By Donald Waring
Jesus said, “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 the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)
When I was a growing up my father was the rector of an Episcopal church over in East Orange, N.J. One of the parishioners was a gracious, elderly woman named Miss Sally Lea. She had never married and had lived in her same well-kept house since the day she was born. Sally Lea would often invite us over to dinner. These evenings were always a mixed blessing because while our hostess was a great lady, she was not a great cook. The boiled chicken was practically inedible, and entirely unconstitutional to the tastes of a 10-year-old. One evening while we were all sitting around her table I excused myself to find the facilities. Not wanting to waste the precious moment of reprieve from the chicken, I took a rather round-about route to the bathroom. On the way I came across a small table near the front door, and on this table were three shining golden coins.
Almost immediately I felt an irresistible urge to have one of the coins. I really didn’t know why; it just seemed that life would be better for whoever possessed such a treasure. You know the feeling – the feeling you get when you conclude that having a thing will solve your problems. What thing? I don’t know, you fill in the blank: a new apartment with more square footage, a country house, the dream job, the perfect relationship. The solution for life and happiness is right there. How easy it would have been for me to pocket one of those coins and instantly improve my life. I wanted one to touch, to handle, to have, to hold, to carry in my pocket and show off to my friends. And there they were for the taking.
This was one of those moments when it seems as though on one shoulder you have a little angel saying: “avert your eyes! Walk away! Be a good Christian!” And on your other shoulder is a little devil whispering in your ear: “take it! In fact, take them all! You deserve them.” This was my chance. But I didn’t act soon enough. I heard a chair pull out from the dining room table, and footsteps coming my way. Before I could act one of my brothers was at the door telling me to hurry up. I knew that I had missed a golden opportunity. The angel on my shoulder had won by default. I walked away without the coin, “tempted and yet undefiled.”
Today’s readings from Scripture all teach what is certainly not a new message, but one that we tend to disbelieve and therefore resist learning. The message is this: Real life – the life for which all of us yearn, and hope to achieve, and strive to attain – such real life cannot be found in all the gold coins and glittering images that the world lays before us. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark (8:31-38) we hear Jesus rather sternly instructing his disciple Peter along these lines. Peter was following Jesus because he believed that Jesus was the One sent from God to give the Jews all the good things God had been promising them. But at length Jesus began saying some things that were definitely casting doubts on his ability to deliver the goods: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Peter had understandable concerns about the agenda Jesus was putting forth, particularly the part about suffering and death. Thus he took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But Peter made no headway with Jesus. In fact, Jesus accused Peter of being the devil on his shoulder: Get behind me, Satan! Then Jesus told Peter again that most unpopular message, and here I will paraphrase: What will it profit you if you gain the whole world and forfeit your life? If all you want is to save your life, then you are going to lose it. But if you want to lose your life for my sake, then you will find it. Deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me.
How did Jesus come to understand his mission and ministry in these terms of self-denial and even losing one’s life? I think it’s safe to say that in the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus announced his immanent suffering and death, he was breaking character with all the popular Jewish expectations of how the Messiah should go about the business of saving the people. In truth, the people had a variety of expectations. Some thought the Messiah would be a military conqueror who would oust the Romans through force of might. Others thought the Messiah’s focus would be more political. He would be a great king on the order of David. Others thought he would be more of a mystic who would lead people apart from society, out to the desert, for a pure spiritual revival. Clearly, Jesus was following a script that was completely different from all of these. Jesus had in mind the mysterious Suffering Servant foretold in the book of the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah described a figure who would save the people through his own suffering and self-offering. Jesus understood his mission and ministry to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies; he was claiming to be the Suffering Servant.
Peter didn’t want to hear it. Peter and the Jews wanted an immediate, interventionist Messiah who in short order would snatch the gold from Rome or whoever was holding it, and never let go of it again. If, in fact, the Jews were the chosen people of God, they wanted to show it off in front of the other nations. They wanted to taste and see their special status, and they wanted the neighboring peoples to envy them. Israel was to shine. In contrast, the life of self-denial, the life that Christians would later call the way of the cross was suddenly sounding like no fun at all.
