A Matter Of Death And Life
Text: Mark 9:2-19
It was 1921 when the first expedition reached the top of Mt. Everest. Since then, fewer than 600 people have set foot up there, and about another 150 have died trying. But in recent years, the number of deaths on the mountain has increased dramatically. You see, climbing Mt. Everest is no easy feat. The peak is over 29,000 feet high, at an elevation where winds can blow more than 100 mph, where temperatures can easily drop to 40 degrees below zero, and where the air is so thin that if you are not careful, it becomes very easy to lose consciousness.
So you would think that the only people who would want to climb Mt. Everest were those people who really understood what they were getting themselves into. But unfortunately in recent years that has not been the case. Instead, recently many people have become so attracted to the glory of being able to say that they have climbed Mt. Everest, that they have focused so much on that glory, that they have completely overlooked the sacrifice that is involved in getting there. And so by focusing on that glory alone, many climbers have perished along the way.
It was much the same kind of thing in the story we just listened to in the Gospel of Mark. The three disciples who were with Jesus, Peter and James and John, were fascinated with the glory that they saw there on that mountaintop. They were fascinated with the glory that they saw as Jesus became transfigured before their eyes, as he began to glow with a brilliant white light.
But as that miracle came to an end, Jesus told those disciples not to tell what they had seen until after Jesus had risen from the dead. And what Jesus was trying to get across to those disciples was that yes, there will be a time for glory. But before that glory comes, they needed to understand the cost that was involved in getting there. You see, the disciples wanted to stay there on that mountain and enjoy Jesus' glory forever. But Jesus told them that they had to move on. Because there was yet another mountain, another hill, that lay ahead. A hill called Golgotha, where there was a cross that awaited him.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus showed the disciples that they were indeed following him on a road that was leading to glory. But it was at the same time a road of service and sacrifice and suffering. And that is the very same road that Jesus invites us and all Christians to take as well.
Recently I subscribed to an Internet service so that I have access to the World Wide Web. And this past week, I went on-line and typed in that I wanted information about Christian persecution. And right away I was able to print out a dozen or more pages about various ways that Christians around the world suffer for the sake of their faith.
For example, I read about a missionary who was caught bringing Bibles into southern China. When government officials caught him doing that, he was hanged upside down and beaten to death. Or in Bangladesh, most of the people there refuse to have any dealings with Christians. So, for instance, Christians there are not able to rent oxen to pull their plows. Instead, the Christians themselves must get out there in the mud and pull their own plow. And in Bangladesh there have been many instances where people who have converted to Christianity have then been beaten, have been fired from their jobs, and have had their houses destroyed.
But one thing I noticed as I read through all of those various accounts of Christian persecution was that none of them referred to persecution in the United States. And so I got back on-line and specifically requested information about Christian persecution in this country. The message that came up on the screen, though, said: "No Information Found."
And when I saw that, I thought that that was so telling. Because here in the United States, we don't know what it means to suffer for the sake of our faith. At least we don't know what suffering means like it means for Christians in other areas of the world. But while here in the United States, many churches are losing members and closing their doors, in areas like Asia and Africa and South America, where Christians are being persecuted, where they are being killed, it is in those places that Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds.
But here in the United States, for the most part we don't want to hear about suffering and sacrifice. We just want the glory. And probably the best example of that are the huge number of people who are fans of Robert Schuller. For instance, one Sunday, Schuller brought on this fellow who told a kind of rags to riches story. This man told about how he was born in a poor inner-city neighborhood, but how one day he started to believe in God, and now today he's a millionaire and the editor of a large magazine. And so Robert Schuller then turns to the camera and smiles and suggests that if we all believed in God the way this fellow does, we could all be millionaires, that we could all be happy.
I guess the main problem I have with Robert Schuller is that week in and week out he tells people that if only they would believe in God and think happy thoughts, then their lives will be nothing but sunshine and rainbows. Now that's a very appealing idea. And so I can see why so many people tune in to hear that message. But the problem is that that is not the message of Jesus Christ.
The message of Jesus Christ is the message of the cross. Yes, the message of Jesus Christ also is a message of glory and resurrection. But before we get to that glory and resurrection, the cross comes first. And when you look at what happened on the cross, there is no way that you can say that if you believe in God, then everything in this life turns out happily ever after. There's no way you can look at the cross and say that.
It's as if there were two doors in front of us. The one door has a cross over it, and the other door has a picture of the empty tomb over it. And people are asked to line up for whichever door they want to go through. And it turns out that most people line up for the door with the picture of the empty tomb over it. After all, who wants a cross, when you can go straight to the glory? But the problem is that when those people get up to that door, to the one with the empty tomb over it, they discover that that door won't open. That they can't get in through that door. Instead, it's the door with the cross over it that's able to be opened. And it's only by passing through it that you can reach the glory of the empty tomb.
In 1941, one of the prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp was a priest from Poland by the name of Maximilian Kolbe. One day, when he saw the SS commander ordering the death of a fellow prisoner, Kolbe stepped forward and asked if he could take the man's place. And so his wish was granted, and he was led off with nine other prisoners to be thrown into a dark basement to await their execution. The other prisoners in the camp were used to hearing crying and screaming and wailing from those who were on death row. But instead this time they heard something quite different from that basement. Because what they heard was the sound of singing. They heard the sound of Father Kolbe leading the other prisoners in singing hymns to God, because he had helped those men to realize that even though they were making a journey into the valley of the shadow of death, that they were in the hands of Jesus -- that Jesus was one who knew death, and that he was the one who had defeated death.
When we think of communion, there are two main images that should come into our minds. On the one hand, communion reminds us of Jesus’ glory, of how he is risen from the dead and how he is with us this very day. But on the other hand, communion reminds us of Jesus' suffering, of his broken body and his blood that was shed there on the cross. And so in communion, we are not asked to pick just one of those images. We are not asked to pick glory or suffering. Instead, we are asked to keep those two images together. Because without the cross, there is no glory.
Rev. Dr. C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church ttsburgh, PA