Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 9:38–50 (NRSV)
(Mt 10:40–42; Lk 9:49–50)
38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
Temptations to Sin
(Mt 18:6–9; Lk 17:1–2)
42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.
49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Have you ever been in a difficult conversation and tried to change the subject? The past week I have often tried to change the subject of the conversation. In a culture of constant news, it seems that the discussion is always based on what is being aired in the various facets of media. Often, I long for the days where we the normal topic for small talk was the weather.
Part of life is listening to those hard things. As children we had to listen to our parents as they disciplined us, and if we did not listen we would get a more severe punishment. While in school we would listen for hours about how we will use algebra when we are older, and we imagined where in life we would have to solve for X. Of course, if you happen to be a math teacher you know that everything that involves figures is a form of algebra, whether it is balancing our checkbook or determining the best value for our groceries. When we begin a career, we endure more discussion while we learn the job and at times those discussion get a bit frustrating when management desires an explanation or correction of action. Then at times you might be the manager and suddenly you are the one that must lead the discussions. Many of those discussions are not fun.
Last week we left Jesus and the disciples in Capernaum and Jesus had asked what the disciples were discussing while they were traveling. The topic of conversation was which of the disciples were the greatest. That topic itself would be a form of torture to endure if you were one of the disciples. Who really wants to be told who among your peers is best? What if you did not really get along well with one of the others and they were acknowledged as being greater than you? What if that one was your brother, or worse yet your younger brother?
But Jesus then enters the conversation. Jesus the teacher, the one you believe to be the Messiah, the king who will restore David’s kingdom of Israel. The one that will unite the tribes, the one that will set all things right. Jesus asks what the conversation was about and each of you know that it does not matter what you think. It does not matter if you think you are great or not, because it is the king that determines who the greatest will be. So, you like everyone else in the group stand in silence. Jesus then calls a child over to him and begins to teach.
He says that the first must be last and be the servant of all. How would that make you feel if you had heard it from Jesus’ mouth? Today we tend to almost regard this statement as cliché because we have heard it so often. Yet it persists in our minds, we seek power, we want others to conform to our ideals. But what if we lived our lives according to Jesus’s words? What if we really did become a servant to all instead of seeking out those who will serve us?
He highlights this statement with a child, saying whoever welcomes this child welcomes both him and the one who sent him. As I reconsidered this while studying this week it occurred to me that Jesus might be encouraging us to take on a role of a parent to others. We take care of children, and we encourage them to grow. At times there is discipline but at other times we promote fun. When raising children our focus should be on them and their needs, we encourage them according to their temperaments. We learn what excites them and we use that to teach them.
Several years ago, while I was a substitute teacher, I sat and listened to the students discussing the Fast and the Furious movie. I was substituting a math class and these students that were so intrigued with this movie were struggling with their math. After many attempts of assisting them, I finally placed each of the math problems in a performance car concept. We discussed the various features of improving the performance of a vehicle, what increases horsepower, traction, drift, among other things. Each of the problems became a challenge to improve performance. And quickly they were beginning to understand the concepts.
I spoke to them as a peer not as an authority figure. I got under the hood with them. And I welcomed them into the wide world of math through. This is what Jesus means about welcoming. True leaders lead the people on the same plane of reference not from elevated heights. But the disciples did not want to listen to this. They wanted position, they desired power and authority, not this discussion of meeting people on their terms.
At this point John, tries to deflect the discussion. Hey Jesus, there was this guy that was casting out demons using your name and he is not on of us. This is a good deflection as far as deflections go. John is taking the discussion of who is the greatest and placing it back on Jesus. Jesus is the one that chooses and granted them authority. John wants to get the attention from them and their shortcomings. He wants to move the conversation away from what they are doing wrong and find some other topic. That guy was not one of us, yet he had the nerve to use the power and authority of their teacher to do things that he was not directed to do.
