Extreme Discipleship - A Lenten sermon: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004
February 25 2004 by Tony W. Cartledge

Extreme Discipleship - A Lenten sermon: Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004
Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2004

Extreme Discipleship - A Lenten sermon

By Tony W. Cartledge
Mark 8:31-38

Risky Business

Have you noticed the new popularity of "extreme sports"? It's not enough to go biking - you have to go biking up and down the side of a mountain that has real cliffs and no trails. It's not enough to go mountain climbing - you have to do it without a safety rope or pitons. It's not enough to go snowboarding, you have to drop out of a helicopter and "airboard" through the sky before you land on the downslope and snowboard to the bottom. It's not enough to go roller-blading - you have to skate over obstacle courses and down stair rails while turning an occasional flip in the air. Not long ago I watched an entire program on the Discovery Channel. It was devoted to one man's quest to ride his bicycle off of the world's tallest waterfall and then parachute to the bottom. They asked him why he wanted to do such a thing. His response suggested that he never felt more alive than when doing something that scared him to death.

You turn on the TV and tune in to the "Extreme Olympics." You watch people doing absolutely insane things to their bodies and taking incredible risks while they are at it, and you might say "Those are crazy people. I wouldn't do that in a million years. I have too much respect for my body and my family to get involved in mountain biking or hot dog skiing. I'm no fool! I'm not that crazy. I don't take risks like that."

But think for just a minute. Those crazy people practicing their extreme sports are keeping their bodies in incredibly good shape, their on-the-edge activity keeps their day-to-day stress levels low, and they have more of those good-feeling and health-producing endorphins flowing in one weekend than most of us will see in a year.

While we pronounce how crazy these athletes are, we do so from the depths of our Lazy-boy recliners as we participate in the "armchair Olympics," vying for the title of "Couch Potato Champion." While we criticize those crazy risk-takers, our blood pressure rises, our cholesterol builds, our arteries clog, our internal stress levels increase, our lungs grow weak from lack of challenge, and our muscle tone turns to jello. Now, who is really taking the biggest risk?

You may be thinking "Well I didn't come here for a lecture on my health: if I want that I can watch Richard Simmons or an exercise program on Cable TV. What does any of this have to do with church?"

I'll tell you what - it has to do with attitude. Too many churches and too many church people are sitting around taking an armchair attitude toward life when Jesus Christ called us to an extreme and risky kind of discipleship that goes far beyond the safety and comfort and inspiration of Sunday morning worship. We are called, in short, to become "Extreme Disciples."

Risky Faith (vv. 31-34)

The first part of Jesus' ministry - the part described in Mark 1:1-8:30 - was quite exciting, but also fairly safe. He spent most of that time wandering the hills and valleys of Galilee, visiting villages and healing people and teaching his disciples a new way of living. With this text, though, Jesus turns away from safety and toward extremity: he points his feet toward Jerusalem and turns his mind toward suffering and sacrifice that his disciples cannot begin to comprehend. As such, this is a most appropriate text for the early days of the Lenten season, as we, like Jesus, turn our hearts toward Holy Week.

[31] Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. [32] He said all this quite openly.

Imagine how the disciples would react to something like that! "You never said anything about suffering! You never said anything about dying! This isn't what a Messiah does! Don't you think you're being a little extreme?"

Peter spoke for the other disciples in criticizing Jesus for such a crazy plan. So, when Jesus returned Peter's rebuke, he also spoke to the other disciples when he said: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

We must understand that when Jesus said "Get behind me," he was not saying "Get out of here," or "Get lost," but "Get back where you belong - behind me, following me." Jesus dared to call Peter by the name "Satan" for the simple reason that Peter was tempting him to choose human desires over God's way, even as Satan had done so. There is something significant about that: Jesus is saying, in effect, that human thought without divine influence will always run the danger of becoming satanic. To focus on one's self as a part of the world rather than as a part of God's kingdom is to play into the hands of the devil himself.

Peter's problem, in part, is that he knew enough to put two and two together. He knew that if the master must suffer and die, then the disciples must follow him. Jesus confirmed that conclusion when he turned to all who were present and said "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."

It is popular in today's world to tell people that following Jesus will solve all their problems, but it is also wrong. It is popular to think that the way of the cross is lined with peace and prosperity, but that claim is not in the gospels. Jesus wanted his followers to understand that the Messiah's way would not be the way of power as the world knows it, but the way of service.

It would not be the way of success, but of suffering.

It would not be the way of self-gratification, but of self-denial.

Mel Gibson's much-touted movie, "The Passion of the Christ," reminds us of the extent to which Christ suffered for us. It reminds us of the extreme lengths He was willing to go to, that we might be saved.

That is not the way most of us would choose. We prefer to play it safe. We prefer to avoid unnecessary risks. "Just keep me comfortable. Just accept my presence at church every now and then. Just be happy with my occasional prayers, God, I really do love you. Don't ask me to get involved in any risky business."

