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March 16, 2003
by Tony Grant
I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to the gospel of Mark, chapter 8, and follow along as I read verses 31-38. Hear what the Spirit says to us.
31 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.
32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
35 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.
36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
Security is in. That is why a market exists for a most unusual SUV. This particular sport utility vehicle rolls out of the Ibis Tek shop in Butler, Pennsylvania, and it looks from the outside like one of the suburban cruisers piloted by millions of soccer moms. With the flip of a switch, however, the sunroof opens and a weapon pops out. "Our clients said again and again it would be great if the weapons stations were inside the vehicle, hidden underneath," Ibis Tek president Tom Buckner said ["SUV of death," Wired, August 8, 2002, wired.com]. You can take your pick: a fifty-caliber M2 machine gun or forty millimeter grenade launcher.
Now I know what you are thinking. Would not this weaponized, armored SUV be great to have the next time you encounter a road rager? Wouldnt he or she be surprised when that machine gun popped out. But that is not going to happen. These SUVs are for export only, they are not available in the United States, but according to the Associated Press, they are being shipped by Ibis Tek to hot spots like the Middle East, where the expression, "Have a safe trip," is more than a pleasantry; it is more like a prayer.
Simon Peter would have appreciated a ride like this for Jesus and the disciples. Peter was concerned about security, and he rebuked his master when Jesus began to teach that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed" (Mark 8:31).
"No way!" thought Peter, probably wishing he could do a little time-traveling and make a deal with an outfit like Ibis Tek. For a cool $500,000, this aspiring Head of Security could get an SUV with all the trimmings including options like protective plating that can stop a 7.62 mm armor-piercing bullet.
Just imagine the squabbles between disciples over who would get to sit in the back and use the joystick and computer screen to operate the gun platform! And think of the fun they would have picking out the sensor package: They could choose between day-night cameras, laser range finders and thermal cameras. At the very least, Peter would want the optional protection package that would shield his colleagues from gas or biological attack protection that is good for three or four hours at a time.
But Jesus said that security is not to be found in firepower. In todays passage from Mark, Jesus challenges Peter, and us to focus on divine things, not on human things. He calls on us for a response, saying, "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" (Mark 8:34-35).
Two Ways of Life
The gospel of Mark shows us two contrasting ways of life. According to New Testament professor David Rhoads, the two ways of life are "saving ones life out of fear" and "losing ones life for others out of faith." The first way of life is motivated by fear, and is followed by people who seek to acquire power and status for themselves. By contrast, the way of life made possible by faith relinquishes status and power in order to bring the good news of the kingdom to others. [David Rhoads, "Losing Life for Others In the Face of Death," Interpretation, October 1993, 359]
In Mark 8:29, Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter acts as spokesperson for the group. He declares Jesus to be "the Messiah."
But Peters declaration also opens the door for even more profound misconceptions. In traditional Jewish theology, the "messiah," the "Christ," the "anointed one of God," was overwhelmingly understood as a powerful, military conqueror, who would bring restore Israel to worldly power.
Perhaps this is why Jesus tone seems to change so quickly once Peter makes his correct identification. While Jesus has been gradually leading his disciples to recognize his true nature, he now must begin the second, even more challenging, stage of educating his followers. Yes, he is the Messiah, the Christ, but his messiahship brings a salvation radically different from what anyone had expected. In verse 31, Jesus begins the first in a series of teachings about what lies in store for him because of his messianic identity.
Jesus shatters the image of a triumphant messiah and replaces it with Isaiahs less familiar "suffering servant" image. Jesus lesson is detailedforecasting a future of not just general "suffering," but of rejection by the Jewish establishment, and of his death and resurrection. It is a shocking revelationone the disciples are completely unprepared for.
Peter once again acts as the leaderbut this time in an almost protective way. Instead of publicly denouncing Jesus words, he "took him aside" (v. 32) as if to quietly convince Jesus that he should stop spreading such weird rumorsboth for his own sake and for the sake of his followers. Jesus rejects what Peter says. He declares Peters words to be the voice of Satan i.e., the voice of disobedience. Peters words are Satans temptation to think in terms of ordinary notions of success and triumph. Peters words are the voice of "saving ones life out of fear." The divine plan for salvation that the Messiah must carry out calls for another way, a way that leads to the cross.
