Summit Presbyterian Church
February 25, 2018
Mark 8: 31-38
What Shall We Give?
“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.”
Scripture needs to be interpreted. If that weren’t the case, you wouldn’t have to sit through any of my sermons. There’d be no need for the Upper Room magazine. Whole academic departments could be wiped out, and we’d never have a Bible study. But even the plainest, most direct and unobjectionable passages — such as “love your neighbor as yourself” - need to be pondered, as we ask what they mean for us today. We need to learn about the time in which they were written, to study the language, to learn from scholars and one another. All in prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, who opens the scriptures to us.
That said, some scriptures - like this one - require more “interpretation” than others. More explanation, more qualifications, more careful application to our lives. And when we’re wrestling with them, we wonder: Is this the Holy Spirit working, leading me into a deeper understanding, or am I just trying to weasel out of the Word? So please join me in prayer: Lord, may the words of my mouth . . .
Let’s start by noting we’re in a different time and place than the people who first heard these words. For early Christians, following Christ could lead to death. But even when their lives weren’t in danger, they stood to lose a lot. They’d lose their former religious community, gentile or Jewish. They might loose their social standing, the support of their families, their livelihoods. Today, in some parts of the world, professing Christ can still lead to that kind of loss. You can lose your life in North Korea or Afghanistan. In other countries being a Christian means discrimination or poverty. Even in some Christian countries, following Jesus can be dangerous: I’m thinking of Bishop Oscar Romero and other religious and lay people in Latin America who were killed under military dictatorships. But that’s not the case with us. Church membership isn’t a social liability, even if our agnostic friends think it’s odd. If our discipleship leads us to take an unpopular political stand, we’re seldom in danger, thanks to our Bill of Rights. (As I say this I can think of exceptions, Martin Luther King, Jr. coming to mind). To claim that Christians - as Christians — are persecuted or even marginalized in this country just isn’t true. Thankfully. In its most literal sense this passage doesn’t apply to us: we aren’t called upon to lose our lives in order to follow Jesus.
But denying our selves is another story. For unlike those early Christians, we’re preoccupied with what we call our “self.” Psychologists and philosophers would tell us that the concept of the “self” is a complicated one, but we don’t need to get that deep to list the ways we think about our “selves.” We’re always making resolutions to take better care of ourselves - to get more sleep, eat less sugar, exercise. We’re bombarded by messages that we should reward ourselves or indulge ourselves — by buying things or going places. We also hope that if we improve our selves, our lives will be better: and so we have self-help books of every description. We use the expression “working on our self” to talk about the spiritual process of self-examination and repentance.
So in our self-centered world, for good or bad, what does it mean to “deny ourselves” in order to follow Jesus? I’ll start with what it doesn’t mean. I’m pretty sure it has nothing to do with refusing that second cookie, which is what I usually mean by self-denial. I’m certain it doesn’t mean denying our humanity, our made-in-God’s image self. Especially if others are denying our humanity. Self-denial also doesn’t mean that any hardship we face is our cross to bear without complaint. Jesus spent his life relieving suffering through healing and teaching. He fed those who were hungry and kept company with those who had been shamed, such as tax collectors and so-called sinners. He also said those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. When this scripture’s used to denigrate people, or defend injustice, it’s being misinterpreted. That’s not the self-denial Jesus is talking about.
But there is a self-denial that leads to life — when we deny the self that gets in the way of following Jesus. Such as the acquisitive self, the self that believes the next purchase will make everything all right. Or the insecure self that has to put down others to feel OK. The vain self, that’s always craving praise or attention. I could go on — we all have a particular kind of self that gets between us and our Lord. Now denying these selves doesn’t necessarily mean ignoring or shaming them. It may mean acknowledging them with compassion, but then refusing to feed them. And since it’s often easier to do something rather than to stop doing something, to say yes rather than no, I’d like to suggest another way of practicing self denial. It comes from another question in the scripture, when Jesus says, What can they give in return for their life?
What can we give in return for our life, the life we know in Christ? Rather than withholding, what can we share? We can begin with thanks. Thanks for the love of God, the beauty of creation, the breath in our bodies, the food on our plates, and the many other blessings we have known. We say thank you in prayer and worship, but also by rendering our lives as thanks unto God, in giving to others. We can give our time — our help and care and love. Time with friends and family. Time with members of the church. Time in service to others — from giving out blessing bags to cooking for Elder Diner or going to POWER Cluster meetings. We can also give our money — that’s a big one. Money to the church but also money to those we know in special need, money to those who are suffering after disasters, money to organizations working for good. We can give our voice to support what is right — as the young people in Florida have been doing this week. And we can give our prayers — not only for ourselves but for our loved ones, those far away, and our enemies. And if we give generously, one day at a time, in the different ways open to us, we’ll be denying the self that gets in the way of following Jesus. This giving may feel like losing — even if it’s just the loss of time for ourselves, or the loss of money for something we might want. But that kind of loss is life giving. For in giving we gain life, the true life we know in Christ.