I can imagine Jesus smiling at John. John, according to his Gospel account, is the disciple that Jesus loved. John is most likely the youngest disciple in the group and full of righteous ambition. Even though he was one of the first disciples to be called, he is probably on of the lowest ranked in the group according to the measures of men. Yet in Jesus’s eyes he was one of the greatest. John was often listed among the inter circle of friends: Peter, James and John. It was John that was privileged to see the vision of Jesus’s revelation and the fulfillment of his glory. John had every right to consider himself as the greatest, yet he was a youth. He was the one that wanted to get the topic changed, he might have thought that because Jesus was referring to children, Jesus might have been singling him out and John might not have been ready for that. While being the youngest elder among the yearly meeting elders I can identify with the feelings of youth. I knew the feelings of speaking ideas and having them put down because I was not old enough to really understand. So, John just wants to move the discussion on, what about those who are doing things in your name Jesus, who are not part of us.
The interesting thing is even though John is attempting to change the subject, his diversion takes Jesus into a deeper discussion on the same topic. Do not stop him, those who are not against us are for us. When people observe and perform deeds of power in Jesus’s name they cannot speak curses really oppose them in the next breath.
Think about that for a moment. This little diversion has profound impact on living the life of Christ with other. Often, we can get caught up in the little differences and lose track of what is important. Many of these little things are merely ecclesiastical preferences. Consider the various forms of baptism, some baptize infants others only people old enough to decide. Some just sprinkle water and others fully immerse. There are even subgroupings within the groups. Some infant baptizers sprinkle and others immerse. And then there are people that fully immerse those getting baptized once or three times. And then there are some that do not require the symbol of baptism as a statement of faith. In this one statement Jesus made to John’s diversion, Jesus basically puts an end to this debate. It does not matter what they do to worship, what matters is in whom their faith resides.
Each of these groups have split off from one another, each making claim that their interpretation is the greatest and only true expression of faith. Yet each of these groups are doing profound things for the kingdom. Why is that and how can it be? Our acts of worship are just expressions of faith, they are only meaningful if the substance of our faith is there. That substance is Jesus. If we claim Jesus, we cannot be opposed to Jesus. And if Jesus is placed in the proper place within our faith, our faith is sound. Both for John and this unknown man had Jesus at the center. Jesus was the source of strength and power. And if we can come together in Jesus those other things will fade away into the background, because following Jesus is the number one thing.
I imagine Jesus smiling at John, and maybe even laughing a bit as he discusses this. He knows John, he knows John better than john knows himself. He knows that John is probably trying to change the subject, but Jesus will use that diversion to drive home the point. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believes in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in the sea.”
Sit with that for a moment. Consider just how profound that statement really is. The concern Jesus has for the lifestyle of his followers is not on their individual faith, but how we live that faith out in the world. The focus of our lives is to be devoted to the welcoming of those younger in faith. It is for the encouraging of those younger in faith. It is the encouragement and the participation in the journey that we make with one another as we move from immaturity to maturity. This is so important to Jesus that he makes this exaggerated statement that if you cause one little one to stumble it would be better to be thrown into the sea attached to a millstone.
Does Jesus literally mean that? That answer is actually has multiple layers, everyone comes to faith individually. And none of us is perfect. Each of us have done things with the greatest intentions, that might have caused someone to turn away from their faith. They will have to answer for their own faith. But does that leave us in the clear, no. We too must answer for our actions. Are we using the resources and the gifts that God has entrusted to us to participate in his kingdom? Are we using those things God has placed under our stewardship to expand the kingdom of God? Is Christ’s kingdom the first thing in mind when we make a decision in the use of any and every gift or resource? And are our words and actions lubricated with grace?
Every action and every word. Because every moment of our lives is seen by others. This one statement of Jesus can nearly stop me from moving, because I am very human. I often speak my mind without any consideration of what my words might cause to the faith of others. Sometimes my actions are not always the most holy. Where does this leave me? Jesus is telling us that we must be mindful, we must become more aware of how our actions can be perceived.
This brings me back to this whole frustration I have with the media. Every day we have this endless stream of information telling us what is going on in the world and it is usually accompanied with a suggested emotional response. It has gotten to the point that no matter what my response is someone somewhere will use that response to deem the truth about my faith. They may not even know who I am. Proverbs says, “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.”
