Mark 8:31-38 Letting go

Lent 2 – March 4, 2012

It’s the second Sunday of Lent and we are heading toward Jerusalem. We are traveling this journey of death and resurrection as Christians have done for centuries: immersing ourselves in biblical stories that tell us who our God is, who we are and what we have to do with each other. It’s an odd and often counter-cultural practice.

One of the reasons this seems so odd is that we are surrounded by competing stories that often use similar language but say very different things. The most common one begins: “the bible says God helps those who help themselves.”  Ben Franklin was a fine fellow no doubt, but he was neither a Christian nor a Jew and he didn’t know his bible either.

There is another deeply held notion that God has a special liking for good people and particular disdain for bad. So, of course, you better be good for goodness sake. Again, I have nothing against Santa Claus but he has nothing to do with the bible’s description of the wholly undomesticated God who freely calls Moses, (a murderer) Jacob, (a swindler), or Abram and Sarai, (old and barren) not to mention Jesus who brings salvation to the house Zaccheus, who earned all his money by fraud, or welcomes the prodigal home, along with all the other outcasts. More often than not, and without our permission, it’s the bad people whom God calls to do good things by God’s power not their own. The bible calls that grace, and it has nothing to do our abilities. It depends solely upon God’s wide mercy, which is a far cry from Ben Franklin and Santa Claus.

Jews and Christians share this counter-cultural story. Abraham stands in the story as the one who lives by faith in God’s promise. Faith is precisely the point, says the Apostle Paul. Every attempt we make to prove ourselves worthy before God results in emptiness or despair. It’s often called the rat race; a disturbing image for beloved human beings who are created in the image of God.

But here is the good news: we are not destined for a rat race, trying to prove ourselves worthy before a distant God. Our scriptures tell us that God brings forth life from barrenness and blessings abound for all. Saint Paul goes further: the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the sign of God’s promise to bring blessings to all the nations. In Jesus Christ, this same God, who brings forth blessings from barrenness, brings forth life from the dead. We are destined for wholeness in Jesus Christ, through whom all the nations are blessed.

But, we’ve lost this vision of blessings at the heart of our story. I remember a sad day when a friend said being a Christian just wasn’t for him anymore. He now considered self-denial to be a destructive way of living that caused him way too much guilt.

Like many others he drank the poison that “being a Christian is only about squashing your feelings, doing your duty and soldiering on regardless. It leads eventually to chronic exhaustion, cynicism, depression or drink – or all four. That is the well-recognized condition known as burn-out, and when we get into that, nothing about it conveys Good News to anyone.”# The poison killed him. Instead of self-denial, he was practicing self-annihilation.

But, there is another kind of self-denial that Thomas Merton described as the death of the false self whose dying actually allows the true self to come to fruition. This is death and resurrection. “Those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will gain their life,” says Jesus. “Those who hang to their lives, will actually lose life. What in the world can anyone give in exchange for life?”  This is Jesus’ upside down way of living and it takes a lot of practice to learn. We call this practice discipleship and it always comes with a cross.

Peter seems to realize this and initially rejects the path that Jesus will take. We understand his actions, even identify with him because we too find it hard to walk in the way of Christ. It leads from a way of life where self-interest is primary to one concern for the well being of others comes first. It’s a counter-intuitive path of letting go. Jesus says this letting go self-preservation actually makes us fully alive and fully mature selves in God.

This is Christian discipleship – the way of the cross. The longer we walk this way of letting go, the less confusing it is. Over ordinary time our daily practice of discipleship shapes how we act in the moment.

I have a vivid memory of a father and his daughters who were caught in an ocean riptide. While the four of them desperately tried to make it back to the shore, the father noticed his daughter Amy failing, so he turned around to help her. Neither made it back. The Washington Post article described it as a father’s final act of love. At the funeral his brother-in-law said, “at least his family and friends will know that he died because he loved enough to give his life helping another.”

God forbid that you or I ever be in such an extreme place, yet the shape of this man’s life is worth remembering; if for no other reason that our lives have a moral direction, too. We learn this by following Jesus. Yet, it often seems daunting, if not impossible; much as my friend said. Saint Paul helps us understand this as grace at work within us.

It is a way of faith not in our own virtue or moral strength, but in Jesus Christ, who gave his life that we may have life abundant. This is grace. Letting go, we gain life.

This is discipleship and into this life of letting go, we welcome our friends who are joining the Church today.