Risky Living (vv. 35-36)

Jesus knew our penchant for wanting to take the safe way. That's why he addressed that idea head on, and with no comfort in his words: "[35] 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."

Jesus calls us to deny our selfishness and to follow in the way of the cross, even if it leads to death. That's extreme. That's also the way it is. Bearing the cross for Jesus is not just dealing with the everyday difficulties that come to everyone. Bearing the cross is about accepting challenges and risks and dangers that come precisely because you choose to be a Christian. Precisely because you choose to live and to love as Jesus lived and loved - even though you know that to truly follow Jesus is a risky way of living.

Is there anything you are willing to die for? Martin Luther King, Jr. said "If a man hasn't discovered something that he would die for, he isn't fit to live."

Ray Brown reminds us that this isn't about dying, though, so much as it is about living with the right attitude about dying. A professor at Southeastern Seminary many years ago, Brown said "Taking up the cross meant not only to die for Jesus but to live for Jesus in the way that Jesus died and lived - lovingly and in obedience to the will of God. His way was not only a way to die but a way to live. Life is to be lived out in terms of the cross."

You may think that kind of extreme discipleship sounds idealistic. I suppose it is. Maybe that is why so few people adopt it as their lifestyle. G. K. Chesterson said "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried."

How we live makes a difference! We can go for the safe way of life and lose our life - or we can be willing to risk our lives for Jesus, and gain new life. The Greek word for "life" in this text is the root of our word "psychology." Jesus was not just talking about our physical life, but about our inner being, about our true self. In this text, to lose one's life is not just to die, for sooner or later everybody dies. Rather, it is to miss out on the true life that God wants for us - a life that can only be known through the risky relationship of following Jesus in the way of the cross.

Risky dying (vv. 36-38)

We can work all our lives to gain happiness and security - that is, to "save our lives" - then get to the end of the road and realize we have missed out on what God intends our earthly life to be. Not only that, but the end of the road will be the end of the road.

When we reach that point, we would give every dime in every mutual fund we have for one more chance, but it will be too late. Jesus concluded this great lesson on discipleship with these words:

"[36] For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? [37] Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? [38] Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."

Those words sound hard. They also sound true. If we are too ashamed to follow Jesus now, how can we expect anything other than for him to be ashamed to claim us later? The truth is, we learn in this life either to deny self, or to deny Christ. The concept of self-denial is hard to buy, though. It's hard for us to even distinguish anymore between wants and needs, much less consider giving up either one. Our American culture has a basic philosophy that would be unheard of in most of the world. In our thinking, we say "I want it; therefore I need it."

Whether it is a bigger TV, or a place at the beach, or more days of vacation, or a nicer house, or a newer car, we have a way of turning our "wants" into "needs."

The story is told of a family who moved into a new house that had been built next door to the humble home of a Quaker family. The simplicity-minded Quakers watched in amazement as two large truckloads of furnishings, appliances, toys and tools were unloaded and packed into the house and a workshop behind it. After all had been unloaded, the old Quaker walked over to greet the new family. "We welcome thee neighbors," he said. "And if thee ever need anything, come over to see me, and I will teach thee how to get along without it." I suspect that many of us would do well to learn from his example.

The more we try to "save our life" by following this world's idea of what life is about, the more we will lose track of what real life is all about. But, the more we learn to surrender self-will to God's will, the more we learn to say "no" to self and "yes" to Jesus, the more we learn to give ourselves in loving service to others, the more we will come to appreciate the true glory and meaning of the abundant and eternal life that God has in store for us.

You see, there is no risk we can take for God that will separate us from the love of God or the hope of God's eternity. The biggest risk we can take is the risk of playing it safe, for those who try to save their lives will lose them, but those who surrender themselves to Christ will find their lives not only restored, but amplified with abundance.

It's not easy to choose the risky way of the cross. We fear that we will not be strong enough to follow, or courageous enough to face what may come if we pledge ourselves to extreme discipleship. But I believe you can do it.

Let's close with an ancient motto, spoken often and in a variety of languages. In Hebrew, the words are hazak v'ematz. Repeat that after me: hazak v'ematz.

Good! In Latin, the words are sursum corda. Will you repeat that? Sursum corda.

In the King James English, the words are "Be strong and of good courage." Will you repeat that? "Be strong and of good courage."

You can. You know you can. Together, we can be strong. Together, we can have the courage we need to get up off of our couches and let the Spirit of God flush out the detritus that clogs our spiritual arteries. Together, we can be strong and courageous enough to answer God's call to extreme discipleship. The question before us, then, is not whether we can, but whether we will. [Homiletical insights for this sermon were gained from Will Willimon, "The Way of the Cross," in Pulpit Resource (Jan-Mar 1997), and from Leonard I. Sweet, "Is Your God Big Enough?" in Homiletics (Jan-Mar 1997).]


2/25/2004 12:00:00 AM by Tony W. Cartledge | with 0 comments

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