Pentecost 16 B: Intriguing, Elusive, Captivating, and Crucial

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Before jumping to Mark’s intriguing, elusive, and utterly captivating text (appetites whetted, yet?), I wanted to let you know about two events coming soon to the campus of The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

1) Next Thursday (Sept. 17), we’re holding our second annual (and free!) Ministry Resource Day. I’ll be offering two presentations on “Digital Pluralism and the Death and Resurrection of the Church” with worship and lunch in between. Co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Theological Institute, and the Southeastern PA Synod of the ELCA, the event is free. You can register here to attend.

2) Preaching Days 2015 will be held on October 19-21 at LTSP. Join five nationally known teachers of biblical preaching and more than a hundred colleagues for three days of refreshment, renewal and inspiration. This year’s keynote presenters and preachers are Thomas Long, Paul Scott Wilson, Audrey West, Wayne Croft, and Karyn Wiseman. Five presentations, five worship services, scads of workshops, and innumerable great conversations await! You can find more info. here.

Okay, and now back to our regularly scheduled reflections….


Let me start with a question, Dear Partner. Or, actually, three questions that are deeply intertwined. What gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? When you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be?

Take a moment to ponder your answers, Dear Partner, and then hold on to them for a few moments as we’ll return to them a little later.

For now, though, let me return to my claim that this passage is not only intriguing, elusive, and utterly captivating but also crucial to understanding Mark’s Gospel and, indeed, the invitation into the kingdom of God it seeks to share.

Long thought to be the briefest, and for that reason rather pedestrian, of the four Evangelists, Mark turns out to be a master of suspense and surprise. In this passage, a carefully developed, though largely implicit, element of suspense and tension is finally made explicit in Jesus’ questioning of his disciples. Throughout Mark’s story up to this point, you see, no one is quite sure what to make of Jesus. In fact, no one even knows who he is. Except, that is, for the reader (and that includes us!), because we’re told in the very first verse that he is the son of God and various demons who recognize him on the spot.

And so when we read Mark we feel that same sense of tension you do whenever you watch a movie and know something the main characters don’t know – you want them to figure it out and worry what will happen if they don’t. And so we almost breathe a sigh of relief when Peter, in a flash of insight, is no longer content with viewing Jesus as one of the prophets old or new, but realizes that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one chosen and anointed to deliver Israel from oppression. Yeah, we think, he’s finally gotten it!

Or has he? Yes, Peter gets the title right, but he doesn’t seem to understand what that title means. And so when Jesus begins to talk not about the road to glory but instead the one that leads to the cross, Peter rebukes him…and then Jesus rebukes Peter right back.

Which calls into question our own understanding of Jesus. Because we have to admit that Peter’s definition of “messiah” is usually the one we prefer as well. Peter, we, and just about everyone we’ll ever know want a strong God, a God who heals our illnesses, provides ample prosperity, guarantees our security, urges our military and sports teams onto victory, and generally keeps us happy, healthy, and wise.

But that’s not what Jesus offers. Instead, Jesus points to a God who meets us in vulnerability, suffering, and loss. A God who meets us, that is, in those moments when we really need God, when all we had worked for, hoped for, and striven for fall apart and we realize that we are, quite simply, mortal, incapable of saving ourselves and desperately in need of a God who meets us where we are. Jesus’ identity proves elusive precisely because God shows up just where we least expect God to be. Which means that we don’t get the God we want, but instead the God we need.

Thus far, Jesus has been talking only to his disciples. But after this encounter with Peter, Jesus calls the crowds (who, it turns out, weren’t too far away) to come closer and listen up. And then he takes up the question of the Christian life, stating plain and simple that those who wish to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross.

But we need to slow down a minute here, because we all too often view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers. You know, have a little less of the things you like, don’t over indulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories whenever possible because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is talking about at all. I think instead he’s suggesting that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life and we need to die to those illusions to be born into the abundant life God wants for us.

Here’s the thing: we tend to think that life is something you go out and get, or earn, or buy, or win. But it turns out that life is like love, it can’t be won or earned or bought, only given away. And the more you give it away, the more you have. In fact – and as first time parents experience profoundly – only when you love others do you most understand what love really is. Likewise, only when you give away your life for the sake of others do you discover it. Some how, in thinking about how to fulfill others needs your own deepest needs are met. Call this the mystery of life and the key to the kingdom of God.

This little story stands at the very center of Mark’s story of Jesus and marks the turn from Jesus’ teaching and preaching throughout Galilee and its environs to his steadfast, even relentless march to the cross. In this sense, it is the pivot point of the Gospel. At the same time, Jesus’ message was and is absolutely and totally counter-cultural simply because we live in east of Eden in a world of quid pro quo and scarcity where there is never enough and the only thing you can count on are the things you own. And Jesus challenges all of that by telling us that the only things we can hold onto are the things we give away: like love and mercy and kindness and compassion.

Which is why this story is simply crucial (a word, interesting enough, that has its roots in the Latin word crux, or cross). And this in turn brings me back to those three questions. So what did you say gives you the greatest joy in life? What creates for you the deepest sense of purpose? And when you do you feel most alive, most true to the person you believe God created you to be? My guess is that it wasn’t something you bought, or even earned, but rather was rooted in relationship, in acts of service, and even in acts of what the world calls “sacrifice” when you are caring for another.

Self-denial and cross-bearing are not about being less happy, you see, but about discovering the real and abundant life – a kind of life the culture can hardly imagine – that comes in and through sacrificial love in service to another. That’s not necessarily an easy word to preach, Dear Partner, but it is a life-giving one and, for many of our people, perhaps a life-saving one as well. Thanks so much for having the courage to share it.

Yours in Christ,