Jesus directs us to take up our cross. That is, we should be willing to shoulder the burden of rejection and opposition that a disciple of the messiah may encounter. We should literally be ready to suffer a martyrs death on a cross for the sake of Christ. Thus, the challenging mandate Jesus offers us is to deny ourselves.
In verses 35-37 Jesus reveals the sweet center within this apparently bitter pill his disciples must swallow. Once again, however, Jesus description defies the common standards of reason and expectation. It is in "losing" ones life that followers will find the saved life they long for. A life lost for Jesus sake is in reality a life gained. According to Jesus, people gain true life only when they are devoted to "losing ones life for others out of faith," only when they are committed to what God wants for the world.
In a final pronouncement, Jesus challenges us . Verse 38 looks toward a future time of judgment and glory. Those who reject the message of suffering and sacrifice today will taste the rejection of the Son of Man when he "comes in the glory of his Father."
Equipping Our Weapons Platform
Somehow, it is hard to imagine responding to this challenge of Jesus with machine guns and grenade launchers.
Jesus lets us know that discipleship is not designed to protect us from pain or suffering or even death. But at the same time, it would be dead wrong to assume that Christian life lacks security, or that it leads inevitably to personal destruction. What we learn from Scripture is that by following Jesus we tap into the most powerful force in human history. The life of Christ was nothing less than a godly grenade launcher that destroyed for all time the power of Satan, sin and death. Jesus did not show weakness or powerlessness by walking the way of the cross, and neither do we. The path of discipleship is, instead, an unconventional way to achieve an unexpected victory.
The question for us is this: How are we going to equip our mobile weapons platform? What are we going to use to fight the good fight? When Ibis Tek builds an SUV, it outfits the vehicle with a defensive system that includes a hidden, laser-guided gun platform. But the guns themselves are not included, and clients know they must buy their own weapons, which are mounted only upon delivery. Like toys that bear the disclaimer, "Batteries Not Included," these SUVs arrive with the understanding that the party is BYOGL Bring Your Own Grenade Launcher.
So, what are WE going to put on our mobile weapons platform? What are we going to put on the mobile platform that is our own God-created heart, mind and spirit? Will it be a weapon of destruction or a weapon of salvation?
First, we are challenged to put a cross on our mobile platform. This is a strange sort of weapon, for sure, but it is exactly what Jesus orders for us when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (v. 34). To mount a cross on our personal platform is to put the will of Christ ahead of our own will; it is to place the needs of others ahead of our own needs; it is to see the world through the cross of self-sacrifice, not through the cross hairs of a machine gun.
Bob Lupton, a member of North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, moved into a slum twenty years ago because he knew his ministry to inner-city poor families could never be entirely genuine while he lived in the lap of suburban luxury.
This was a serious commitment: Less than a week after his family moved, Luptons wife, Peggy, walked in on an armed robbery in progress. Years later there were even worse consequences: Luptons daughter-in-law, who lived in the same neighborhood, was abducted at knife-point, kidnapped and sexually assaulted.
"Nobodys exempt," Lupton says. "There are no guarantees .... But no, no, I never have had any regrets; Ive never looked back."
If he did look back, Lupton would survey a 30-year-long ministry in which he has evolved from social worker to real estate developer. His FCS Urban Ministries has grown from a storefront operation to a $6 million business with 75 employees, and the citys Grant Park-East Lake area has been transformed from derelict slum to trendy, "gentrified" neighborhood. "Gentrification with justice" is Luptons goal.
[John D. Filiatreau, "Gentrification with justice," Presbyterians Today, June 2002, 8.]
Bob Lupton has a cross on his mobile platform. So does Gale Sayers. You have probably heard of Gale Sayers, one of the best running backs in the history of college and professional football. His autobiography is called I Am Third, and it tells the story of his football days and his friendship with Brian Piccolo. The title of the book comes from Sayers personal statement of faith, which has guided him as an athlete, as a friend, and as a community leader: "The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third." I am third. That is what it means to put a cross on your mobile platform.
