Sunday, March 4, 2012

Faith-full Discipleship

If there’s something we might think long and hard about during Lent, it’s the cost of being a disciple of Jesus.  He himself knew the cost. Mark wrote his account of the Gospel 40 years or so after Jesus’ death, at a time when hope within the Christian community may have been fading.  In perhaps the most difficult passage in all Scripture for us modern believers to understand in the context of the first-century Church, Mark writes (Mk 8:31-38) that “[Jesus] said this bluntly...”: that the Son of Man, God’s anointed, must suffer many things; be rejected by his community’s civil and religious leaders; and be killed in order to rise again.
Jesus’ followers can’t comprehend this.  Peter, who only moments before had acknowledged Jesus as “the Christ”, in the name of all the other Apostles, doesn’t want to hear this.  He and the others don’t understand the mission. The common idea of the Messiah at that time was of a powerful leader who would overthrow Israel’s enemies with the “shock and awe” of military might; who would purify worship at the Temple; as well as one who would make Israel the exemplary People of God: economically, politically, and spiritually.  What Jesus was now saying didn’t measure up to Peter’s or the others’ expectations. What is the price one has to pay to have faith in Jesus, to set one’s heart on him, to be his disciple? I suggest at least three things.

1) To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means to measure people and reality by God’s standards, not by human standards.
Mark writes: “...Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Out of my sight, Satan [adversary]! You do not have in mind the things of God, but human things.’”  Self-centered blindness and lack of understanding is the “human thing” here.  The issue is clearly between God’s standards and ours. As all followers of Jesus throughout the ages, you and I struggle to live our faith in a society and a world which seems intent on honoring just about everything, except the self-sacrificing, self-giving service which Jesus modeled in his life.  Just as Peter, we presume that God should deal with evil as we do, namely, by not dealing with it.  Like Peter and the others, we really don’t like to dwell much on the suffering Jesus, or on the Cross.  Much less do we choose to deal with it when it touches our own lives.  We’d rather reject it, deny it, run away from it, get it over with as quickly as possible if we must deal with it, even if resurrection is ultimately promised.  To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means to measure people and reality by God’s standards, not by human standards. 

2) To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means to expect a fate no better than Jesus’ fate. 
Mark relates Jesus’ message to hearers of his own time who, by then, would have be very familiar with the threat to their movement of the confiscation and destruction of their own property, and of the possibility of experiencing martyrdom because of their beliefs.  “If anyone would come after me, you must deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.  For if you want to save your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for me and for the gospel, you will save it.”  To deny oneself involves setting aside all those favored ties which hold me back from committing myself to Jesus wholeheartedly.  Jesus poses two rhetorical questions in the Gospel:  1) “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit one’s soul (life)?” 2) “What can a person give in exchange for one’s soul (life)?”  
Jesus challenges our continual attempts to preserve ourselves and protect our own interests. He exposes the futility of our trying to secure our lives through trust in wealth and power, to surround ourselves with material possessions, to cling to other people in selfish, possessive, dominating relationships. It’s as though we presume that we can somehow evade inconvenience, suffering, and, eventually, death by clinging for dear life to the “good life”, that we can be in control of every aspect of our life.  We foolishly run from the sure knowledge that ultimately all those things and people will have to be given up and let go.  What is it so worth protecting that makes us so terrified of handing our lives over to Jesus in faith??  Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us...”
To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means to expect a fate no better than Jesus’ fate. 

3) To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means standing in solidarity and loyalty to him, whatever the challenge to our discipleship. 
Jesus‘ warning is uncompromising.  Whoever is ashamed of Jesus to the point of denying him is “selling out” before God.  St. Paul, in Romans 8, asks what could possibly justify denying our loving God.  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”  Is there anything in our experience which could cause us to deny that Man on the Cross?? Paul responds to his own question: “No,...For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Nothing could merit our utter devotion as much as the living God who, not sparing even the Son, “gave him up for us all”; nor as much as God’s beloved only Son, Jesus, “who loved us.To be a faith-full disciple of Jesus means standing in solidarity and loyalty to him, whatever the challenge to our discipleship. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis during World War II, a truly faithful and courageous disciple of Jesus, left us this moving testimony in his book The Cost of Discipleship:  “ ...Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected.  This ‘must’ is inherent in the promise of God -- the Scripture must be fulfilled... Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as [one] shares [the] Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion...If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life.  We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering...It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection...for the sake of Christ...The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross... Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ...

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