save church…or follow jesus

MARK 8:34—37

34 Jesus 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?

It’s so easy to forget.  The crowd Jesus spoke to in Mark 8 didn’t know he was heading toward Jerusalem to die.  They simply followed him, listening to his teaching and witnessing his miracles.

In the verses before, Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer and die at the hands of the church.  This sets the stage for the moments of truth he was about to share with the crowd in front of his disciples.  But, the crowd didn’t hear that prior discussion.  Jesus was only talking to his disciples.  Peter was at the center of it.

Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do say that I am?”  Peter responded with divine insight, but with lack of understanding.  “You are the Messiah,”  Peter said.  (Mark 8:29)    Jesus took advantage of the moment and tried to help his disciples see what only God and spiritual wisdom could see.    Jesus must suffer and be killed.  Death is at the heart of the Gospel, of salvation, and resurrection.  It was the only way God could vindicate God’s faithfulness, fulfill the Law, and save the faith.   But, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such things.  (Mark 8:32)     Yet, Jesus rebuked Peter even stronger.  “Get behind me Satan!,” he exclaimed.  (Mark 8:33)

“Satan?”   Jesus used this name to tell Peter what his words meant.  The name “Satan” in the text literally means obstacle or adversary.  That is why Jesus says, “Get behind me!”    Jesus was on an anxious and profound journey to Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish faith and identity.  He needed the obstacles and opposition behind him.   He was on a purposeful mission.    His disciples where is pupils, as well as his friends.  And Peter had his mind on human things, not divine things.

So Jesus, turns to the crowd and cries out in a stern tone.  His words almost have the tone of frustration.   They were certainly words for his disciples.  To the crowd, it must have sounded like riddles.

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.

Imagine what the crowd must have been thinking.  Has this man, Jesus, gone mad?  What does he mean?  Trying to save your life means you’ll lose it?    Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and only he seemed to see what that meant.

For the writer of Mark, this whole scene with Jesus, Peter, his disciples, and the crowd was an exercise in  divine revelation.    Mark is desperately trying to convey something very difficult to understand to earthly understanding, but that his followers needed to know.  We, Christians, still struggle to fully grasp the meaning of Jesus’ most essential but paradoxical teachings.   He was driving home one of the most important truths of his life: the real meaning of “Follow me.”

The crowd must have just felt bewildered.  It was something even the disciples struggled to understand.

Just because we know the end of the story, this does not mean we fully understand what Jesus was trying to say to the disciples and the crowd that day.    Even if we feel like we understand the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, it doesn’t mean we fully know what Jesus was trying to say to us in those words today.   Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Christian theologian and resistor of Nazi Germany, stated it so dramatically clear:  “When Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship)

Jesus was talking to a crowd of Jews and Gentiles, as well as his disciples.  So, we might consider what his words mean to us, not just as individuals but also as a people – as a church.   I believe we are going through a time in the history of our movement when Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34-37 can provide a guiding like for the future.  They define our prophetic challenge.  As we confront waves of change in terms of our belief and identity, Jesus’ words define both the challenge and the promise of our journey through time.

If you want to save your life, you will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  Take up your cross.  Follow me.

“Follow me” meant, literally, in Jesus’ time – become my disciple.  Do what I do.  Hear what I say.  Take my path.  Leave your nets, your family, your identity…leave it behind.  I am God’s revelation.   I am the fullness of God’s faithfulness and God’s word.  You will learn it through me.

The disciples knew they didn’t have everything figured out and nailed down.   So do disciples know that, today.  Disciples know they don’t yet have the fullness of the gospel.  Disciples ask questions in order to learn and understand, not to argue and be supreme or right.   Consider the dialogues Jesus had between Peter and the ones he had with the Pharisees.  Peter kept asking, getting redirected, and still didn’t get it right.  At the foot of the cross, Peter even denied him.    But, Peter was the Rock Jesus chose to build his church upon.   In Acts 2, after Jesus finally did ascend, Peter gives the first sermon of the Christian church.  He finally sees what he could not see before.  It is only after Jesus – the fullness of the Gospel – is gone.   The eyes of his soul and mind are renewed.  Understanding is opened.  It is he who must profess Jesus Christ.  The teacher is gone and now the disciples must live as he lived and teach what he taught.  Thousands joined the movement that day.  It was just the beginning.

