Not Less Than Everything
If you and I had been involved in a planning committee to develop the specifications for an ideal God who would order and run the world for our greatest benefit, we would likely have called for some changes from "the way things are." What do you suppose this God would be like?
Would this God make everything right in your world? Would sickness and pain be taken away, hunger and poverty disappear? Would suffering and sorrow be gone, and all else which makes life difficult?
Would this God remake life on earth into a new world of blessing and benefit for all - a kind of updated Garden of Eden for the whole of humanity? Or none of the above? We would all be seeking a God under our control, a God who lives and acts on our terms, according to our desires - a God made in our own image. We would have a God presiding over total chaos.
Your imagination can take you as far with this as you might want to go. But your imagination would not change a thing. We have the world we have - and we have the God we have. God is God. But this was a problem for the disciples of Jesus - even as it may be for us. They wanted God - as we often want God - to be someone different from the God of our experience.
As you might expect, impetuous, forthright Peter was the one most open about this -and most openly opposed to Jesus' own understanding of who God is, as he was openly confused about what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah, and how the Messiah responds to life. Peter had heard Jesus say that would mean great suffering for him, his rejection, and his ultimate death.
Peter would have none of this, and began to rebuke Jesus with severe criticism. He could not accept the idea that Jesus would suffer. The Messiah, in Peter's view, could not suffer - and Jesus was certainly too young to die. Peter had definite ideas about how the Messiah should be. He wanted and expected a mighty Messiah-King who would free his people, God's people, from oppression. This was a radical misunderstanding on Peter's part, and the reason Jesus in turn rebuked Peter with his command to "Get behind me, Satan! You are not on the side of God but of men."
A few years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, great Russian writer, world citizen - whatever you want to call him - received the Templeton Award, religion's equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. In his response, he warned that people have forgotten God. "In the Soviet bloc," he said, "hatred of religion is the driving force of Communism, and the West is in decline because the meaning of life is reduced to the pursuit of happiness.''1 Jesus is someone to oppose and hate in Marxist philosophy. In the West, Jesus is someone to deny or ignore. Could you decide which is worse?
The bottom line still is that we must accept the God we have, however much we might want things otherwise. As the comedian Redd Foxx used to say, "What you sees is what you gets." - the God of our experience and Jesus as the suffering servant-Messiah, the one who came to be with us. Jesus is Lord, Son of God, Savior who reconciles people with God, blesses them with the hope of eternal life.
When we try to make the Messiah or God into something other than who they are, Jesus says to us as he says to Peter, "Get behind me." And as we hear this, we know that we can't even reshape our own lives to our own specifications, much less reinvent God or the Messiah. Christ has determined that Christian discipleship is marked with the cross, his suffering and his service, and these are what shape our lives as Christians.
I suppose that many of us in our worst moments would prefer a God who would be a constant source of material blessings rather than a God whose Christ tells us to "take up your cross, and you shall have life." But Christian living will not permit us simply to sit back in comfort and watch for violations in the rest of the world. The Messiah God has given us is the One who is Lord, the Christ of the cross, of the empty tomb and of our own lives.
After the mutual rebuke episode between Jesus and Peter, Jesus called together the disciples and the multitudes and laid it out plainly before them: "Anyone will have to deny himself before he can follow me." To follow Jesus requires a total commitment - the deliberate choice of something which could be avoided and the intention to carry any burden as long and as far as necessary to fulfill the compulsion of God's love in Christ. Whatever the cost, it means to lay all of one's life on the line, without reservation, on the way to fulfillment of God's kingdom and one's own life.
To deny oneself literally means "to make himself a stranger to himself."2 Become a stranger to yourself in order to become completely available to God. Deny yourself. Take your cross, which refers to the practice of requiring the condemned person to carry his own cross to the place of execution.
There is a strong tendency among Christians (and even non-Christians) to think of "carrying a cross" as some form of self-denial, such as taking care of a sick child, giving up coffee for Lent, foregoing a night out with the boys in order to help your mate with cleaning the house and washing the dishes, enduring stoically whatever may happen to us. These things may be honorable, but they do not constitute carrying a cross.
