God calls us to a generous new life
Sermon preached at St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, February 28, 2021
The Second Sunday in Lent (year B): Mark 8:31-38
Mark 8:31-38 (NRSV): Then Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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.”
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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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.”
Many of you know that I enjoy whitewater kayaking. Over time, I’ve gained the skills to go on some remote wilderness rivers. I’ve paddled sections of the Wild and Scenic Chattooga, and the Town Creek in Alabama. Many of these rivers are far from the beaten path. To get to the river at the bottom of the Tallulah Gorge, you start by climbing down six hundred stairs to get to the river. On Town Creek, you have to lower your boat down on a rope and scramble down a steep hillside to get to the river. At the end you have to paddle two miles on flatwater, followed by a quarter mile hike up a steep muddy hill, all with your boat on your back.
Sometimes we decide that it’s not worth it. But often, we go with paddlers who have seen the river below, who know how much joy and breathtaking beauty we’ll find. The put-in to the Little River Canyon is a steep, rocky, treacherous trail, starting the day with an exhausting hike. Even though we’ve heard about how tough the hike is, in hopes of what we’ll find on the river, we pick up our gear, hoist our boats on our shoulders, and follow our friends down the rocks.
Perhaps you can hear where I’m going with this. In Today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says to his disciples and to the crowd: ‘whoever wants to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.’ We’ve become familiar with this passage and we sing rousing hymns with this text to inspire us for the Christian life. But sometimes I think we’ve domesticated Jesus’ words so much that they’ve lost their gravity. Jesus’ words are harder to embrace than we might think.
This passage is fitting for the second Sunday in Lent. In Lent, we practice self-examination and self-denial; we walk with Jesus in the wilderness, contemplating our sin and doing the hard work of penitence: confessing our sins, returning to God, forgiving others, amending our lives by God’s grace, and seeking God’s reconciliation. When we think of taking up our cross, we might think of the shiny brass crosses we carry in procession, or the jeweled crosses we wear as necklaces. But in Jesus’ time, especially before his crucifixion and resurrection, the cross was not so pretty.
The cross was a Roman instrument of execution. The cross was not an efficient form of execution, rather it was meant to humiliate the enemies of Rome, and to remind the locals of who was in charge and what would await them if they got out of line. The cross was a sign of defeat and death. So, when Jesus asks his disciples to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow him, it is as if he is saying: ‘give up your rights, put on your handcuffs, and follow me to the electric chair.’
Why? What on earth could Jesus be promising people in this message? And why on earth would we want to follow him there? This is different from a tough hike for the promise of a fun afternoon. This is about giving everything for God—even our lives. Where is the payoff? Jesus says those who lose their lives for his sake and the sake of his Good News will save their lives. Why is Jesus’ path of suffering the path of life?
Let me begin to answer this by starting with Jesus, then returning to the questions of what it means for our lives. Unlike the disciples and crowds in this scene, we know more about the cross. We know that Jesus’ death was an intersection between the evil of this world and the presence of God. Jesus’ death on the cross was indeed defeat and death. Jesus’ death on the cross was also victory and new life.
The problem of sin in our lives is something that we are all aware of and would admit to if we’re honest with ourselves. None of us is perfect, and we fail each other, fail ourselves, and fail God too. These failures breed hardship and heartache. They leave victims, they dig self-destructive holes. Having abandoned the wisdom of God, they leave us in a trap from which we cannot free ourselves. The problem is not small, and it is not something we can fix. Fixing the problem of sin in our lives is not a superficial process. It’s not a matter of a face lift, or even so dramatic as a transplant. Fixing the problem takes a deep dive to the depths of the darkness in order to restore the light.
So, God came to us in Jesus to live our human life, and to descend to that darkness in order to bring his light. He came to suffer and die for us to free us from the power of sin and suffering and death. He came to give us new life. This new life is the true life—the life that God made us for, the life where we and others together thrive and rejoice in relationship with God.
This new life is different from the life we know, however. The life we know says that we need to look out for ourselves and put ourselves first to survive. While part of this is a kind of personal responsibility that is helpful, it is also an orientation toward putting ourselves at the center of the universe. We put ourselves first and God and others last, and shrinking back from one another, we fail to enjoy the blessings for which God made us. God calls us to a generous life.