Second, we are asked to install a most unusual guidance system: one that is programmed with a willingness to lose our life (v. 35). This does not mean that we are supposed to be suicidal or self-destructive or reckless or crazy. Jesus is not telling us to steer our armored SUVs off the nearest cliff and destroy ourselves, like Thelma and Louise, in a ball of fire and a blaze of glory.
No, Jesus is saying that we should not value anything more highly than discipleship even our own lives. Following Jesus is our Number One priority, higher than success and security and wealth and health and power and prestige. Following Jesus means taking risks for what we know to be right. A few years ago. in southwest Kosovo, a group of monks did exactly that. At a time when Serb forces were pillaging their village, the abbot of the Serbian Orthodox monastery took in scores of the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian villagers and sheltered them within the walls of the monastery. Serb forces came looking for the townspeople, but the monks told them none were there. Christian monks lied to supposedly Christian soldiers to save the lives of Muslims. The Lord will forgive a lie for that purpose. But understand, these acts could have cost the monks their monastery, could have cost them their lives, but they were willing to lose their lives for Christs sake, and for the sake of the gospel. The abbot said later that this act was simply the "Christian thing to do. It was the human thing to do." Doing the "Christian thing." Doing the "human thing." Thats what it means to walk into the future without regard for self-preservation. When you travel in this way, you carry a weapon of salvation that can bring new life to both others and yourself.
But it is not easy. What those monks did was not easy. Being a Christian never is. Christians frequently think that if we pray enough, God will remove all trials from our lives. A family with a drug-addicted teenager might be pressured to "pray harder and the kid will come around," Perhaps they would do better to pray for the strength to care for their child and to pray for guidance in finding the right treatment and support. Better yet, they should just pray that God will intervene, and then do whatever God leads them to do.
Third, we are instructed to put some protective plating on our mobile platform, so that challenges from others wont cause us to cave in, break down, buckle under, and deny Jesus Christ (v. 38). It is not easy to stand up for our beliefs, especially in a culture that is suspicious of God-talk, hostile toward new church development and downright uninterested in Sabbath-keeping. If you want to see an example of that, try to convince the NFL to stop scheduling games on Sunday. Lots of luck!
We may take some hits when we stand up for Jesus, so a little protective plating is a good idea. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul recommends the "whole armor of God": the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation (6:13-17). These four are some super-strong and steely stuff truth, righteousness, faith, salvation and together they can serve as pieces of armor when you take your stand for what you believe.
Thus armored, we stand secure in the love of Christ. And you cannot be more secure than that. Four-year-old Jimmy was thrilled when the family got a piano. And immediately he was up on the piano bench pounding on the keys. After a while he climbed down in frustration. "Its no use!" he cried, "Jesus Loves Me just isnt there!"
He was right. Jesus is not in a piano. But Jesus loves me is in the heart and soul of every believer, and that is the best security any of us can ever have.
In the end, a true disciple of Christ has nothing to worry about. A suburban assault vehicle is not needed, nor a machine gun, nor a grenade launcher. All you need is a personal mobile platform armed with a cross, a guidance system and a little protective plating.
A medieval monk announced he would preach on "The Love of God." As the shadows fell and the light ceased to come in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered. In the darkness of the altar, the monk lighted a candle and carried it to the crucifix. First of all, he illumined the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound. In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle and left the chancel. There was nothing else to say.
What he said without speaking was that our security is in the wounded Christ on the cross. True security is found not in the best technology, nor in the most sophisticated weaponry, but in Jesus the Christ. So save your $500,000 for something else. Put your trust in a Savior, not an SUV. Amen.
James, Michelle. "Lost and found," Chester Presbyterian Web site. June 20, 1999, chesterpres.org.
Sheehan, Charles. "Road rage risky against this SUV." The Denver Post. August 8, 2002, 2A-5A.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 4/22/03