February 25, 2018

For the Sake of the Gospel

Passage: Genesis 17:1-8, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-258, Mark 8:31-38
Service Type:

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.

Russell Reno is the editor of the journal First Things. In May of 2017 he published an essay discussing the changing political environment of Western countries; he spoke of the economic powers driving global integration describing it as “the emerging empire of utility.”

Whenever I read thoughtful essays like this I am always looking for what I call the “money quote;” the sentence that helps me understand what they are talking about in more concrete terms. Reno was formerly a university ethics professor and recalling ethics courses I took I have some idea of what he means by “utility” in his comment about “the emerging empire of utility.” So here is the money quote that clarified for me what he is talking about. “… the globalized future will be governed by the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. Our high priests will be medical experts, central bankers, and celebrity chefs.” I think that, to a great extent health, wealth and pleasure already govern us.

1. It was a little over four centuries ago that God gave his invitation to life through the Prophet Isaiah. “Incline your ear, and come to me; listen so that you may live.” When we hear God’s invitation to really live, the “life” that comes readily to mind is the life we want, of health, wealth, and pleasure. It is in the context of this invitation that God reminds us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

When you think about the pronouncements of cultural high priests of medical expert, central bankers, and celebrity chefs and place them alongside what Jesus had to say about life in following him it becomes clear that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. “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.” Serving gods of health, wealth, and pleasure is an instance of what Jesus refers to as wanting “to save their lives.”

I remind you of what we have said before about the gospel of Mark. Mark comes to Rome to encourage Christians to hang in with faith in Jesus in a difficult time; to strengthen believers who are suffering the persecutions unleashed by Nero against them—persecutions that have recently claimed the lives of Apostles Peter and Paul. So when he reminds believers that it was their crucified Lord who spoke of “losing life for his sake and for the sake of the gospel” it has current real-life consequences for them. That even if they should lose their life for the sake of the gospel in our Lord’s kingdom life was saved; it renders the gospel a kind of all-or-nothing thing as far as Jesus was concerned.

When we hear this teaching in the comfort of the freedoms we share it is hard to put ourselves in the place of these believers Mark comes to encourage. In fact, rather than a word of encouragement Mark’s reiterating of our Lord’s teaching sounds a little harsh to us. Why not a little “go along to get along.” Our culture believes that if we would only soften convictions worth dying for that fighting will stop. Our culture judges that nothing should be this extreme. Why so insistent about the gospel, Jesus? Clearly our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

2. The gospel—God’s good news—is another instance where it becomes obvious God’s thoughts are not our thoughts neither are his ways our ways. Our assessment of that which troubles humanity is not what God sees to be the trouble. We think adjustments here or there will remedy; God sees an all-out rescue as necessary.

Our gospel story of Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and Jesus’ counter rebuke of Peter follows the story of Peter’s joyful declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus confirms Peter’s assertion to indeed being “the Christ,” the Messiah who would save. Peter and the others were no doubt thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed. They were insiders to the Christ! Surely life would soon get very sweet very fast. Jesus had no place to go but up. The days of the Caesar were numbered. Israel would soon be back with Jesus sitting on a golden throne with inlaid mother of pearl even as the disciples would be co-rulers of this new empire. It was so close they could taste it; gone would be the days of dusty feet, rumbling stomachs, and tattered fishing nets. Soon they’d eat red snapper that someone else had caught, steamed with capers and tarragon by the palace chef and served on silver platters by servants eager to please the Messiah and his buddies.

Is the vision the disciples have for what the Messiah will bring them much different from our ideas of what God should do for us humans—I mean, if he really loves us? If God were on the case at all, the only “problems” that would exist would be to figure out what pleasure to engage in next—given that we can’t have them all at once. We don’t really want to work for peace we want God to get it done. And since God refuses our agendas, or so it seems, we naturally write him off as of no account.

