Perfect Freedom

Sermon for March 1, 2015 ||  Lent 2, Year B ||  Genesis 17: 1-7, 16-17; Psalm 22: 22-30; Romans 4: 13-25; Mark 8: 31-38 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Mark 8: 34

In a culture that makes a commodity of self-fulfillment, who wants to hear about self-denial? And in an economy that pays a premium for leaders, who wants to be a follower of anyone—much less someone who says flat-out to expect suffering as part of the package?

Today’s gospel is about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It’s about what it means to live life as a Christian, then and now. And it’s about freedom and joy!

Peter is chastised by Jesus—rather unfairly it may seem to us—for setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things…for looking at the world from a human, rather than a divine perspective. This is hardly surprising. Peter is, after all, human; one can hardly blame him for not enthusiastically embracing the horrifying news that his beloved friend—the one he has just named out loud as the Messiah— is going to undergo great suffering and be killed!

So if you’ve ever doubted the humanity of Christ, here it is in Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. It would’ve been so much nicer, so much more compassionate, so much more—well, Christ-like—if Jesus had said something loving to Peter like, “You poor thing, I know how hard it must be for you to accept this…” But no, Jesus barks angrily, at Peter, “Get behind me Satan!”

Now, some scholars rationalize Jesus’ harsh rebuke by blaming Peter for it. They say Peter was motivated less by his love for Jesus than by his own expectations of the Messiah and the rude realization that Jesus wasn’t going to live up to those expectations. So they conclude, like Sarah Henrich of Luther Seminary, that this story is meant to teach us “it’s a dangerous business to limit God’s way of being in the world to what we desire.” And certainly that’s true. If Jesus had been the kind of militant Messiah most first century Jews wanted and anticipated, we would still be bound by the powers of sin, evil, and death. It’s a good thing Peter didn’t get his way. Not only does God sometimes appear to do or not do things contrary to the way we think He should, but in fact, God often does things that turn out to be far more wonderful, far more life-giving, than anything we could possibly have imagined.

It is an equally dangerous business to limit God’s way of being in the world to what we can understand. Regardless of his motive for not wanting Jesus to die, Peter doesn’t understand how or why such a death could possibly be necessary. And frequently, neither do we. As the prophet Isaiah says elsewhere in scripture,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

What seemed like folly from a human perspective was the salvation of the world from God’s. So we do well not to judge.

And regardless of what motive we attribute to Peter’s outburst, or how harshly we hear Jesus’ rebuke in response to it, one thing is clear in this gospel lesson: Mark wants us to hear loud and clear that in order to be faithful followers of Jesus, and not just fair weather friends, we have absolutely got to learn how to see things from the divine perspective, and not just through the limited lens of our human vision.

Which of course begs the question: How can we, anymore than Peter, be expected to do that?

Thankfully, the gospel tells us how–by doing two very counter-intuitive but life-giving things–denying ourselves and picking up our cross. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But it’s only when we deny the powerful pull of self, with its plethora of fear-based demands and compulsions, that we have the interior freedom to set our minds on divine things and so to courageously follow wherever Jesus leads–despite the many “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that may or may not come our way.

To give you a very small but very concrete example of what I mean, when I first got my recent diagnosis of breast cancer, I was scared to death. And the more I set my mind on “human things”, i.e. my self-centered fears, the smaller and darker my world became. But as soon as I began to pray through those fears—as soon as I sat down alone and spent time in silence with God—my perspective began to change immediately. It opened up and expanded. I saw that by nudging me to get an exam, God had protected me from a much worse diagnosis. I saw that while this journey will be a difficult one, I will be a better priest, wife, mother and friend because of it. I saw that God is in this everywhere, and that if I stay focused on Him instead of me, there will be gifts in this journey I can’t even begin to imagine. And I saw that Jesus will be right there with me the entire way, leading me into ever greater freedom from self, and into ever greater freedom to follow.

This is the on-going Christian journey. By dying to self, we are born into Christ, and there’s not a cross in the world too heavy for us to bear when that happens.  Because when we set our mind on divine things and not on human things—when we set our mind on God instead of on self—we can bear anything, and I mean anything.

Of course none of us can do this anywhere near perfectly. We fall and we stumble, and for every two steps forward we take one step back. Yet with a little determination and a lot of grace, we make progress. We die more and more to self-will, and find new life in God’s will. We die more and more to self-interest, and focus increasingly on God’s interests. Gradually we die to self-reliance, and embrace our reliance on God. And slowly but surely, for at least part of each day, we are God-centered, rather than me-centered.

It is a radically different way of being in the world. Being a follower of Jesus goes totally against the grain of individualism, consumerism, careerism and materialism. Because it’s not about self-love, it’s about self-giving love. It’s not about self-fulfillment, it’s about self-denial. It’s not about acquiring power, it’s about accepting one’s powerlessness.

Being a follower of Jesus is about being guided by faith rather than driven by fear…and the only way to do that, our gospel this morning tells us, is by setting our minds on divine things and not on human ones.

It’s really not all about us. And there is so much freedom in living into that truth! It’s like we say in the St. Francis Prayer “…it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to new life.”

Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might reconcile the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant us the grace to take up our cross and follow him in whose service lies perfect freedom, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

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