We must be mindful. We do not need to speak out about everything, to be honest we should probably not speak about most things, because we do not possess the knowledge. When we speak into things without mindfulness of those present and our faith we can cause harm to the faith of others. We can catch ourselves in moments thinking we have all the answers, only to encounter a situation our answers do not quite fit. We would like everything to have a clear contrast between right and wrong, but often things are not linear. Be mindful, be honest and if you do not know admit it.
Every day I realize just how little I know. I try my hardest to be the person I think I am supposed to be, I know scripture. Yet I say a word and suddenly I have moved from being the greatest dad to the worst. Things like fathers do not provoke your children to anger comes to mind when this happens, and I feel defeated. Am I living a life of sin? That depends on what I do after. If I were to leave the situation where it is, and do no more, I have hindered a little one. If I repent and reconcile, or if I use that moment to teach and restore I am practicing mindfulness and living the love of Christ with others. So often I am a fool when I open my mouth, but do I leave things there? Every moment we live should be invested in the Kingdom of God. Every resource we have at our disposal should promote the Kingdom of God. And ever relationship we have is an opportunity to encourage someone in their faith. Are those around you seeing and hearing the grace of God?
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 9:30–37 (NRSV)
Jesus Again Foretells His Death and Resurrection
(Mt 17:22–23; Lk 9:43b—45)
30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Who Is the Greatest?
(Mt 18:1–5; Lk 9:46–48)
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
It is always nice to see the moments of humanity within the disciples. We often think of the disciples as these super spiritual people, we regard them as saint, but often forget that they were at first human. They like each of us were prone to those pesky little nuances of humanity. They were jealous, they were seekers of power within a community, and at times they were as hard headed as me.
In last week’s passage, we saw that Jesus told them what was to happen in the near future, and Peter rebuked him. Peter the rock of faith, cursed Jesus because what Jesus was speaking about did not fit into Peter’s perspective and interpretation of the person of the Messiah. He rebuked Jesus. Have we ever done this? Be honest, I am, I have rebuked God. I have told him that this is not how I envisioned things would happen. And often the response I have sensed is much like that Peter received.
Today Jesus again tells them what will happen in his near future. They are walking through Galilee once again, heading to the town most of the disciples probably lived, Capernaum. As they walk Jesus tells them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” They did not understand it days before and they still do not understand.
For their entire life they were taught certain things. They had heard the greatest minds of their faith traditions speak about the Messiah, and they had even listened to teachers from other traditions speak on it too. I say this because the local synagogue was often more like a library is today. They were the center of community education for children and adults, and part of that included seminars from various rabbis that would travel around the nation presenting their teachings and hopefully recruiting students.
They had heard about the Messiah their entire life. They thought they knew what to expect, yet Jesus is telling them things that no one had ever mentioned. Sure, some of the prophets spoke about the suffering servant, but that was glossed over for more important things. Things like the Kingdom and the restoration of Israel. And Jesus takes this suffering thing to a different degree than they are comfortable with and they do not know what to think about it, and they were too afraid to ask.
Why were they afraid to ask? If we look at the life of Jesus, we would see that he was extremely approachable. Multitudes of people would come visit with him while he toured the country. Even when he entered the areas not normally traversed by religious leaders people came to see him. So many would visit, that even his own family, his mother, had trouble getting to the table to eat with him when he came home. This angered the religious leaders who felt that they deserved favor according to their status, but for the common people it was amazing.
The sick would come to seek healing, even leaders of the occupying military forces would come to seek answers for their problems. Yet those that opposed Jesus’s teaching often found themselves as the illustration of a parable. And Jesus even likened his closest friend as Satan, when Peter attempted to challenge what Jesus presented.
What caused this approachable teacher to become so unapproachable? I thought about this as I studied this week. What causes us as humans to hesitate in our approach to Jesus?
Pride is often the cause of hesitation. We believe that we can do all things. We believe we have enough in ourselves to accomplish what we desire. We believe this to such a degree that we often do not even question our desires. It is what we want to happen, so we proceed as if it has a divine anointing. This belief in ourselves produces bitter fruit of envy, jealousy, idolatry and more. We place ourselves in the center of our spirituality instead of Christ.