…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.

In our congregations, we can worry about our future or the future of the church.  We can take comfort in the personal belief that we have the fullness of the Gospel or fullness of faith.  We can concern ourselves with keeping church leaders at bay or trying to keep “the world” out of our sanctuaries.  We can turn suspicious eyes against culture, ‘liberals,’ ‘conservatives’ and worldly ways.   We can take comfort in our priesthood authority, believe we know and understand what we need to know about Zion, righteousness, or the fullness of the gospel.  We can assure ourselves that we know what it means to bear Jesus’ name, live his message and teach his teachings.  We can be comfortable with ourselves as a church….

….or, we can allow the shock the disciples felt seep into our minds.  We can let the awe and bewilderment that the crowd felt seep into our souls.  What does he mean?

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.

What would it profit us to retain our priesthood authority, keep our identity, keep the questions of the world and its uncomfortable issues out of our minds and churches?  What if we gain the church, but the church loses its life?   What can we give in return for life?

To be Jesus’ disciple, Jesus only asked that we leave what we know behind and offer our new lives to him.  This doesn’t take certainty or self-assurance.  It takes faith.


6 responses to “save church…or follow jesus

  1. Yep – Jesus asked the question – “What price would you be willing to pay for your soul?” Interesting proposition then that the price would be our life in “exchange” for our soul. Provocative thoughts, Matt. Well-structured. Although, us RLDS-ers of old would say that the Rock Jesus was referring to was the rock of revelation, and that the revelation of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, not a man.

    Bonhoeffer’s words you quote have always had the power to reach deeply into me, and to challenge me. Thanks for sharing, as always.

  2. Another good blog. I thought the same thing as Doug did about “the rock”. However as you put it so well, we need to leave what we think we know behind and move out in faith in following Jesus. Another thought, do we die a physical death or a spiritual death in order to give our life to Christ? I mean, when we are filled with the Holy Spirit and accept Jusus as our Lord, do we let our old self die and become new in Him? Just another way to look at what He might have meant.

  3. Thanks again Matt for your words. I appreciate the dialogue that has already been started here. I think Bonhoeffer’s words, “When Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die,” are so true to the heart of Christianity and the cycle of our lives (congregationally and individually). Birth is followed by life, work, family, etc. Life is followed by more life and then death. And death is the scary part for all of us. Our society (and our denomination) are so fearful of death that we make these concessions to remain immortal, only to lose our souls in the process. The inverse is also true, that if you “seek to lose your life, you’ll gain it.” I’m reminded of the time when I first found out I had cancer and the terror/fear/etc. of that phone call. For me it was death sentence. And there was a lot of things that I could have done and to a certain I did them all…denial? self-pity? rationalize it away? and everything in between? I believe that the church has gotten that phone call. The research/verdict is out–we’re getting smaller and smaller. Now what will we do?
    It took me a while, but I learned/discovered that there was more in me than just flesh and blood and tumor. There was courage and something else that inspired me to live and willing to die with grace. I believe something similar is true for the church. It might take us a while longer, but there is something about us that inspires us to live and die with some grace. You can call that “rock” whatever you want, but we lose something when we try to define our “wonder”.
    blessings & courage,

  4. I think there’s more than one way to understand “take up your cross and follow….” It could well mean to offer our lives as a sacrifice, just as Jesus was sacrificed. That leads us down a familiar theological road dealing with “Paschal Lamb” and “atonement” and a lot of other things. But perhaps it can also mean to “confront the powers and principalities,” in society and in the church. And those powers are indeed in the church: institutional certainty, a top-down authority structure, survival as an end in itself, and “waiting for the prophet to tell us what to do” (which essentially is how priesthood ordination was opened to women). Those are just the first four that come to mind.
    These two possible approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, of course.

  5. Pingback: it’s not about tithing, but it is about the money… « Matt Frizzell online

  6. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Christian theologian and resistor of Nazi Germany, stated it so dramatically clear: “When Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die.”’

    Rereading this quote from your post, Matt, it occurs to me that Jesus is not bidding us to come and die, because dying is a part of life. But He is bidding us to die for SOMETHING instead of the meaninglessness of dying for NOTHING.

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