By Brian J. Claasen, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Santa Rosa, California
Summary: Jesus invites us to contemplate on His passion for us, a passion that drove Him to the cross. What does His passion evoke in our hearts? What does His selfless death prompt us to do?
Mark 8: 31-38
Take My Life and Let it Be (Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal #330)
There was a man who was lost on foot in a vast, arid place. He had not found any water for more than a day. He knew that he must find some soon or he would die. His eyes began to play tricks on him and he eventually stopped running to the mirages. Then he saw a small shack and moved cautiously ahead to see if it was real in the hope that there would be water. To his relief there was a rustic hand pump. He began to pump, but it no longer worked. Then he noticed a jar in the corner that seemed to have water in it and he grabbed it. On it was a crudely written note that simply said, If you use this water to prime the pump, you will have plenty for yourself and enough to fill the jar for the next one who thirsts. What would you do?
With the call to discipleship is the price of self-denial. 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 (Mk 8: 34, 35, NRS).
This verse is essential to discipleship. It is the paradoxical language of self-denial, of deliberately and decisively choosing to suppress the self in favor of embracing a life of sacrifice and servanthood, with Jesus Christ as example.
A radical proposition
How radically counter-cultural this invitation of Jesus is! It is exactly the opposite of what most of us are inclined towards and definitely the opposite of the messages we receive in our media-saturated society of billboards, television, and Internet.
Deny ourselves? What a quaint, but unlikely idea! After all, I deserve a break today. I’m worth it. The language of twenty‑first century American society is anything but the scriptural language of self-denial. We don’t talk about self-denial. We talk about self‑actualization, about living up to our full potential, about enjoying the rewards of our labors, obtaining the recognition we deserve, watching out for our own interests, pursuing our goals, reaching for our dreams, developing our positive self esteem. The language of our society is not the language of self-denial, but that of self-gratification.
In this day and age of prosperity, of riding the wave, of in-your-face marketing, join-our-church-and-discover-personal-fulfillment slogans, it seems only natural to focus on ourselves—our benefits, our comfort, our fulfillment, our desires.
In our bull‑headed insistence, we think only of ourselves, of trying to get our own way, of focusing all of our attention inward. Those who want to save their life will lose it, Jesus says. Unfortunately, this is a pretty accurate description of us. We work hard to save our money, improve our lives, exaggerate our importance—often at the expense of others.
Driven by passion
Jesus invites us to contemplate on His passion for us, a passion that drove Him to the cross. What does His passion evoke in our hearts? What does His selfless death prompt us to do? Does it make us think about denying ourselves to follow Him? Does it make us think about losing our lives to find meaning in it? Does it make us think about drowning in the love and grace of God to joy?
The Gospel calls us today to deny ourselves. This does not mean to take vows of poverty. This does not mean to give up on our personal hopes, dreams, and ambitions. This does not mean to live a life of pious gloom. The Gospel calls us to deny ourselves by denying our selfish, sinful appetites. The Gospel calls us to deny ourselves the ability to control and direct our lives.
Self-denial, in the scriptural sense, has less to do with denial of things and more to do with denial of our selves as being capable of our own salvation. Self‑denial is recognition that we are not self‑sufficient, that we have neither the power nor the resources to create our own happiness, either temporally or eternally. Self‑denial is becoming aware that self‑service does not bring self‑satisfaction.
I feel tempted to denounce the sins of selfishness, consumerism and pride into which so many of us so regularly fall. I feel tempted to point out the way of self‑sacrifice, self‑denial, and service to which the Gospel calls us. I could easily fill up the rest of my time here with such homiletic material. But instead I invite you to contemplate on Jesus’ invitation: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
I find myself somewhat unenthused of preaching self-denial knowing that yesterday and tomorrow surround me with reminders of wonderful, good, loving, self‑sacrificing Christian people who, it seems to me, have themselves been denied joy and companionship and comfort.
For those who have been denied, for those who are practicing service and servanthood, for those who are bearing heavy crosses today, the words of the Gospel this morning must have meaning as well. When we follow the path of discipleship, when our shoulders ache beneath the weight of whatever cross we bear, when circumstances of life and death deny us the blessings of life, when hardship comes without reward, the words of Jesus in the Gospel come not as challenge, but as comfort.
Paradox of the kingdom
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. This is an invitation to life. It is an invitation to take up the symbol of the cross, which is a symbol not of my own strength nor of defeat, but of God’s great love and compassion for me in Jesus Christ. The assurance of His abiding and everlasting grace brings joy and humor and purpose to my existence. In the cross of Christ we find, surprisingly, not death, but life—His life and ours entwined by the love of God.
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake?will save it. Jesus, this morning, offers a promise. Jesus offers life, just when it looks like life is being taken away. Jesus offers hope, just when everything seems hopeless. Jesus offers new beginnings, just when it seems the world is coming to an end. The paradox of the kingdom of God is that the cross is a symbol of life, that servanthood produces fulfillment and happiness, and that death turns to life.
Self-denial and new life are all tied up together in the message of the cross. The promise of the blessed life won for us on the cross is also an invitation to life in that kingdom of grace, hope, and joy. Self-denial is not really about giving up desserts. It is about turning our backs to an empty world of vanity and false promises and coming to the feast set before us and finding here, our home.