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Following Jesus

Reverend Philip Stringer

Mark 8:31-38

Romans 8:31-39

LET US PRAY: Almighty God, we pray for your living, creating presence among us today; that the worship which we offer to you may be the work of your hands. Strengthen us in our worship, that we may be fed by you and have strength for our journey through the coming week. AMEN

Simon Says...Follow the Leader

Children’s games in which one doesn’t necessarily do what one wants, but what they are willing to let someone else make them do.

People often approach the call to follow Jesus in much the same way; As something they may not WANT to do, but something they are willing to try because of the reward.

There is a certain legitimacy to that understanding, because our sinful nature DOES make us resist the way of Jesus.

But in another sense, I would like to challenge that idea -- because what Jesus asks of us is not a selfish thing. Unlike a person playing a game of “Simon says” or “follow the leader,” Jesus doesn’t want us to follow him so that he can feel good about himself. He wants us to follow him for our own sake.

Jesus said to the crowd, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To follow Jesus is to take the way of the cross. But that is something so often and easily misunderstood.

As we consider the meaning of these words for us today, we should first be clear about what the way of the cross is not. Jesus didn’t tell you to take up HIS cross. Jesus’ cross is a cross of redemption for the whole human family. That’s not your cross. You’re not the savior of the world, and Jesus isn’t calling you to be that.

Jesus says that to be his follower, you must not take up HIS cross, but YOUR OWN cross.

Secondly, we need to be clear that the way of the cross is not, primarily, a way of death and suffering and unpleasantness. Taking up your cross is not synonymous with making yourself unhappy -- although it does mean flying in the face of just about everything the world tells us will lead to happiness.

The way of the cross is the way of sacrificial giving; Sacrificial living. It is the way of understanding that you exist in relationship with others -- you were created this way -- and to do those things which isolate, divide or harm, is to tear life apart as it is meant to be lived. At another time, Jesus told his disciples that he came so that they may have life abundantly -- not so that he can make them miserable.

((((the early mystics and emergence of the monastic tradition. Why Luther opposed monastic tradition — one does not become one with God through isolation. God exists in relationship, and we best come to know God through our relationships in all of their forms.))))

The purpose of denying oneself is not to diminish joy. The purpose is to live in loving relationships to others by giving for their betterment. The way of the cross is a way of seeing that God has given to you all that you have so that you also may give. God has given to you because God loves you, and it is in giving out of love that we find the abundance of life ourselves. The way of the cross, most simply stated, is the way of loving your neighbor in response to being loved by God.

((((Lenten disciplines centered on misery as opposed to those centered on focus — cleaning out clutter and simplifying))))

What does that mean for your life? You who are a living, breathing expression of a loving God -- what does it mean that God has created you to give yourself in love to your neighbor?

“Those who want to be my disciples,” he said, “must 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.”

That’s a warning to you and me, and a promise.

Another way of saying it is that the meaning of life is relationship -- to be in love with God and all that God has made.

((((Lauzi — The Tao and its Characteristics — meaning results from relationship)))

Chapter 29 states, “If any one should wish to get the kingdom for himself, and to effect this by what he does (that is by his works), I see that he will not succeed. The kingdom is a spirit-like thing, and cannot be got by active doing (that is to say, it cannot be earned and does not exist in possessions). He who would so win it destroys it; he who would hold it in his grasp loses it.”

Those who want to save their own life are living selfishly -- not in relationship. They may reach the end of their days and have never really lived at all. Those who live a life of generosity and compassion find life to be full and meaningful.

In a materialistic and over-indulgent culture like our own, that can be hard to accept. We try to equate modern conveniences and lots of possessions with happiness. The ancients did this, too, when they equated material possessions and good health to signs of righteousness and goodness.

To have wealth and convenience isn’t necessarily bad. But I have met a great number of poor villagers living in huts with little more than family and friends, who are happy people with full lives.

We don’t do anything perfectly, and we don’t love perfectly, either. It all seems very clear-cut and practical when I craft these thoughts into a sermon -- But life isn’t so tidy and knowing and doing the right thing isn’t always easy.

Peter, certainly out of his love for Jesus and a desire for him to be safe, got confused about what it means to be loving. That can happen to us, too.

As a parent . . . or a friend . . . or a leader . . . or a citizen . . . or a Christian . . .

Is the loving thing to punish or to pardon? Give or withhold? Act or not act? Speak or say nothing? Offer advice or let them fail? Rescue, or let them bear the consequences?

The truth is that in much of life, it’s hard to tell and all we can do is what we hope is right. And the only way to do that is to act in love for the other.

Story of mother who wanted everyone to love her son.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus is calling us to return to the life for which we were created -- a life in the image of God. We were created to reflect God’s image; God’s character; God’s nature. We were created to live a life of loving the other.

When we set aside our dreams of being comfortable and safe and exchange them for dreams of being compassionate and generous, this is the way of the cross, and it is the way to a full and abundant life.

Real life is not tidy, convenient or predictable -- it is only one thing: real.

Jesus called those who would follow him to stop living a life of self-centered indulgence and take up a life of sacrificial giving out of love for God and for one’s neighbor. He said this because he knew that the meaning of life is wrapped up in this.

The consequences are real. The world doesn’t agree with Jesus about the meaning of life, and those who give unselfishly are often taken advantage of and sometimes hated. It makes it hard to remain faithful to the calling -- and of course there is that always present reality of our own bondage to sin. We will fall short of perfection.

When we fail, we must remember: The cross Peter tried to get Jesus’ to put down? Peter may not have realized it, but it was a cross Jesus had taken up for Peter -- And Jesus didn’t put it down. The cross that Jesus had taken up was a cross for sinfulness and brokenness of all people. The cross he took up was for you . . . and Jesus didn’t put it down . . . because he loves you. Jesus loves.

Jesus’ invitation for you to take up your cross is a calling for you to love, also; To make your relationship to God the focus of your life -- a calling that is played out in your relationship with everyone you meet.

When you fall short in your love for God and for others, remember that God loves you. And nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not depths NOR HEIGHTS, not death NOR LIFE.

Life -- with all of its flaws and pitfalls -- cannot separate us from the love of God.

So, take up your cross, he said, and follow me. AMEN


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