The Hard Cost of Discipleship

Whenever I hear the gospel passage we read today, I just want to ask, Peter, what were you thinking? Just a day or two earlier you aced the exam and got a gold star on top of it because you realized who Jesus was, that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ. And now you had to go and spoil all that because Jesus decided to make clear what being the Messiah really meant. Rather than keeping quiet and thinking about what Jesus had said about being rejected and undergoing suffering and ultimately being put to death and then rising again, you had to open your mouth and let loose. Did you think somehow this would change things? That Jesus would come to his senses after you set him straight? Did you expect him to say, “My bad. I take it all back. Peter here is right. Now who’s got the weapons so we can sack the Romans?” Or did you just not think at all and start rambling on with your heart running out ahead of your brain?

A sermon on Mark 8:31-38.

Whatever it was, because of you we have no excuse. Jesus made it very clear what it means for him to be the Messiah and what it means for us to follow him. Crosses and death. Denying ourselves and losing our lives. He spelled it all out for anyone who wants to follow him, and it hasn’t gotten any easier in 2000 years. It’s still just as hard and off-putting now as it was then. Because let me tell you what we really want most in our day and age is indeed to gain the whole world. To have it all. To find ourselves out in front, making a boatload of cash, and receiving all sorts of accolades. But maybe that’s not too far off from what you all wanted too. Maybe less of the individual stuff but still the power and prestige. Having your enemies get their comeuppance. Finally being able to do what you want.

And Jesus just says it plainly: If any want to be my followers, they need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Theologian W. Hulitt Gloer declares that “Jesus could not have chosen a more vivid image.” He writes, “In first-century Palestine, the cross meant one thing: death, the cruel, torturous death that awaited any who dared threaten Caesar’s kingdom. Indeed, the Romans put up crosses like billboards advertising Caesar’s supremacy and the fate of any who dared challenge it. Jesus’ hearers knew exactly what taking up the cross meant.” He then details how in the year 6 CE, the Romans crucified two thousand insurrectionists in Galilee, the same area where Jesus grew up. They knew all right.

Which might be why they—like us—hope to find another way. And that way is the easy way. That somehow we can magically become disciples without much effort or intention. That it won’t cost us too much. But love always costs us something. 

These past few years I’ve been thinking a lot about what that love cost God when God created the cosmos. I believe God’s first act was zimzum—that concept put forth by Jewish mystic Isaac Luria in the 17th century—God’s self-withdrawal from within God’s very being to form the space—the nothingness—into which God could then call forth the universe. The act of zimzum required self-giving love because before that moment in primordial history only God existed, and God was everywhere all at once. And so in order to open up the space, God had to contract, pull back, and give of Godself, and that cost God a great deal. Both German theologian Jürgen Moltmann and Anglican priest W.H. Vanstone connect that self-giving at creation to Jesus’ emptying of himself to be born as a human. God’s act of creation was intensely and fully a giving of love on behalf of others, as was Jesus coming to humankind to offer his life. And he calls all who follow him to embody that same self-giving love too. He invites us to embrace zimzum.

To offer ourselves for others.

Now a point of clarification is in order before we get into the how. For those who are women—or others who are marginalized—often this self-sacrifice is seen as the giving up of their personhood. To deny themselves to the point where they no longer exist. Let me be clear: that is not the way of Jesus. In no way should our taking up of our crosses or offering ourselves to one another lead to our own diminishment, but rather it should lead only to our flourishing. Not as the world sees flourishing through power and force, but becoming most fully the people God has always created us to be, fully living into our unique calling to bring love and joy and peace and justice to our world. The idea that we must lose everything about ourselves to the point of our own complete degradation is anti-Christ.

So, how then are we to live? How do we become Jesus’ disciples? It comes down to finding our truest selves through the redemption of Jesus. Which is a convoluted way of saying we must offer our desires and wants to him daily. To say in our prayers, this ambition or title or status or object or person or financial well-being that I desire for myself, God I give it to you. Everything that you have entrusted me with, my career and family and finances and skills and passions, may they be used to bring your kingdom into the here and now. To be used to heal the world. To be given to bring life to another human being or restoration to our planet. To become most truly one who embodies grace and mercy and compassion and humility.

And that will take practice and work and intentionality. It’ll be like taking up a cross and following Jesus on the Way. “Yes, yes,” you might be thinking, “but how do I do this? Give me something particular.” And my answer to you is simply this question: What is it in your own life that you hold onto and guard most intensely? What do you think you would find great difficulty to offer back to God if asked?

For Abraham, we know that answer. It was his son, Isaac. We heard about the beginning of that today in our lesson. Abraham had been promised many years earlier that he would have a son, and now God was telling him that it would finally happen when he was 100 and Sarah 90 years old—as good as dead, according to St. Paul. Imagine their joy and laughter at the birth of that long-awaited child—Isaac means “laughter,” by the way—and then some years later Abraham is told by God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham isn’t too caught off guard at this—human sacrifice would likely have been known to happen in other religious cults—so he simply responds in faith. Isaac, a young man by this time, is confused as to why they aren’t taking an animal to offer to God, to which Abraham replies, “God will provide.” And God ultimately did provide a ram, but only after Abraham had bound his son to offer him back to God. Abraham, by faith, was able to hold out to God that which he most loved and held onto in his life. 

So let me ask it again: What is it in your own life that you hold onto most tightly? What is it that you’d be hard-pressed to give away if asked? Could you offer that to God to be used for God’s kingdom?

Maybe it’s singing, or your bank account, or a cherished item in your home. Is it a skill you’re most proud of, or the title you have, or something else? Or maybe it’s a vice or addiction or secret thing that is a big part of who you are that you wish weren’t? What is it that if you no longer had it, you’d essentially lose your life? Then ask simply how you could hold whatever that is more loosely or forgo it forever if need be. How you could intentionally open up space in your life around this—that is, embrace zimzum—and offer it in love for others and give it back to God.

We try to embody this when we give up something we cherish for Lent. We try to say to God I can let go of chocolate or wine or gluten or meat or ice cream for a season to draw closer to you. I want to show that I depend fully on you, God. It’s not easy even at this scale. It’s somewhat costly. But then come Easter, we get it back and find delight in that item once more. And, therein lies, I believe, a great truth. For when we offer up that which is most dear to us to God, often what we get in return is something all the more fulfilling and dear. I think when we offer ourselves in love to others, we end up finding ourselves more fully than we could have ever imagined. And in the process, become more fully followers and disciples of Jesus, the one who did suffer and die and was indeed raised from the dead so that we all might encounter everlasting life. May it be so.

Image by Gábor Bejó from Pixabay.

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