Sermon October 20th: Christ’s Challenge to Mankind

Mark 8.27ff is frequently called the turning point of Mark’s gospel, because in it Jesus talks for the first time about His crucifixion and death, and from this point on in Mark’s gospel, that event sets the mood. These verses describe an incident at Caesarea Philippi, and in the next two chapters Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, where, within a week of his arrival, He will be nailed to a cross. Next week we’ll look at His teaching on the journey, and from then to the end of the semester we’ll be looking at His arrest, trial, death and resurrection. But today I want to focus on the incident at Caesarea Philippi.

I was surprised when preparing this sermon to discover that although I’ve preached on this incident several times over the years, I’ve never preached on Mark’s account of it—and then more surprised to discover how different Mark’s account is from the one that is most often preached! The one most often preached is Matthew’s, which contains some teaching by Jesus that has proved, over the centuries, to be a huge distraction to the Christian community, and one which it would be good to put aside for a century or two. I’m referring, of course, to Jesus’s words immediately after what is often called Peter’s ‘confession’, his statement in v 29, You are the Christ. In Mark, Peter’s statement is followed by Jesus saying that He must suffer, and die, and rise again; in Matthew’s account, it is followed by Jesus’s statement Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. And I take it we all know what serious consequences have been drawn from those words by one section of the Christian church, and what passionate opposition to those consequences has been expressed by the rest of the Christian church, and what division has followed, and what sad consequences there has been for the Christian mission as a result. And of course I’d love to give you my opinion about that as I’ve done at length for every congregation I’ve served! But since it’s Mark’s gospel we are studying, I must say the absolute minimum that I can, which is this: if you were here at the beginning of the semester, you’ll remember that I gave you some evidence that in this gospel Mark is giving us Peter’s own account of Jesus’s life and work. If you weren’t here, you can read that sermon on the Pitt Episcopal Chaplaincy blog. The evidence came from someone who was active when there were still people living who would have known Mark, so he is unlikely to have said anything that was known to be untrue about him, and he tells us that Mark ‘had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard’ from Peter. And since Mark had heard Peter preaching in Rome over a considerable period, that means that Peter himself had not repeated those words of Jesus in his preaching, he did not consider Jesus’s words about Christ building His church on the rock of Peter’s confession particularly important, certainly not essential for salvation or for understanding Who Jesus was and how we respond to Him. Peter had come to understand that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah promised by God in the Old Testament, as Jesus Himself had said, and that’s what Peter preached. If Jesus built His church on that, well and good, but that was Jesus’s business, not Peter’s. Peter’s business was to proclaim Jesus, not himself or his successors, and what Mark wrote down was what Peter had preached as essential in order to know the salvation that Jesus brings to mankind. When you do study that verse in Matthew, as I trust you will, the first thing to remember as you try to understand exactly what it means is that Peter himself did not think it worth dwelling on. For Peter, it was Who Jesus is that matters, not who Peter is or who Mark is or how the Holy Spirit uses either of them. It’s man’s inability to know God, and Christ’s rôle in overcoming that inability that will change our lives, not our knowledge of the details of how Christ builds His church. So let’s join Peter in concentrating on that.

What matters to Jesus is that the world have a right understanding of who He, Jesus, is, and know how to respond to Him. He first asks the disciples, in v 27, who do people say that I am? And the disciples tell Him some of the things they have heard people say about Jesus—‘you’re Elijah or one of the prophets’, perhaps come back to life, or perhaps it’s just ‘Jesus is the new Elijah’ that they meant. ‘What about you?’ Jesus asks the disciples, and it’s Peter who answers, You are the Christ. Then Jesus immediately says, strictly charging them, Mark says, that they should say nothing to anyone about that, and proceeds to tell them that He must suffer many things and be rejected by the religious leaders of God’s own people and be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. It’s after that that we discover what Mark had heard Peter say about this incident: Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. Peter got it wrong, so wrong that Jesus even says to Peter Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man. And notice how Jesus made sure the rest of the disciples heard this, so that none of them should be in any doubt about it!  And now we see just how important to Jesus is the fact that He was going to suffer, was going to be killed, and was going to be raised: to deny it, or even to ignore it, is satanic, to have the mind on what human beings think instead of what God thinks. And Peter’s misunderstanding of this, you’ll notice, is the one thing about Peter that Peter did make clear in his preaching. Funny how those who claim to be Peter’s successors say this makes them infallible, when Peter’s own preaching stressed how fallible he was! That’s human thinking for you, and it’s why we need the word of God.

Having put Peter in his place, Jesus speaks not only to the rest of the disciples but to the crowds that were never far away, beginning (v 34) If any one would come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. This is Jesus’s challenge to all mankind; this is how to respond to His gospel. So let’s think about each of those phrases.

