The opening paragraphs of this sermon should be read with a phoney, fake, American accent!
Hey there y'all! Welcome to the newest church in Portsmouth! I have great pleasure in announcing that from today, we are to be known as the "Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, Almighty Saviour Jesus, Healing and Prosperity Church...Portsmouth Branch". Why is this? Well let me tell you, brothers and sisters. Last night, I had a vision! The Lord God Almighty spoke to me from the heavens. He said to me...
"Pastor", he said, "Pastor - I have good news for you! I want to shower you and your congregation with abundant blessings. You are going to see miracles. You are going to experience amazing healings. (Praise the Lord!) Tongues of fire are going to dance on the head of your congregation. (Praise the Lord!). And every single one of them is going to become wealthy! (Praise the Lord!) I am going to make yours a church of millionaires! You are going to become so wealthy, so full of miracles, so full of powerful healings, that the whole of Portsmouth will flock to your doors! You are going to be light in the economic gloom. You are going to show people that all they have to do is turn to Jesus, and he will take care of all their needs."
Well, I have to tell you, I was amazed. So I looked up to heaven, and I asked God "What do we have to do to receive such blessings?" And the Lord God Almighty answered me. I heard him speak to me as clear as he has ever spoken to me. He said,
"It's very simple. All your congregation has to do is to show that they trust me. They simply have to sign over the deeds to their houses, and the ownership of their cars to the church. Then I will know that they trust me. Then I will bless them with manna from heaven. Then they will become millionaires, and all their problems will disappear". (Praise the Lord!)
So, my brothers and sisters, our Treasury Team are standing by, at the ready, with forms for you to sign. Just sign over the deeds of your house to the church, and the Lord God Almighty, in the glorious name of Jesus, will give you your heart's desire! A-men, brothers and sisters. A-men!
(Ok...you can stop reading in a phoney American accent now...)
It's a bit frightening to think that there really are churches like that in the world. Those kinds of churches feed on people's misery. They create an image of the world which is so pumped up with future hope, that gullible people, people who haven't been properly taught, really do believe that God is in the business of making them wealthy...and magically taking all their problems away.
This is such a fundamental distortion of the Gospel, that it beggars belief. But some preachers can make people believe anything. Many of such preachers have never been to a college, never had any kind of decent theological training. In particular, none of them have, it seems, ever been confronted with the text that we have before us today..."If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me".
And according to the text, modern-day prosperity preachers are not the first people to have got the wrong end of the stick. This text comes at a pivotal point in Mark's gospel. Up until this chapter, which comes right in the middle of the gospel, Jesus' disciples have seen him doing all sorts of amazing things. He drives out evil spirits, heals multitudes of people, he calms the storm, and even raises Jairus' daughter from the dead. The disciples have seen Jesus feed the five thousand and the four thousand (plus all their women and children). They've even watched him walk on the water. But now, in this passage, the whole story of Jesus' life and ministry turns...it pivots, towards Jerusalem, and to the incomprehensible scandal of the Cross.
After all they have witnessed Jesus do, suddenly, in verse 31: "He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected...and be killed".(Mk 8:31). You can just imagine Peter's reaction can't you? He is Jesus' best mate. He's watched all this amazing stuff going on around and through Jesus. He probably thinks that Jesus has gone nuts. Perhaps all this power has gone to Jesus head (thinks Peter). Perhaps the Messiah has been working too hard! So he rebukes Jesus. Matthew's gospel gives us the words that Mark doesn't record: "Never, Lord" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" (Matt 16:22)
But Jesus is adamant. So adamant that he tells Peter off with really startling words: "Get behind me, Satan!" Pretty stern stuff. And then Jesus goes on, in verse 33: "You are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things". In other words, "You are thinking like a man, but by now you should be starting to think as God thinks...to see things from God's perspective".
Anyone confronted with the idea of suffering might well react as Peter reacts. After all, God can heal, can't he? We've seen healing in action, through Jesus, time and time again. Jesus' many miracles are proof positive that God does not delight in suffering. And yet, somehow, for reasons we might only be able to guess at, suffering enters into God's equation for humanity. A balanced Christian world-view, a theologically literate understanding of God has to weigh the difficult topic of suffering in the balance. It's there. It was there for Jesus, who suffered on the cross.
