"Follow me," said Jesus, and everything will be OK, there will be no more trauma for you, no more anxiety or problems, just buy the book and practice following the instructions carefully every day and . and then wake up .! You have been dreaming of a messiah - a common thing to do, but as Peter the disciple also found out, the messiah of human dreams is not the same as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God.
Perhaps today's gospel reading ought to make us wake up with more of a start than usual. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me." says Jesus.
He demands to know of us, "How serious an issue is our Christian discipleship?
How are our lives shaped by our cross carrying?
This, of course is the flavor of the season of Lent, and, with todays reading it is the start of the gospel journey toward the cross.
"Deny self, take up the cross and follow" are words that are familiar to most of us, familiar and almost comfortable words.
But they ought to send shivers down our spines.
These words evoke images of mystery, rigor and death, "Deny self, take up the cross and follow." They were certainly shocking words to their original hearers and little wonder that these words of Jesus have been used to inspire and call Christians throughout the centuries to a clearer commitment and a deeper discipleship.
Unfortunately some of these calls can go a little off the beam, and like Peter in that exchange with Jesus we just heard, sometimes, even the best intentioned thoughts and motives serve the wrong purpose and need to be called back into line.
In the early centuries of the church particularly, this injunction to deny self and take up one's cross was taken as a call to a severe asceticism. Pious, lurid accounts of ascetic disciplines have unfortunately ruined a good word for us. The Greek askesis is a word that was used of athletes in training, of artists and poets who concentrated their efforts to form or create or perform by means of a discipline. It is a very good word for us today, I believe, as we think about how we follow Jesus.
To my mind at least, there has to be something genuinely "Jesus shaped" about our discipleship - something consistent with the cross and with Jesus self-giving love and with Jesus sort of engagement with humanity.
So in the context of finding life and losing it I want to explore a few aspects of what the call and demand of discipleship might mean for us; to explore what it means to carry a cross, find out how to follow Jesus with that cross, think about how to not put ourselves first, find out how to set a direction in Jesus way.
To have any hope of approaching this task faithfully we need to look more closely at what this passage at the heart of Marks gospel is about.
In the broader context of the book, this passage signals the beginning of the second half. Up to these words, the gospel has focused on the ministry of Jesus revealing the kingdom of God, and on Jesus being revealed as the son of God. It leads to the climax, just two verses before our reading, where Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah - the promised saviour.
Imagine this scene with Jesus and the disciples.
Can you get a sense of how Peter might have felt at that moment?
This should be a moment of exaltation - the door of personal recognition is opened, Peters confession is right. Its a rare moment indeed!
But instead of savouring the heights, we see the direction change dramatically, the means of triumph are revealed by Jesus to be through suffering and Peter is sharply rebuked for his opposition to Jesus cross shaped purpose.
Its like a new spotlight is focused on Jesus and it reveals a new facet of his purpose and the way ahead for him. In this new light we gain new understanding and there is a parallel here with the story of Abrams call. Abrams ways might have been considered fairly well set, most 99 year olds are, but he is called into a new covenant with God - new direction, new purpose, he even gets a new name. Abram is human though, and its not easy for him. When he hears Gods plan he falls on the ground laughing. It must have been even harder for the disciples when they heard about Gods plan for Jesus.
Mark tells us that this is the beginning of a new teaching. "Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."
This is a clear and painfully sharp new direction.
And its here that we have the "Cross Purposes."
When things are going along well it is good to be with Jesus.
When people are healed, set free, taught and given new hope it is exciting to be with Jesus, even if there are occasional conflicts.
But when the shape of the cross starts to come into focus,
when the nature of discipleship is named in terms of self denial, cross bearing and the losing of life - there comes a crisis of belief. The human hope of messiah is challenged bluntly and directly by Jesus.
In this gospel story the disciples response through Peter is of shock and disbelief, I can imagine Peter taking Jesus aside and saying things like "what's the matter with you Jesus, no, that can't be the right way! Jesus, is the stress getting to you, perhaps? Maybe we all need a holiday." Then my imagination got the better of me and I started to think of Peter recommending Jesus to his friend, a first century psychotherapist for a little help with Jesus apparent lack of psychological adjustment.
Its not difficult to imagine ourselves taking a similar, rational approach.
But Jesus cutting response to Peter, "get behind me Satan" shows that the disciples are once again dangerously short of the whole truth. There is serious difference of purpose at stake here.
This response of Jesus reminds us also that misunderstanding of his ways can be used for evil works or result in evil, even when there are the best of intentions at work. Peter is told bluntly, to get back into line, to put the evil one behind him and get on with following his Lord.
So we are taken us back to the question, "what does it mean to follow Jesus with our cross?" What place do denial and losing of self have for us? What askesis, what discipline and purpose for us?
On the matter of denial, we recognize that Jesus came that we might have "abundant life," not a suffering life. Jesus lived and enjoyed his life, he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, he attended parties and even helped them along with wine, you'll remember at Cana. No, Jesus wasn't grimly ascetic and it was his love that led to his suffering and death.
Jesus way, rather is a pattern of self giving, about putting the good of others first. To take up the cross is to be prepared to take on such a pattern of living. Whatever it may cost to go God's way.
In other words anything we do, for the sake of others, in obedience to the gospel must be "after the character of Jesus." There is then no place for the easy road of self interest, no place for using violent means to achieve a greater good, no place for coercion. The purpose of God is not achieved by such means. To those who push a worldly logic, Jesus says, "get behind me Satan." This purpose of God is about long term plans, like those purposes worked out through Abram. There is not short cut, no questionable means taken to achieve Gods end.
To follow Jesus then, in such a way means to "save our life." Jesus doesn't say "save your soul," but save your life. This askesis then, this particular discipline isn't just about a religious dimension. There is no such thing in Christian faith, there is no divisable faith facet, Jesuss way is about all of life.
And the paradox is that if we strive to save our life, to put ourselves at the centre, then we lose it. But when we put others at the centre with a Jesus shaped "cross type purpose," losing ourselves, then we are saved.
The "ascetic" of Jesus way is a paradoxical logic.
The discipline of cross bearing is unattractive.
The call to deny self, to lose our life to find it is a hard teaching,
a challenge large enough to occupy an entire lifetime.
The famous preacher G.K. Chesterton said,
"The Christian way has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried."
Today's gospel gives no easy answers or assurances, it demands:
Take up Jesus way and follow it with devotion, take up a "Cross Purpose" that is the call, that is the challenge, that is the way, the truth and the life,
Let us pray to God for the grace to follow. Amen.
Let us pray:
God of grace and mercy, in Jesus your living Word confronts us and demands that we respond, that we live by the way of the cross.
Teach us and strengthen us in your Spirit, to put you first, to put our lives on the right path, following you in love and in costly service, through Christ our Lord.