This is the dilemma of the disciples in today’s passage. They did not understand what Jesus was speaking about, and they were too afraid to ask, so they just went on with what was on their mind. They did not ask because they did not know. They missed an incredible opportunity to learn the significance of God’s abounding love and mercy, from God incarnate. Imagine if just one of them would have asked, “Um, Jesus, can you explain that again? You lost me at the part where you said they will kill him.” But at this point even doubting Thomas was too afraid to express his doubt.
When they get to Capernaum, Jesus confronts their lack of discussion. He knows that they did not understand what he was saying. He knows that they had other things on their mind. They were still caught up in this cultural interpretation of who the Messiah was to be, and each of them were debating where in this hierarchy they would find themselves in. “What were you arguing about on the way?” Jesus asks. And the disciples fall silent.
Mark informs us that they were discussing among themselves which of them was the greatest. Can you imagine that discussion? Twelve men listing off their strengths and twelve men pointing out their weaknesses. Each one insisting that they have a right to be greatest because the Messiah personally called them to follow him. And each one in turn being told that all the others were called as well. Then there were those that were called first, and those that had better connections, those that had unique skills, and those that were young enough to avoid worldly corruption. This was such an intense debate that they let Jesus walk ahead of them and did not even attempt to listen to what he might have to say, even though they were supposed to be following so close to him to be coated with the dust kicked up from the rabbi’s feet.
Consider what this argument is about. Why would someone want to be considered as having a higher status? It is selfish ambition. It is a desire for power and control. It is all about who they are and their relationship with the one who bestows the control. Their focus is on themselves. They may say that it is for the good of Israel, they might even say that it is for God’s glory, but when we seek positions within a community it is almost always because we feel we deserve more than we are getting, and we want others to know that we deserve better.
I struggle with this personally. I have desires. I have gifts that I feel are not being fully utilized and have sought out vocational opportunities that might utilize them in a greater way. I have even rejected opportunities that did not also involve compensation that I deemed adequate for the services rendered. I told you last week that I had a job interview and I did take a different job. Was this wrong? It could be. The question is was Christ at the center of the decision, or was I?
Jesus looks at the disciples as he asks them what they were arguing about. He then calls the crowds closer to him as he begins to teach. They gather in close. Some are most likely elbowing their way to the front, while others take their place behind them. There are children among the group, they are most likely doing things that kids do. They are laughing and talking in voices that resemble a yell more than a whisper. They see something that attracts their attention and they might run after it to the dismay of their parents and the annoyance of the other attenders. Jesus observes all of this as they gather.
He sits down among them, and as he sits he gets the attention of one child and this child comes to Jesus. Jesus the Messiah, the future king of Israel, the one that will restore the throne of David and break the chains of bondage from Rome. This man that has the potential of greatness, who is surrounded by worthy men of character, motions a child to approach. If we were to look at the complete gospel account, we would find that children like everyone else found Jesus to be very approachable. They wanted to be near him, and often to the dismay of the adults, Jesus called the children to be near. Jesus calls the child over to him, He gathers the child in his arms, and he says to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
All the arguments at this point should stop. All the pursuit of power and success should cease because this one statement turns everything in the world upside down. In the world the focus is on self, but in the kingdom, Jesus is ushering in it is others that are most important. And not just others, but the children. Why are they so important? It is because children are hungry. They are on this seemingly never-ending quest to fulfill their hungers. They run around exploring the world. They can spend hours following a dog around and giggle with glee every time the dog takes a drink. They follow because they are curious, they have a hunger for knowledge and if we direct them in the ways they should go our efforts will be repaid. The child is only a symbolic example. The reality is that we should invest in those that seek. We should be investing our time and energy in training those of immature faith and encouraging them to grow. And as they grow we should train them to train those of younger faith as well.
When we welcome those of immature faith and walk with them, we are participating in the very life of Christ. It does not matter who we are, what success we have in our worldly communities, it does not even matter what position we have among the religious leaders. What matters is if we are willing to learn from our teachers, and if we are willing to teach and encourage those without that learning.