It was there for the many whom Jesus encountered whom he did not heal. Think, for example, of the story of the pool at Bethesda (see John 5:1-15). Jesus healed the man who could not get down into the water...but what about all the others who were lying around the pool? It's an uncomfortable fact - but one which grown-up Christians have to learn to deal with. Suffering, somehow, is part of the plan. Some Christians, fixated on the Jesus of the Miracles, have missed out on the suffering Jesus of the Cross.
But that is precisely whom we are confronted with in this text. Jesus had to suffer...it was part of the divine plan...and something we will think more about as we approach Good Friday. But Jesus says that we are called upon to suffer too..."anyone who wants to follow me must deny himself, and take up his cross".(Mark 8:34
Let's notice that there are, in fact, two elements to Jesus stark statement: we are called first to 'deny self', and secondly, to 'take up our cross'. Let's look as those in turn.
First - what does it mean to 'deny self'?
I find it most helpful to think of denying self as actualy being about putting others first. It's a way of living that always looks out for other people. It's a way of living which never asks "what's in it for me?" but rather "what's in it for my neighbours, and for the Kingdom of God?". If Jesus had asked himself 'what's in it for me?' before embarking on his ministry, he would never have got beyond his baptism. We too are called to live that way...to live generously.
Why? Why are we encouraged to live so radically, so differently from the way that other people live? Well, we only have to look at the current state of the stock market, and of collapsing banks, and the promise of food wars to see the result of living by the maxim 'what's in it for me?'. To deny self, is to see ourselves as completely bound up with other human beings. It's to understand that every time I keep something for myself, or pursue my own self interest, I always do that at the expense of another human being... another brother or sister.
The current mess in the world's economy tells us that even after 2,000 years, we have not yet learned that most basic of Christian teaching. To deny self is not a negative act...its not so much about denial as it is about giving. To deny oneself is, in fact, to give oneself - unstintingly, unselfishly, to others. It's the way of life - the way to truly experience life...that Jesus calls us to.
Lastly, let's think about the crosses that we - like Jesus - are also called to take up. (Apart from bearing the cross of listening to one of my longer sermons that is!).
Last week, I spent time with a member of this parish who has become very frail. I won't tell you who - though many of you will know them. This person is someone who has spent all of their life serving others through the church. They have been at table top sales, and served on the PCC, and made endless cups of tea. They have given unstintingly of their time - they have truly denied self in order to bring the Kingdom into this area. And yet, they now find themselves frail, often housebound, and unable to serve others as they would like to do. Even more distressing is that they now rely on others to do the little personal things that they used to be able to do for themselves.
This person said something very profound to me, as I was taking communion to them. They said "perhaps God is teaching me that despite all the things I have done for others, there was still a bit of pride in me. Perhaps this illness, this long-slow decline, is God's way of teaching me that I am part of a community of people...and that I need to let them serve me for a change. Perhaps I'm learning that in the end, we all must rely on God, and on other people...and that we must set aside all pride in ourselves."
I was intensely moved by what that person said to me. I think that after a life-time of Christian faith, and even on days when they can't get up off the floor after falling down, God is still teaching them something deep, something profound, about our need for each other, and for God.
Jesus own suffering clearly had purpose. What that purpose was we can only begin to glimpse despite all the words that have been written about it in the Bible and elsewhere.
Interestingly, the Gospels themselves don't provide a definitive answer to why Jesus had to suffer. The task of interpretation is one that was left to later writers, like St Paul - and other great thinkers of the Church. All that Mark says on the subject, in today's reading, is that Jesus taught his disciples "that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering" (Mark 8:31). The task of working out why is something that Jesus leaves to his Church. We continue to grapple with it...just as we grapple with the reasons for our own suffering, or the suffering of martyrs across the centuries, and even now in other lands. We will grapple with it some more when we come to Good Friday.
We continue to grapple - but we also continue to trust...that denying self, and taking up our own cross - participating in our own suffering and the suffering of the world is an essential, central message that is right at the heart of the Gospel.
May you come to know the power of God that is often revealed in suffering. May you come to know the power of denying self, and taking up the cross that is offered to you. May you come to know that God's power is so often revealed in and through weakness - our own weakness, as well as the weakness of those we encounter.
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