Christ Centered Resources


Rev. Ed Searcy

Mark 8:29-38
University Hill United Church : Sun, February 23, 1997
The scene is positively Shakespearean. Mark sets the stage with great care. Travelling to Caesearea Philippi, the motley band of disciples think that it is just another day. But then Peter blurts out the line that an actor would die for: "You ... you are the Messiah". All of a sudden it is not just another ordinary day. All it takes is the speaking of that long awaited line for the plot to change ... well ... dramatically! Hearing the title 'Messiah', Jesus begins to say things that they have never heard before ... things that he had not even hinted at when he urged them to drop their nets and follow. "The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by those in positions of power and authority, and be killed and (after three days) rise again". This sounds peculiar in the ears of the disciples. They've been raised on plots involving the 'Son of Man' and they know that when this mysterious figure arrives on the scene, he will come with great fanfare and signs of glory. Like any fan of Shakespeare, they know that when a new king reveals his identity the rest of the plot is going to revolve around his rise to power. But here we have a future king saying that he intends to suffer rejection and be killed. You can almost imagine the audience silently cheering Peter on when he pulls Jesus aside for a little head to head, one on one, man to man chat. There, stage left ... by themselves ... Peter delivers a blistering monologue: "You can't be serious? Do you mean to tell me that you have enticed us away from our families and livelihoods ... teased us with healings here and miracles there ... and convinced us that you are the Christ we have been waiting for ... only to lead us to certain death? Have you gone mad, man? Let's get one thing clear ... no one in their right minds is going to follow a King who says that he intends to be killed straightaway. This is not the kind of campaign strategy that is going to get us very far in the polls. I have been thinking and, if you don't mind me saying so, I have a few suggestions on how we can expand your support beyond the Galilee". But, in true Shakespearean fashion, Jesus interrupts with a blistering monologue of his own. Turning his back on Peter he delivers a damning indictment: "Get behind me, Satan". Sitting in the audience you realize that the scenery has changed ... for a moment the two are standing in the wilderness east of the Jordan, the scene of Jesus' temptation. Now we see the nature of that temptation for what it is ... the desire to avoid suffering at all costs. As quickly as the wilderness appears, it disappears ... and Jesus moves to center stage surrounded by followers and onlookers. The scene really is like something straight out of Shakespeare. It is when Jesus moves center stage that things begin to change. Up until now it has all been very predictable. Sure, the characters on stage are surprised by the twists and turns in the plot. But we in the audience have seen this one before. We know only too well how things will end ... and it is no surprise to us that 'the Son of Man must undergo great suffering'. As soon as Peter starts his ranting and raving we sit there in our seats thinking: 'If only he knew what is coming next'. Then Jesus moves to center stage and things begin to change on us. At this point in the drama he usually sits surrounded by the entire cast and crew ... and calls them to follow him to death. Not today. Suddenly the stage is empty ... cast and crew have disappeared into the seats. There's Peter sitting in the row in front of you ... and Mary with Martha over there to your right. And now Jesus is walking into the aisle, saying: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me". A shiver runs up your spine as you think to yourself: "I had no idea that they were going to do this in this production. I hate this kind of theater. I just want to watch the action ... I have no intention of getting involved. Just so long as no one pulls me up on stage!". Just then, someone in the balcony begins to answer back: "Do you have any idea just how damaging these lines have been? Deny myself? Take up my cross? That is precisely what my minister said to me when I went for counselling about my abusive husband. He quoted these very words. So I stayed. I stayed and took the abuse ... and for what purpose? It sure didn't do me ... or my kids any good!". You whisper to the person next to you: "Is that one of the actors ... or is someone in the audience interrupting the performance?". Before he can answer, Jesus is walking up the aisle saying: "Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed". With that a man sitting on the aisle jumps to his feet and accosts Jesus: "Do you really think that this is any way to get people to go along with you? Shame is a powerful tool, you know ... my Mother made me feel so ashamed whenever I did the slightest thing wrong that to this day I have never felt whole. And now you want me to suffer so that you won't be ashamed of me?". You've begun to realize that things in the theater are getting out of control. In all the times that you have seen this play performed you have never heard these lines ... and you have never seen the stage empty. The action has moved down into the seats. The script is out of control! Spend any time at all with these verses ... and in no time they are out of your control. The trouble is ... they are troubling verses. Over the years they have been used too often to keep people who are already suffering captive to that very suffering. Can this really be what Jesus intends? Yet many whose lives are lived in relative comfort and ease conveniently forget that this pivotal scene even exists. It is as if they have a version of the script in which these words have been surgically deleted. How else can one explain the fact that so many who claim to be Jesus' followers seem intent on securing their own lives at all costs? That is precisely what young Dietrich Bonhoeffer wondered when he came across this passage. It was 1932. He was twenty-six. The youngest son of German aristocrats, Dietrich had entered theology and was already on his way to a brilliant academic career when he read these words. He had read them before, of course. But with Hitler on the rise amid widespread apathy in the church, Bonhoeffer suddenly heard the call of Jesus with clarity for the first time: "When Jesus calls a man or woman", Bonhoeffer wrote, "he bids them come and die". Already an ordained minister and a Doctor of Theology in 1932, Bonhoeffer later said that he really only became a Christian when he realized that following Jesus would not take him up the aristocratic ladder of university and churchly advancement but, instead, down into sharing the suffering of Hitler's victims. Self-denial, Bonhoeffer realized, has nothing to do with remaining in a