So right after the disciples’ “heady,” confirmation that he is Messiah, Jesus “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.” Now if anything made clear the difference between God’s thoughts and ours here we are brought to the heart of the matter. Jesus must suffer and be killed. Such an idea is so egregious to the disciples that they take Jesus aside and Peter leads the way in rebuking Jesus for suggesting such a thing. And in Jesus’ counter rebuke he tells them bluntly “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

The reason I say that here we are confronted with heart of the matter that shows the great disparity between God’s thoughts and ours is because of something Mark says of Jesus’ teaching regarding his impending suffering and death. Mark writes, “He said all this quite openly.” In other words Jesus’ teaching the disciples—and through them us—that he must undergo great suffering and death, and then be raised is something he proclaims with openness and frankness.
Now what makes this comment by Mark stand out is the thing he said Jesus didn’t want openly taught. Right after Peter’s declaration that he was Messiah Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” This theme of the “Messianic secret” runs throughout Mark’s gospel. Jesus knows that their ideas of Messiah are so off course that he holds that teaching close to his vest, so to speak. But the idea that he will suffer, be opposed, be killed and then rise he says quite openly—again and again.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel in God’s mind. The Apostle Paul picks up on this note when he said to the Corinthians that he had but one sermon on his filing cabinet; “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

3. We have noted Jesus’ insistence of the gospel and his conviction that his suffering, rejection and death stands at the heart of the gospel that sees him risen from the dead. Now let us return to Jesus’ teaching that such a gospel is worth our lives because it is life for us, real life.

I come back to reflecting on these Christians in Rome who literally fear for their lives because of their identification with Jesus Christ. Mark wants these believers to know that losing their life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel is never to be cut off from God’s saving purpose of life eternal for them. These teachings of our Lord needs to be heard in the context of the cross. Jesus so loves us that he will pour himself out without remainder. We remember other things Jesus taught about his love for us—we are to love one another as he loved us. These disciples who hear Jesus says these things are certain of this, that Jesus loves them.

When Jesus says those who want to save their life will lose it he is asserting that no one can secure for themselves life, let alone eternal life. We cannot save ourselves—not of works lest anyone boast. It has to be a work of God in our lives. “And those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Clinging to Jesus Christ in faith sustained by the gospel is life eternal. Jesus says the same thing to Martha on the day he came to the wake of her brother Lazarus; “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” (John 11:25)

We do not face the threat to life these Christians at Rome faced. So how are we to hear our Lord’s teaching to lose our life for his sake and the sake of the gospel? Or as said another way by Jesus, “to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis wrote, “Christ says, ‘Give me all. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you’.” Put another way our response to God’s great outpouring of love at the cross is to surrender life to Christ and the gospel. It is to let the gospel shape the contours of how we understand life and direct the actions we take in living.

Remember that what Jesus calls from us he enables. What gives me hope is the way our Lord received his disciples with all their failings and yet used them for his glory. We read today of Abraham as the exemplar of faith—who believed God as it was counted to him as righteousness. Please note that when God determines to bless humanity, as God did in Abraham God does so through people. It is God’s doing at God’s initiative, yet God works through people. To give your life for the gospel is to be God’s conduit for God’s blessing of humanity.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was an Italian painter active in Rome, Naples, Malta, and Sicily from the early 1590s to 1610. One of his famous paintings is The Calling of St. Matthew. Matthew’s quill and inkwell are visible on the table, the tools of his record-keeping as a tax collector. But they also signal his future as an evangelist. In Caravaggio’s painting The Inspiration of St. Matthew, Matthew now an old man, has the quill in hand, now about his vocation of writing his gospel. Caravaggio shows us how God uses us and what we have “for the sake of the gospel.”

Today we are recognizing the work Sally has done among us for 24+ years—work done for the sake of the gospel. You don’t have to work in a church or write a gospel to serve the good news of Jesus. Living life shaped by the gospel proclamation of the cross is at the heart of “losing your life.” Put another way, the love that has taken hold of us in Jesus Christ, exemplified by Christ’s outpouring on the cross, is the love that informs our love for others.

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.