So here we are on the Second Sunday in Lent, and at this point it might be fair to look you squarely in the eyes and ask: how’s it going? It could be that this was the year you vowed that Lent would be different. Back on Ash Wednesday you declared that you would deny yourself, take up your cross, follow Jesus, get close to God, and lose a few pounds. No more jelly doughnuts, no more booze, no more lighting up, no more of life’s guilty pleasures, no more fun – at least for forty days and forty nights. Come Easter you will return to your indulgent ways, but for now you recognize on some level that all the vain things that charm us most don’t deliver the life they promise. In fact, they may even deal death when we indulge in them without discipline. So it’s time to give them up and save ourselves. Now, just a week and a half into Lent, your zeal for the Lord of Hosts may be flagging. Self-denial and sacrifice is all rather grim and joyless. You have nothing to show off to your friends. No one is envying your closeness to God.
What is more, you may even harbor sophisticated theological concerns about trying to save yourself through the hard work of Lent. The fact is, having a successful Lent when you personally slay your own demons can lead to the bigger sin of pride, which is the delusion that you save yourself. The good news of grace is that we don’t save ourselves. God saves us through Jesus, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses. Thus, you reason, it might be a spiritually good thing for you to break your Lenten fast. Doing so will keep you humble and save your from pride. That bag of chips, that piece of chocolate cake, that glass or two of red, red wine: “take it,” says the angel on your shoulder. Or is that the devil on your shoulder? Indeed, it can all be a muddle. But think of Lent this way: the hard work of Lent can be the hard work of grace. We are trying to learn a hard lesson – a lesson our natural self resists learning. We are training ourselves to recognize what gives life and what does not.
Ultimately, it’s in devotion to God where true joys are to be found. God is the giver of life, not the gold coins and glittering images that the world has to offer. In today’s reading from Romans (4:13-25), we’ve heard St. Paul reflect on the complex story of Abraham. St. Paul writes that God promised Abraham that he would inherit the world. Imagine: Abraham was to inherit the world, but not through his own moral effort or merit, not through the usual means of saving oneself. Rather, the hard work for Abraham was learning to trust that God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Abraham would indeed become “the father of many nations,” but he had to put his faith and trust in God. At one point Abraham even believed that God was requiring him to give his only son, Isaac, back. How was Abraham to be the father of many nations if he committed the awful deed of sacrificing his only son and heir? Abraham never wavered, writes Paul. Abraham trusted God and had faith in the goodness of God. What was the result? Not only did God spare Isaac, God made Abraham the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
Even still, we tend to trust our things more than faith in God as a more certain path to joy, and we take the message of self-denial with an intellectual grain of salt. So at this point I want to do two things: first I’m going to tell you something, then I’m going to show you something. First, what I will tell you is that countless millions of people have found over the centuries that denying themselves, loving God, and following Jesus is not a joyless life full of gloom, doom, and threats. Rather, it is to experience a peace that passes all understanding. It is a joy that the world cannot give. St. Paul said that the surpassing worth of knowing Christ was better than anything else this world could offer (Philippians 3:8), and that the sufferings of his present time were not even worth comparing with what it meant for him to know Christ (Romans 8:18). Even the Suffering Servant in Isaiah found that God gave him the strength to endure, that God would never desert him, that God would always be present to him. He found that through it all the Lord God helped him. Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Such has been the experience of countless millions of people who have followed Christ. They have found that the life that lives beyond the grave can begin on this side of the grave.
But how are we ever going to gain life by losing it? Here we arrive at the mystery and the paradox of the kingdom of God, and I want to show you something that might help to illustrate. It’s show-and-tell time; I want to show you this:
Here the preacher shall display the golden coin.
This is one of the three golden coins from Sally Lea’s table. She never saw it again after that evening some forty-plus years ago. You remember that the table was near the front door. On the way out we passed by the coins. If you are thinking that I slipped one into my pocket, you’re right. You bet I did! But I only did so after Miss Lea had first gathered them in her hand and said to my two brothers and me, “Boys I’ve been meaning to give you these as a little souvenir.” Then, one by one, she place them in our eager hands as if they were Communion wafers.
All along she had been planning to give us the coins. Imagine if I had stolen one of them earlier in the evening. What would have been the profit? What would I have gained? What does it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? This coin, to me, is a window into the mystery of the kingdom of God. It’s only a token. It’s of no earthly value by itself. But on another level, it conveys all the riches of grace.
Jesus said at another time, Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32). He has given us himself, and all along he has been planning to give us his resurrected life. So seek first the kingdom of God, and all good things shall be yours as well. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.
The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Episcopal Church, Manhattan.