Friday, October 06, 2006

Trinity 16 - Mark 8

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It’s hard to be a Christian. There’s no two buts about it. It’s just plain hard.

But it’s all the rage these days amongst Christians to preach and teach and believe quite the opposite. It’s very in vogue to believe that the Christian life is one of utter triumph over nature and the order of things as we see them. “If you have enough faith, then God will give you whatever you ask.” “You’re just not thinking in positive terms about what God can do…that’s why you haven’t succeeded.” “Have you really given your life over to Jesus…I know he’s your savior, but is he your Lord? Ah…that’s why you haven’t experienced the real baptism by the Spirit.”

Yes, it is not hard to find this kind of teaching. So prevalent are these human ways of thought that to the world out there, this kind of teaching is what the word “Christianity” actually means. And that is a sad thing. It was only the other day that I heard a man tell me how he gave a witness for Jesus to an old friend of his on the golf course. He said, “I told him how much life had improved since I decided to follow Jesus. I told him how much Jesus meant to me now.” And the result? The result was that the man didn’t really care at all. He just kept playing golf.

I had to bite my tongue then, but I will not hold it now. Of course the man didn’t care. One idol is as good as another. “If your fuzzy man in heaven makes you feel good, great, but my stone statue is taking care of me just fine right now. Maybe later, if I find that my present gods aren’t holding par, I’ll come around and give Jesus a try.”

But how much worse is that! Imagine, five years from today, the man needs a new household god, so he comes around and gives Jesus a try. He devotes his life to Bible study, to prayer and fasting. He makes Jesus his Lord with all of his heart. He casts himself into service and action. He witnesses to his entire family. And then, it doesn’t work. Rather than the golden life, he finds that he has taken up a cross. He thought to save his life, but he finds that he is losing it more than ever before. That wasn’t what he made a decision for. So off he goes, in search of the next best idol, and the final state of him is worse than the first.

Make no mistake. The Christian life is hard. The Christian life is a cross. And a true Christian witness for Christ is far from a pep talk about how much more peace and cuddliness you’ll feel if you start chasing Jesus’ shadow. Such words might be what they claim, “a witness for Christ,” but they are not a witness to Christ. They are not the Gospel.

How often do you hear the Apostle Paul, or Peter, or James or John, in all of their many letters they have written to evangelize the world, talking about their life prior to Christianity and then after? How often is their proclamation “what Jesus means to me?” I can answer that for you: almost never. The closest you can find is Paul, who from time to time, because of the attack of false teachers who claim he is no true Apostle at all, is forced to prove himself, and even in despair, calling himself a fool for the way he is talking, he boasts of his strength of character and conviction in Christ. And yet, even there, mixed with these very words, his boast is even louder that he is a failure since his conversion, that he cannot overcome his flesh the way he would if he could, that he is weak, broken, at the point of despair and on and on.

This is the Apostolic witness to Christ so far as their own personal lives are concerned. This is the claim they make as they carry their cross to follow him. But this is not the Apostolic witness in its fullness. No. As Paul stood on the golf-courses of the Roman empire, chatting with Greek philosophers and female cloth merchants, he saw not point in talking about himself at all. No. It did something far more lunatic than that. He simply talked about Jesus. Not Jesus and me, not Jesus and our relationship, not Jesus and the golden, triumphant life. Just plain, old Jesus.

Of course, if you listen carefully, plain old Jesus isn’t very plain old. As Peter confesses in the face of the stream of superstitious ideas, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus, though rejected by elders and chief pastors and biblical scholars, though killed for his witness about himself – Jesus was the Son of Man, the child of prophecy, the completion of the Human Race.

How do we know? And what does that mean? What is the confession and witness we are to give to our neighbors and family and friends when they lend us an ear for a moment. It’s so simple, so basic, and yet it is so very hard to say.

Jesus isn’t dead.

Now, I’m not talking about fuzzy Jesus in heaven with feathers and cloud sandals. I’m talking about the son of Mary, carpenter of Nazareth, rabbi of Galilee, who under the reign of Pontius Pilate in Judea was, as a man like you and me, nailed to a cross until he was dead, dead, dead. Dead like Mohammed. Dead like Buddha. Dead Abraham Lincoln and Simon Bolivar and Christopher Columbus and Henry the VIII. But he didn’t stay that way. His body didn’t stay that way. After being left in a tomb for three days, in which his Apostles and followers had nothing to witness to but their own despair, the Son of Man, the child of Mary, opened his eyes, looked at his own scars, maybe even smiled, and then walked right out of that grave.