If nothing else, a cross is something you choose. For Jesus and for those of us who dare to be his disciples, taking up the cross (in the words of Hal Luccock) is the deliberate choice of ministering to peoples' need for the truth about God, to their need of love, cost what it might. Taking up a cross for the disciple means the deliberate choice of something that could be evaded, to take up a burden which we are under no compulsion to carry except the freely-chosen compulsion of God's love in Christ. It means the choice of taking upon ourselves the burdens of others who cannot carry their own, of putting ourselves without reservations at the service of Christ in preparing the way and fulfilling the kingdom of God, of putting ourselves in the struggle against evil whatever the cost, of giving one's life to share the good news of God in Christ.3
In the early days of missionary activity among the native Americans, there was a convert to the Christian faith who was so elated that he decided to write a hymn. When his masterpiece had been completed, he proudly brought it to the missionary in charge. Here is a complete translation of the chorus:
Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!
Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!
Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!
Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!4
I'd consider this a great statement of Februarying orders for life in the kingdom of God, the life of discipleship. I can think of no better way to summarize the requirements for anyone who would "deny himself, take up his cross and follow." Go on!
As the story of Jesus unfolds in Mark's gospel, it seems increasingly clear that the ministry of Jesus is a manifestation of God's power and rule. However, in her commentary on today's Gospel reading, Pheme Perkins says that "most Christians today find...titles of Jesus like 'Messiah' and 'Son of God' so shopworn that they are devoid of meaning. The difficulty is not that they might convey inappropriate expectations about the ministry of Jesus, but that they do not convey any expectations at all."5
Perkins goes on to say that we should think of titles like "Son of Man," "Son of God," "Messiah" and others "as code words for stories of how salvation comes to be present in human life through Jesus....The titles that some think are just empty words remind us of the special ways we know God."6
Jesus considered suffering to be an essential part of the meaning and message of the Messiah. It is not clear at this point that Peter came to agree with that. We know that Jesus was willing to undergo anything that his followers were invited to undergo. When he said "Follow me," that is exactly what he meant. He was willing to go to the cross even if he had no followers at all, because God was willing to be there with him. Jesus spoke of his own death and his understanding of what it would mean in the context of God's kingdom. He was willing to accept what God chooses. The enemies of Jesus, despite their hostile intent, did not triumph by his death. Even in their hostility they became part of God's plan.
When confronted with the necessity of suffering, most people would rather not participate: they are likely to react the same way Peter did. But the necessity of suffering is not just a pious desire to imitate Jesus. It is the awareness that what is worthwhile, even worth giving one's life for, "can be accomplished only by those who are willing to trust Jesus' word that suffering belongs to God's plan."7
The truth of this is underscored by an incident from World War II. A group of American soldiers was stopped by the opposition's heavy gunfire, and in danger of being overrun. It appeared that there was no hope, no way out. Finally, one soldier stood up (a foolish thing to do), beckoned with his arm for his comrades to follow, and shouted, "Come on, you guys! Do you want to live forever?" And off they went, whatever the cost. "Those who would come after me, let him rise, take up his cross, and follow." The only way out is ahead.
I think we can accept the understanding that God finds no joy in human suffering. Healing was an essential part of Jesus' ministry. Our bodies, minds, and spirits have incredible ways of being available for God's healing. At the same time, we often suppose that if we "just pray hard enough," God will remove all suffering from our lives. If it doesn't happen, either we have failed - or God has. We understand the Jesus of the miracles and ignore the Christ of the cross. "Prayer," says Ms. Perkins, "is important in healing, but prayer is an opening up of ourselves to what God wills, not an exercise in forcing God to do our will."8
If you need an over-all summary of what today's Good News says to us, perhaps we can do no better than refer to an unlikely source - Garrison Keillor, who says to each of us and to all of us: "Give up your good Christian life and follow Christ."9
1 Quoted in Kathleen J. Crane, "Who Is Jesus Christ?" Best Sermons 1, ed. James W. Cox (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), pp.29-35.
2 Halford E. Luccock, The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 7 (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1951), p.770.
3 Op. Cit., p.771.
4 Edward DeWitt Jones, Sermons I Love to Preach (New York: Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1952), p.169.
5 Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.623.
7 Op.cit, p.625.
8 Op.cit., p.626.
9 Garrison Keillor, quoted in Salt of the Earth (Claretian Publications, Vol. 16, Sept/Oct, 1996), p.35.