says I believe will ever suffer from baldness. That’ll sell.
Worse yet, Jesus doesn’t just trot out this invitation to a life that leads to death in front of the disciples, who are already invested, but to the crowds, too. The crowds are like the visitors at Messiah. We don’t tell our visitors about the requirement that all members have to pitch in and buy me a new Mercedes every year. We save that for the new member class. C’mon, Jesus you don’t have to show your whole hand to these people. Haven’t you ever fished? You let out a little line, before you reel them in.
The pointy headed bible scholars in the room want us to know that Jesus is making several references, predictions really, of his own upcoming death. Take up your cross and follow me? I am assuming most of you heard how this book ends with Jesus picking up a very real and heavy cross and carrying it to the spot where he will be executed. Losing life? Again, after Jesus hung on that cross for a few hours in excruciating pain and unimaginable humiliation, he breathed his last. Jesus is in full disclosure mode telling the crowds before you jump on the band wagon, let me tell you the bumpy road the wagon will travel.
Yet, Jesus isn’t just sharing a prediction about his life. His point seems to be that the crowds will have to carry a cross, too. They will have to die to find life. He might be referencing his own journey, but his path is the template for all of their journeys, too. If you follow me, if you become one with me, if you accept the name Christian you will find life but only through death. What are we getting Evan into?
Some in the crowd were killed for following Jesus; some might even have been executed on a cross. The Romans liked to find scapegoats to blame the problems of the empire upon. Early on, they found that Christians made good scapegoats. Sewers backing up, blame the Christians. The market is out of bread, blame the Christians. The gods aren’t answering your prayers, blame the Christians. For some, Jesus’ words literally came true, but not all, not even many. Most followed Jesus but did not die like Jesus.
Which is why I don’t think he is talking about death, as in quick does anyone know CPR, but death as in a complete life change. The central ritual of the church, baptism, is centered on this idea of death and new life coming from it. The original shape of a baptismal font was a sarcophagus, the ancient coffins of wealthy Romans. Dunking in the water is a reference to drowning and being pulled out by the Holy Spirit. We give a new name, child of God, because our old name died with our old self in these waters. Being born again is a reference to dying in baptism.
Baptism proclaims that to find life you must first die. I don’t think we sell this very well as Christians, well, because no one wants to talk about dying, especially when babies are involved. But I passionately believe that if I want to find life, whole life, full life, a life with joy even on days tinged with grief, I have to die today to this life. In order to live life, I have to lose it.
Once, when I was ten or so, I came home crying because my friends had just chosen to play basketball with my brother Keith rather than ride bikes with me. My mom comforted me on the couch. I asked her why they liked Keith better than me. She said, Karl sometimes you care too much about yourself and what you want to do. If you listened to your friends more, heard what they wanted to do and did those things you might find they like you just fine. In order to find life you have to lose it.
A single mom came to the church on Monday. She needed $80 before tomorrow or she was going to lose her car. I only had $40 in my wallet, so I gave her that. She was so surprised that she hugged me and couldn’t stop thanking me. This last week, I spent hundreds of dollars on many things, electricity, water, food, a wonderful, no magical evening with my wife on our anniversary. But not counting the money well spent with my wife, the thing I did with my money this week that gave me the most joy was giving that $40 to that mother. Consistently surveys tell us the one action we can do with our money that unfailingly brings us joy is give it away. In order to find life you have to lose it.
Back in the 1992, I was a salesman and my wife a homemaker. We moved to Reynoldsburg from Detroit so that I could leave my well paying job of ten years and go to school full time to become a pastor. My wife would stop being a homemaker and become a school teacher support our family. We would stop being Michigan fans and become Buckeye fans. We had to deny our old selves and become new selves in order for me to faithfully follow Jesus and become a pastor. And we did it, except the Buckeye fan thing that was just a bridge too far. In order to find life you have to lose it.
It is unlikely that Evan will physically have to die because Brent and Amy said yes to Jesus for him today. Yet, daily, in order for Evan to find life, life as God intended for him, he will have to die to his own desires and to the lies our world tells him will bring happiness. The truth is that to find life in Christ, we give up our lives for God, the church, family, even strangers who need $80 for a car payment. Evan will have to learn this. I hope Messiah is faithful and teaches him this. Maybe, Jesus wrote a great marketing plan, but the Church just does not believe in it enough to sell it. Amen