Now just stop listening and debate that fact. Swallow it hard in your head. Can you even imagine it? I can’t. No one could. When the tomb was found empty by his friends, there was still nothing for them to understand. Even the one, and there was only one, who believed, did not believe that Jesus had changed his life for the better, but that Jesus had changed life itself. A world in which death was and is the only inevitable outcome of all things had just been turned completely on its head. Millenium ago, God had created something new, and on this same day, this 1st day of the week, He had done it again. Only this wasn’t just the 1st day of another seven day week. This was the 8th day of the next thing to come. This was the precursor, the firstfruit. In the beginning, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and now death no longer has mastery over him, nor over any who are baptized into his name.

That is the Apostolic witness to Christ, and would that we could learn to say such things on the golf course! Would that we could cease trying to convince people that they need a little Jesus mojo and learn to speak as if what we every week confess in the Creed were actually true! We walk around talking as if Jesus were merely the greatest of the prophets, the most righteous of men, someone with an extra bit of Spriit power. But he is the Christ. He is the Annointed one. He is the King of Israel. He is the Son of God. And he has taken on our very flesh in order to redeem it, to buy it back, to bleed from it in order to clean it for himself and his progeny forever and ever.

This is the faith once for all delivered to the saints, to believe these very words. To live life, not expecting great gifts of money and happiness and family values to fall out of heaven as if this planet was what life is really about. No. The Christian life lives knowing full well that this planet is passing away, fading like an old garment eaten by moths, withering like a tree with the root rotted out, dying like all the men who have ever walked upon it. All except one. One who died like the rest but simply did not stay that way. He opened his eyes. He folded his clothes. He walked out of his tomb, and told those whom he appointed that he was going away. He was going away, but he wasn’t going to stay gone any more than he stayed dead. And they were not to look for death to be their portal to eternity, but to look to that staggering reality that he was coming back.

He is coming back. This moment he sits upon a throne, his human mind empowered with godhead to rule all the heavens and the earth. His human eyes, communing with godhead to look down on all things and see them as if he were there, to look down and see us even now and smile upon us and say, “Behold, I have sent my messenger to tell you of me, that I am the first and the last, that I am coming soon to gather you like a hen gathering her chicks, for I am the root of David, the bright morning star, the Crucified One who was dead, and behold, I live. This is my witness of myself. This is my testimony. This is the Evangelism which is the power of my Father for your salvation and the salvation of all who I will draw to myself.”

Oh, dear friends, it is truly too much for the mind, for logic, for the flesh, for frail, fallen humanity to grasp and hold. But, dear friends, it is not too much to believe, for this witness is the stuff that faith is made of. This is the Word of God which creates. This is the word of God which teaches you to lose your life, for Christ your Lord has saved it.

And so, we come full circle. For who will believe such a message? Who will not look at you or I and think we have lost our very minds. When Paul stood on mars hill and said such words to the greatest of the Greeks, they openly laughed in his face. When Jesus said such words to the chief of his apostles, Peter took him aside to rebuke him. How much more so, being warned by our Lord, must we not expect ridicule, rejection, and sundering from the world? Take up your cross, he said, not your checkbook, not your investment portfolio, not your retirement, your cross. Are you saved by Christ? Yes. Then be assured your life here on earth is forfeit to the reality of His Kingdom. You are a sheep, which means you are given to be slaughtered on behalf of the world. Your life here is lost, because to gain this world is to gain nothing but dust and ashes. But your lost life is saved, in the man whose flesh will never to dust return.

For us here at Our Savior, for those of us who have lost even our very congregation, these words take on a definitive meaning. What is the perfect congregation worth, when it has sacrificed the true witness to Christ? What good are these pews filled to overflowing when the Resurrection is no longer preached? What good do we do to bring others into our midst if we ourselves have not believed? So then, Christ’s words speak true to us, even now, knowing what we know, believing what we do believe. Would we follow him? Then we shall take up our cross. Would we claim that he has saved us? Then we shall lose our hopes and dreams for glory in the here and now, for the sake of the Gospel itself, for the sake of the witness, for the sake of that spoken word that is so hard to say: Jesus didn’t stay dead.

Indeed, it would profit us nothing to grow this church, should we then forfeit our own lives in the process. But standing unashamed of the Word of God, standing unashamed of the cross, standing unashamed of being different than this adulterous and sinful generation, we know that Christ, our Lord, is unashamed of us. Though we may lose all else, though we lose all else, He shall not lose us. That is his testimony. That is his witness. That is his Resurrection. And though the grass withers and the flowers fade, that Word of the Lord stands forever. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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