position of suffering or abuse ... nor does it have to do with denying oneself pleasure for the purpose of proving one's own saintliness. Self-denial means choosing not to focus on one's own career or one's own future or own's own security. Instead, it means focussing singleheartedly on a path of creative, redemptive suffering. It means willingly accepting suffering that is for the liberation of others, as the cost of being a disciple. Grace is not cheap. It does not come without cost ... and the cost of God's grace is obedience to God's way in the world. In 1932 Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to walk this costly path. A decade later, he had, one by one, denied everything he once held dear. By 1942 Bonhoeffer had abandoned his principles, lied to his colleagues, lost his reputation, walked away from the security of church appointments and become a traitor to his people. To his contemporaries Dietrich Bonhoeffer appeared anything but a saint. His hidden life as a conspirator in the plot to assassinate Hitler filled him with doubt and uncertainty. Bonhoeffer did not know if his actions were right or wrong. He only knew that he could not escape taking responsibility for the suffering of others ... not if he were to be a follower of the One who says: "those who lose their life for my sake ... will save it". On his way to the gallows in April 1945, Bonhoeffer's fellow inmates heard him say: "This is the end - for me the beginning of life". See what I mean? Spend any time at all with these verses ... and in no time they are out of your control. I know ... I have just spent the week with them ... trying to get them under control long enough to construct some kind of coherent, controlled sermon. But instead of constructing coherence I keep finding myself driven into danger. Take Tuesday. Tuesday I am assigned a straightforward task. A few of us are drafting a document that responds to the United Churches' involvement in Residential Schools for aboriginal children. My mission is to write a theological basis for future action by the church. So, driving back to my office, I ponder. I think of Marion Best, Moderator of the United Church, visiting native villages in B.C. and being asked by the elders for an apology on behalf of the church. They seek an admission that the church stood by while all manner of abuse occured in its schools: corporal punishment for those who spoke in their native tongue, isolation for those who tried to go home, sexual abuse that went unnoticed or overlooked. It seems the least that can be offered. We expect no less from other institutions in our society ... even Maple Leaf Gardens. But there is a reason why the Moderator must sit silently. Some who were the victims of sexual abuse in the schools have taken the church and government to court. The law suit is in progress ... the advice of the lawyers is clear: "Don't apologize, don't accept responsibility in any way", they say. "It is too dangerous ... you risk losing millions". Just then, Jesus' words free themselves from the straightjacket that is my closed Bible: "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake ... will save it. For what will it profit <a church> to gain the whole world and forfeit its life?". There came a time when Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that the church could no longer sit on the sidelines, passing resolutions calling on others to take responsibility. There came a time to share responsibility for a nation's guilt and willingly bear the suffering which held the promise of redeeming broken relationships. Now there comes a time for us. At least that is what I find myself writing as I begin to draft the document that I have been assigned. Yet by Wednesday I realize just how strange this kind of talk sounds. Wednesday is spent presiding at the largest funeral I have ever attended. More than sixteen hundred people - most of them teen-agers - attend a service to mark the accidental death of a seventeen year old girl, hit by a speeding car while running across the road at the high school my children attend. Mid-way through the day, after the service has ended, I am sitting in the funeral chapel behind the open casket as the mourners file by, paying their last respects. For over an hour I sit there ... watching as teen-ager after teen-ager looks death in the face. Some walk stiffly, eyes averted, their bodies a study in control and avoidance. Others come clinging to one another, eyes drawn as if by a magnet ... everything about them reflecting intense fascination. I find myself musing on one positive emerging out of this senseless tragedy: "Maybe these kids will take less risks with their lives ... maybe they will protect themselves ... save themselves". When, wouldn't you know, Jesus' words haunt me again. How strange he sounds in RRSP season, in a culture so focussed on security and safety, on self- fulfillment and satisfaction. At first I think: "It's no wonder that these kids and their parents aren't in church ... they have no interest in Jesus' message at all!" I try to imagine a best-seller in the self-help section of the bookstore with the title: "Save your life! Follow Jesus' proven method: Lose it". Perhaps Peter is right ... Jesus really can use help with his marketing and PR. But an hour behind an open casket gives you a lot of time to think. Looking at the stream of faces I can't help but think that they hear the same message of fear day after day ... the same message from banks and governments, from schools and parents ... the message that life will be saved if you clutch it close, if you lock it up behind deadbolts and in safe accounts, if you keep it to yourself and mind your own business. Most of the time they sense that same message here, too: keep things safe, don't get involved in anything that puts you at risk. I begin to wonder what would happen if the church lived as a community of the cross. Not just a community that has a cross ... but a community that lives a cruciform life ... a people who say: "Join us and your life will be filled with risk. Be baptised and you will have a lousy reputation, you will be misunderstood, you will endure hardship and suffering. Eat at this Table and become part of the living Christ who redeems the world through lives that dare to suffer for, and with, others ... lives such as ours". I begin to dream that new life might flow again in the veins of the church. It's amazing how out of control one's thoughts can get sitting behind a casket for an hour. Then on Thursday I sit down to write a sermon ... and the words will not go away: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." The words are still there on Friday ... and Saturday night, too. Sure enough, they are as out of control as ever here, now. Dietrich has it about right, after all: "When Jesus calls, he bids us come and die." And do you know what? It would be a crying shame not to know the freedom of such a life.