The disciples are very human, they like us often find themselves acting just like everyone else. They have pride, and ambition. They seek fortune and influence. They also have a hunger to learn and to grow or they would not follow. There is nothing wrong with success in this world. It is often the wages of a well lived life, but if all we seek is to become successful in the eyes of the world we are missing the point. It is not about us. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The kingdom is like a sower scattering seeds on various soils. The kingdom of God is like so many things, but the kingdom requires something. The sower must scatter seed for it to grow. The seed must sacrifice its life and become a plant so that it can bear fruit. We must die to self and focus on those outside ourselves if we want to participate in the kingdom. Just as Jesus taught his disciples to pray. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” For this to happen we must become a people who loves God with everything we have and loves our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must become a people loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. Because with out that we are just a bunch of windbags arguing about nothing and getting nowhere.
As we enter our time of Open Worship and communion as Friends consider what it means to welcome the children. Consider the children we have running around our Meetinghouse and how we encourage them? Are we annoyed by their desire to play the drums for worship, are we irritated at their whispers and laughter, or do we see them as ways to welcome Christ among us? Let us now center our lives on Christ and honestly say thy kingdom come thy will be done right here as it is in heaven.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 8:27–38 (NRSV) 
Peter’s Declaration about Jesus
(Mt 16:13–20; Lk 9:18–20)
27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection
(Mt 16:21–28; Lk 9:21–27)
31 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.”
34 He 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. 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those 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.”
What do people say about you? I know that we try to not worry about these sorts of things, but we should be honest we really do care. At times it is important to know what some people think of you. I recently had a job interview, and that is one area where I really want to know what people say about me. I have even asked for people to freely tell me about myself, not because I am vain, but I want and need to know if I am fulfilling the expectations that people have of me.
Jesus is not a vain person, he is very humble. In this case humility is being honest about yourself. But Jesus also has a problem. You might not be able to see it, but Jesus has a problem. His disciples and everyone else, have some expectations about who or what they want him to be. The Hebrew people had been waiting and studying about their coming Messiah for centuries, if you were to ask them a question they could quote scripture describing this anointed one that was to come. And each group had their favorite description. The problem is that they were interpreting these things through the lenses of their culture. They were reading those prophecies, reflecting on them, and considering them not in the context that they were given but in their own. Everything was through Israel, and for Israel. What happens when Israel is now longer an independent nation? Well then, the prophecy in their mind must mean that the coming king will reestablish the nation, so the expectation takes on a different form.
We all do these things. In our quest to know God in a deeper more meaningful way, we consume scripture. This is not bad, I will encourage you to read as much scripture as you possibly can, because it will provide you with hope and give you a different perspective on life. But this quest to know God without discipline can cause us to neglect certain things. The main thing being that these words were first written to a culture that was different than ours. There are similarities and there are things we can learn from them, but first century Israel is vastly different then 21 century America. It is vastly different than 21 century Israel even. Paul wrote letters to churches in Corinth, Philippi, Rome, and Colossi each of those cultures had strengths and weaknesses that were similar and different than all the other churches around them. The letters were shared and read at each of the churches, but the cultures within and around those churches were very different. They each had different challenges to face.
We often approach scripture, and we want it to do things that it was not written to do. Scripture is a collection of books, written for different reason, using different styles and forms. We often want it to be the rule book, a science book, or a history book and those things are there, but often they are written in a form that does not translate into language of today. Scripture is a collection of books of teaching, it is often a conversation between a mentor and their protégé. It is more often stories encouraging us to become more aware of our surroundings than concrete hard facts. Even the gospel writers tell us the could not possibly write about everything Jesus taught or did. Scripture writers used poetry, parable, narrative, and several other styles to express truth.
Why am I saying this? Because when we approach scripture as science, we are approaching it through a culture that did not exist at the time of its writing. The scientific method as we know it, was not yet developed. If it was not developed they could not express truth in a scientific manner, instead they penned their observations and experiences in poetry because it amazed them and that was the best way for them to express it. When we approach scripture as we read a history textbook, we are applying things to scripture that were never intended because the study of history in our current era was not how ancient writers approached the subject. If you were to look at the writing of the ancient Egyptians you would find that their leaders were always amazing, they always won wars, and they never faced hard times. Of course, if you were to look at the history of Babylon or one of the other empires of ancient days we would learn that at times Egypt was defeated and at times they faced famines. The same can be said about the history in scripture, it does not tell everything, there are many things that are left out of the narrative. But the truth is there, because the writers wrote in such manner that they wanted us to learn from the stories of both the good and the bad. This past Wednesday we discussed Samson and his trouble with women and the Philistines. We discussed just a small portion of his life, we do not even know how old Samson was, but we do learn something from the story.
