The audio of today’s sermon for Lent 2 is now on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.
“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 tells us that Jesus made this declaration not just to his disciples, but he made sure that the whole crowd was gathered ’round. We’ve jumped our way through Mark’s Gospel since the Epiphany, so it is kind of hard to tell what’s been going on. Let’s review. We’ve heard how Jesus called his first disciples away from their fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee. We’ve also heard how Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and the whole city of Capernaum came to see what he was up to. From there, Jesus went from town to town, preaching the good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons. His fame spread and his followers grew until in chapter three, Mark says that “a great multitude followed him from all around.”
Jesus’ ministry continued to flourish with only a small hiccup in his hometown of Nazareth. By the time we get to chapter 6, the crowd following Jesus had grown to more than five thousand men, not counting women and children. Some scholars suggest that there were upwards of twenty-thousand followers of Jesus at the height of his popularity, so when Jesus invites the crowd to gather ‘round, we’re talking lots and lots of people. Clearly Jesus didn’t study marketing in Hebrew school as even the least business savvy person on earth would know that you don’t take advantage of huge popularity by making massive demands of your followers. Take up your cross? Lose your life? This is not the stuff of church growth textbooks, and yet it is the very core of the Gospel message.
Remember way back to chapter one. At the very outset of his ministry, Jesus made it clear what he was going to be about, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Following Jesus requires repentance and belief, which means, as Jesus says in our lesson for today, a complete change of life. Jesus uses provocative language as he speaks to a crowd of thousands to let them know that following him isn’t going to lead them to fame, fortune, or cushy cabinet positions. Peter didn’t get that, and he got called Satan. Jesus wants everyone to know that following him means a complete identity change.
“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.” As relatively comfortable, 21st century, American Christians, these words from Jesus can be hard to wrap our minds around. Recent events by ISIS in Iraq and Syria have given us an idea of what extreme persecution and martyrdom look like, but here in the States, we are free to worship at any of our roughly three-hundred-fourteen-thousand churches. The biggest sacrifice the average Christian makes to follow Jesus in 21st century America is giving up one day of sleeping-in every two or three weeks. Giving up our lives for the sake of the Gospel seems impossible and ridiculous all rolled up into one luke-warm cup of coffee-hour coffee. So what are we to do? How are we to be faithful disciples in a world where being a Christian is so dadgum easy?
Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is asking for in this morning’s Gospel. He doesn’t want our lives, per se, but instead, he’s seeking after our selves, our souls and bodies. “Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul four times in three verses.” The NRSV translates the Greek word “psuche” as life throughout verses 35-37, but the underlying meaning is closer to soul or self. “Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God. If Jesus is who we Christians say he is… then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls. After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place.”
In its original context, Jesus’ language is intentionally provocative. He wants people to realize just how difficult it will be to be his disciples as they head toward Jerusalem, but he isn’t suggesting that they all become martyrs for his cause, though some of them will. Instead, he is inviting the crowd to think long and hard about who they are and whose they are. He’s inviting them, and us, to repent and to change our primary identity away from me, myself, and I and toward the kingdom of God. Jesus is inviting us to think no longer about our own selfish desires, but instead to put God and neighbor first.
My friend, Keith Voets, wrote an article for this month’s Anglican Digest in which he told Delores Hart’s story of selflessness. Delores was born in Chicago in 1938. By age 11, she had moved with her family to the glitz and glamor of Beverly Hills. At 19, she made her film debut in Loving You staring Elvis Presley. That film, and more specifically, her giving Elvis his first on-screen kiss, catapulted Delores into stardom. She starred in nine more films over the next five years, when in 1963 she stunned Hollywood, announcing that she would leave the movie star life to enter a Roman Catholic convent. The Rev. Mother Delores Hart is now 76 years old and the Prioress at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.
As Father Voets writes, “Delores Hart gave up a life that many can only dream of: fame, fortune, and glamour. She seemed to have it all, and yet, realized she did not. Delores Hart, pulled by the Holy Spirit, decided to sacrifice it all so that she could serve God through a life of humility, poverty, prayer, and hospitality.” Like the call to martyrdom, Delores Hart’s call to become a Religious is a one that none of us will probably hear, but her example of giving up life and self for the Kingdom of God is one worth knowing. Jesus calls us all to be faithful to him, no matter the cost. He invites us to lay down the identity we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves: intelligent, attractive, athletic, funny, gainfully employed, good parent, caring friend, charming party host, comfortably retired, you name it, Jesus invites us to hand over our carefully crafted identities to take on the only identity that really matters, beloved disciple and child of God.
The massive crowd that followed Jesus began to dwindle after this short speech. He continued to predict his arrest, death, and resurrection. He made more difficult demands, and he upset the religious and political powers that be. Following Jesus became harder by the hour until one day, a Friday we call Good, when only a handful of women, his Mother, and one disciple followed him to the place of the skull where he was crucified as a traitor to Rome. The good news for the disciples who ran scared, the crowd that lost interest, and we who struggle to give our lives over for the sake of the Gospel is that in laying down his life, Jesus opened the flood gates of God’s grace. Each time we fail to follow him. Each time we choose our life over the gospel. Each time we try to fit God into our plans, we can receive forgiveness and enter again into the new life of grace that comes through Jesus who laid down his life for the sake of the gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Mark 3:7-8 (author’s paraphrase)
 “Lights! Camera! Action! A Life of Faith and Service” p. 29-31. Accessed on 2/26/15 http://www.scribd.com/doc/253532100/2015-01-SPRING
 Ibid., p. 29