First, if anyone would come after me. It would be easy to believe, as many people want to believe, that what Jesus is about to say is not for everyone, but for a few. You know—Jesus brings salvation to everyone, but only calls a few to go with Him and share His ministry, and these verses are for them. Now Jesus does offer salvation to all, and He does call only some to some tasks. But that’s not what He’s doing here. When He talks about coming after Him here, He is clearly talking about accepting the salvation He brings, or rejecting it. The next two verses make that clear: whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Jesus is talking about the basic distinction between a saved soul and an unsaved one here, not the distinction between all the saved and those with special responsibilities within the community of the saved. What Jesus says here applies to everyone who would save his soul; if you want to be saved, you must be with Jesus, and if you would be with Jesus, there are three things that you must do, which He tells us in the rest of v 34.

First, He says, you must deny yourself. Deny yourself? Really? The world we live in says fulfil yourself, express yourself, respect yourself, take a pride in yourself, take care of yourself, make something of yourself, enjoy yourself. Jesus says the very opposite of all of them: deny yourself, refuse yourself. Remember His words about what was in the human heart. Everything sinful in human beings, He said, comes from the heart. It’s not imposed from outside, it’s not the result of our upbringing or the lives we’ve led, it’s who we really are. What’s in our hearts, our own real nature, is what comes between us and God. That is our real self, and if we are to be saved from the consequences of sin that sinful self must be denied—not in the sense of pretending it doesn’t exist, but in the sense of repudiating it, turning our back on it.

The gospel of self-esteem preached by so many today makes it very difficult to hear what Jesus is saying here. I find it sad that a Christian Sunday School curriculum, published by a company owned by a church, lists “building the child’s self-esteem” as the most important thing about its curriculum; only second is “helping children understand Jesus’s teaching”. One of those two phrases ought to go, because if you’re going to help children understand Jesus’s teaching, you’re not going to build their self-esteem, you’re going to teach them that they’re sinners, just like their parents, and need salvation, just like their parents. This is diametrically opposed to the values of the world, but we often forget how radical the gospel is, how deeply opposed it is to the society in which we are to live by it. Deny yourself.

Then comes take up [your] cross. Now a little bit of background is essential here: crucifixion was a common punishment in the Roman world, it was carried out publicly, and most people hearing these words at the time they were first spoken would have seen a crucifixion two or three times by the time they grew up. So everybody hearing Jesus knew what was involved, and we must too if we’re to understand Jesus here. One of the things involved was the practice of having the person to be crucified carry the cross, or part of it, to the place of execution. Jesus carried His own cross part of the way to the place of His own execution (John 19:17), but was apparently too weakened by the beating He had received to finish the journey, and a bystander was ordered to carry it the rest of the way. But the condemned man’s task of carrying the heavy cross-beam to the place of execution was part of the punishment. ‘Take up your cross’ doesn’t mean just any old unpleasant thing: ‘we all have our cross to bear,’ we say, when we hear about someone with a particular difficulty. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. Remember how He told the disciples that He must be killed, and He has called Peter satanic for contradicting that; Jesus’s own death is the context for this remark. And carrying the cross was the ultimate symbol for cooperating with one’s own death, it was the ancient equivalent of digging one’s own grave. Jesus is underlining the commandment to deny oneself, pushing it to the extreme: self-denial is something that strikes at the very heart of who we think we are, and many of us, the first time we think seriously about denying ourselves, react by thinking ‘He’s talking about me being a totally different person—that’d be the death of me.’ And Jesus says, ‘Yes, I do mean it, here’s how seriously I mean it: deny yourself, turn your back on your sinful self and take up your cross, dig the grave of that sinful self.’ Jesus’s hearers would have understood it in this sense, and it is how we must hear it too. Not only is He asking us to give up being who we are, He is asking us walk willingly the path that leads to that. The rest of the New Testament amplifies this theme: put to death… what is earthly in you (Col 3:5); if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13); our old self was crucified with Him so that… we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:6).

The third step that Jesus talks about is to follow Him. If any one would come after me let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. Now Jesus is not simply repeating Himself here: ‘if anyone wants to come after Me, let him follow Me.’ Jesus uses two different words, and the word translated follow means not only ‘go with’ but ‘learn from, become a disciple of’: to follow Jesus in this sense is to believe and carry out His teaching. A follower of Jesus Christ is someone who knows Christ’s teachings, believes them to be true, and who is learning to live by them. That’s what Jesus says He wants: when He sent the apostles out to tell the world the good news that human sin had been atoned for on the cross and human hearts could be cleansed, he told them to make disciples… baptize them… and to teach them all that I have commanded you. To follow Him is to know what He teaches and to live by it.

The question is, will we follow Him? Will we let Him change us? His promise is that this giving up of the old, sinful self is not the death that it sounds. That’s the point of v 35: whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. All those of us who have made that renunciation of self can tell you that what Jesus says is true: we became more our God-given selves when we gave up our sinful selves and became Jesus’s followers than we could ever have dreamed possible when we were trying to find ourselves, fulfil ourselves, please ourselves. If you’ve never experienced that great change that is being born again, I urge you to seek it now. If it’s a change that happened in you a long time ago, but doesn’t seem to have made much difference to you lately, remember the way Luke reports these words: take up your cross daily. Pick up where you left off when you were becoming what God created you to be. For what will it profit you if you gain everything else you ever wanted, if you fulfil yourself totally, and have to give up your soul in the end?

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