We have trouble at times separating our cultural perspective from scripture. And when we do this we might have trouble seeing the truth as it is. But we are in good company, even the disciples had this struggle. Who do people say that I am, Jesus asks. They list off names of people. And then He asks who do you say I am? They respond by saying you are the messiah.
Jesus then begins to teach them about what this means. He tells them that he will face a trial, that he will suffer at the hands of the elders or the leaders of the faith. He tells them that he will be killed and that he will rise again. He tells them plainly. And Peter rebukes Jesus. A rebuke is not just a little thing, it is basically a curse, it is a demand for destruction. It is the same word and feeling that is used to describe what is done when to the demons that possess individuals. Peter rebukes Jesus. He is saying stop right there Jesus. We just called you the messiah, the messiah will not be killed, the messiah will not be opposed by the elders, the messiah is the messiah. You will unite the tribes of Israel and crush our enemies under your foot. That is what the messiah will do, so stop with this dying talk.
You see, Peter and the other disciples, were reading scripture through the eyes of their culture. They were building their faith on the teachings and the interpretations of the elders that were more about wishful thinking than reality. Just like the various teachings of dogma in many religious groups, they are teachings of interpretation. Many are very good things to live by, but we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on them. The elders are human. They like each of us can at times have difficulty with scripture. They like all of us may not always take into consideration every possible factor surrounding the writing. They might take a poem and read it as a history, when the writer was speaking not about actual events but the emotions the events were inspiring.
Jesus looks at Peter and the others and he says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Think about that response for a moment. Peter had rebuked Jesus. He rebuked him because of his great love for Jesus, he rebuked him because of his great love for his nation, for Israel. Peter rebuked Jesus out of devotion. But what was his devotion to? Was it to God, or man? Was it to faith or the institution of human interpretations of faith?
Jesus then calls the crowds to join the disciples. He realizes that there is something that everyone who wants to follow his teachings is missing. His closest friends have an idea about who he is that is not accurate, and if his closest followers do not understand then neither do the others. He calls them to gather and he teaches them what it means to be a true follower, a true disciple.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” He begins. I want us to sit with this for a moment, sit with it while we still reflect on the response that he gave to Peter. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. This is not just a little statement. He is saying that no matter what is going on, no matter where you are, no matter what the situation is my followers will find themselves on the side of the minority. They will find themselves opposed to authority because the power of the worldly kingdoms are focused on different things than God. The world systems, no matter what they are do not deny self. Every system of the world is dedicated to fulfilling the desires of a self. That self might be the king or ruling class, or it might be the people, but every worldly system is focused on a form of self. Jesus says if you want to follow me deny yourself.
To deny oneself is a change of perspective. It does not necessarily mean that you give everything away and live as an impoverished monk, but it means that your focus is on those outside yourself. Your work and your life are dedicated to making the community around you reflect the one you follow. If you own a business, you run that business in such a way that those that work for you or partake of your services will see a glimpse of Christ. If you happen to earn a profit, you invest that profit into expanding the kingdom of God. You do that by expanding your business, giving raises, hiring more employees, becoming more efficient, giving toward community improvements or any other way you are led. Because if you own a business your business is your vocation and ministry. It is not a sin to profit in business, but it can be sinful if your only focus is yourself at the expense of others. But most of us do not own businesses. Most of us work for others so how can we focus on others? You serve as if you are serving the Lord, is what scripture teaches. When you work you work as if that box of cereal is the very manna from heaven. You place it on a shelf as if it is filled with divine power. When you are asked to do something you do it, and you do it not just for selfish recognition, but to make the one you are serving look good. And if you are the manager you manage in a way to make those you manage look good. And to those you provide the precious goods for, you make sure you present only the best because it is not about yourself but about them. Even in retirement you do not stop. You continue to live for others. You invest your time and your resources to continue to improve those around you. You read to children, you volunteer when you have the energy, you visit and listen to those around, you make space for others.