Jesus lives this generous life. Jesus goes ahead of us in living this generous life. In part, he shows us how life-giving this God-filled generous life is. But even more importantly, Jesus also lives this generous life far beyond anything that we could give. As God in human flesh, he gives all of himself for us. He gives his life in a humiliating death. He goes to the depths of our darkness to defeat that darkness. His death overcomes our sin. And he rises to new life, going ahead of us that we might follow behind him. He lives this generous life to give us life. And he invites us to follow, generously sharing this generous new life with others.
This is not about giving our leftovers to charity. This is about the Christian life of giving our lives to God, and watching God use us generously to bless others. This is the path to life for others and for us.
We think of a generous life in many ways, but here’s one example of what this generous life means in Christ. Phillip Robinson was working in his father’s grocery store when he heard a shooting in the parking lot. When he went outside, he found that the victim was his father, dead from a robber’s bullet. At first, all he could think of was vengeance. The criminals were put in prison, but Phillip still held on to his hurt. At some point, however, Phillip was called to something other than hatred.
He wrote his father’s killer, a man named Ron Hammer. Ron hadn’t been allowed to write Phillip until he reached out to him. That took thirteen years. But when Phillip wrote to Ron, Ron wrote back, confessing to his crime and asking for forgiveness. This began a correspondence between the two men. Phillip did forgive Ron, and even testified to allow Ron out of prison on parole. Phillip met Ron and embraced his father’s murderer. This wasn’t therapy for Phillip. This was the power of God working in him, sharing the generous grace of God to multiply blessing to Ron and to Phillip and to others.
This is upside down from the way we think about it, isn’t it? And yet, as we follow Jesus more closely, as we live more and more into Jesus’ generous life, we find ourselves less and less depleted and more and more filled with excess to share. The Christian life of self-giving is a life that multiplies blessings for others and for us. If we make getting blessing for ourselves the objective, then we miss the point and we miss the blessing. But when we set aside ourselves, and pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we discover the joys that God is so eager for us to have.
We live in a world that is so upside down from this way of thinking. We’re used to weighing the options to measure how much hassle we have to give in order to get what we want. But Jesus calls us to a different calculation. Jesus calls us to give it all for a life with God. So we follow Jesus, not because of what we’ll get (though what we get is beyond price). We follow Jesus because his way is true. God really is God. Going against God really is self-destructive, and following Jesus really is the way of life, even when we don’t understand, and even when following Jesus involves suffering.
In Lent we deal with the problem of our sin: where we’ve turned away from God and injured others and ourselves. We confess the truth about ourselves, we turn back to God, and we seek God’s reconciliation. There is another part of this passage that is not to be missed.
This Gospel reading comes right after Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus called Peter his “Rock” “and on this Rock I will build my church,” he said. But when Peter rebuked Jesus for saying he would be betrayed and killed, Jesus said “get behind me, Satan!” and he spoke to the crowds about denying themselves and following him.
The word for “deny” here is an unusual word; it doesn’t appear in the Bible that often. It appears in this scene, in a parallel line from Jesus in another place, and in a third scene. This is the word that is used when Peter denies Jesus three times when Jesus was on trial, and no favorable witnesses came forward.
Who was ashamed of Jesus? Who failed to deny himself instead of following Jesus to the cross? Peter! Jesus’ Rock denied Jesus instead of denying himself.
When we get to Good Friday, this passage feels heavier and heavier. And yet, we don’t count Peter first among villains. Instead, Peter is high among the saints. How can this be? Peter failed to follow him! Wouldn’t Jesus be ashamed of him?
Jesus calls us to a generous new life. And Jesus goes before us that we might follow him. Jesus’ generosity includes his forgiveness of Peter, dying for Peter that Peter might have new life. And in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see Peter restored again. Jesus’ generous new life gives new life.
So, on our journey of Lent, what can we learn from Jesus and his words to Peter and his disciples? How have you denied Jesus? How have you put yourself before God, favoring what is popular instead of following God? How have you run from the hardships of life instead of looking for God there?
And what does returning to Jesus look like? Where is God blessing you in the midst of your faithful suffering? How will Jesus embrace you as he embraced Peter? When you turn again toward God, what will that generous new life look like in your life?
God calls us to a generous new life in him. This life of self-giving with Jesus multiplies blessings for others and fills us with a kind of abundance we could not have imagined. This Lent, seek after Jesus and find him. Set aside yourself, pick up the self-giving life, and follow Jesus to a generous new life in him.
 The NRSV uses plural forms to avoid using gender, but this translation from the ESV is more accurate to the Greek, and more direct in its style. Notice “come after me” rather than “follow me” and compare that to Jesus asking Peter to “get behind me.” The difference is subtle, but it brings an emphasis on placement relative to Jesus.