The idea of living for others is not to difficult to see. And we know that when we live that out in our lives it often comes back as a blessing to us as well. When we work hard we gain more opportunities to serve more and often that leads to profits that can allow us the ability to do even more. The problem with self-denial is we often forget that we must take care of ourselves, so we can care for others. We can give so much that we burn out. We can work so hard that we make ourselves sick, so we cannot forget about ourselves, we simply must be honest with ourselves.
The part of Jesus’ teaching that often causes us to faulter is the taking up the cross. Jesus used this phrase for a specific reason. The cross is a powerful symbol. It was the symbol of oppression, of authoritarianism, it is a symbol of death for all that oppose the desires of those that have power. To take up a cross is not simply carrying a piece of wood, it is being forced to carry a piece of wood as punishment. To take up a cross is to stand in opposition to oppression and to stand for justice. For a follower of Christ to take up a cross is to literally oppose Rome, but not for the sake of Israel but for the Gospel.
Often, we hear this verse quoted as a cliché, “this is a cross I must bear.” When all that means is we do not want to change the way, things are, and we will live with it. That is not what Jesus is talking about. To take up the cross means we see something that is wrong, and we will not stand for it. We will sacrifice everything we have to bring about change. We will oppose an injustice even if it means those in power will demand our life as payment. The cross we bear is the ministry we have. It is that thing in our community that we just cannot let continue, so we change it. Just down the road from here is a community that has tiny houses built for homeless veterans. Why is it there? Because someone, could not stand to live in a city where people who served their country would be allowed to sleep on the streets. Did they have to do this? No. They gave their time and their labor to correct an injustice they observed. Those involved carried a cross.
There are injustices all around us. And they should break our hearts. Jesus is telling us if you want to be a follower you must deny yourself and take up a cross. You must be aware of others not only yourself. You must be aware of situations within your community. You must be able to see through the surface into the deeper things. And you must say this cannot stand. I can list of several things in our community that we should not let stand. Our education systems are failing our children, what are you going to do? We have veterans sleeping in the streets, what will you do? We have people living in abusive relationships, will we just let them happen or speak up? We have people whose lives are exploited for the pleasures of others, can this be allowed? We could continue to make a list of the countless injustices in our community. We could spend the rest of this day listing them off, and when we stop and drive home we could continue to add things. Each one of them is a cross, a cross that someone should bear. But which one is the one that you cannot let stand? Which will cause you to say, No More!
I am not saying that we each must become what certain media outlets call social justice warriors. But what I am saying is that that is ministry. Jesus looked out on the crowds one day seeing a multitude of people and he had compassion for them, and he feed them. Jesus saw all those people coming to him seeking many forms of healing and he had compassion for them and he healed their various diseases. What moves us to that degree? What causes our hearts to ache to the point we must act? That is our ministry, that is the cross we bear. And if we refuse to take it up, we are rejecting Christ.
We began today with Jesus asking the disciples what people were saying about Him, and who they said he was. He then spoke about what that really meant, causing the followers to rebuke him. Jesus endured that rebuke because he had compassion. Jesus came down from Heaven to be born of Mary, he being God became human for us. He lived among humankind enduring the entire spectrum of life: the preborn, an infant, toddler, adolescent, and adult. He lived, he taught, and he had compassion for us because we were like sheep without a shepherd. He showed us how to live a life with God, and he lived that perfect life for us, with us. And he expressed his greatest compassion when while we were still enemies of God, he took up the cross and died for us. He took on our sin and our shame, he took our life on his own shoulders and provided the way of redemption. He died and was buried, then he rose on the third day just as he said he would. He had compassion for us. He gave it all for us. And he said if you want to be my follower, you must deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.
This is more than just saying words, it is changing your life. It is more than just giving to a charity or the church, it is getting involved. It is more than becoming a member it is giving your life totally to change the community we live into the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Will you follow and get your hands dirty?