To Gain the Whole World and Forfeit Their Life
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Children have been back to school for a few days now. In our Canadian context the new school year is experienced as cultural signal that we are back to routines. Holidays are over. Order has resumed. Morning traffic has increased as children are now being driven to school. The cultural effect is profound. Consider the impact on the church; many congregations have designated the Sunday following the return to school as a “rally” Sunday. A Sunday to call people back to the routine of Sunday worship. A bid to welcome people to consider making church part of their life.
And then we get to church on “rally” Sunday and the lectionary readings don’t cooperate. We read Jesus’ rather bracing invitation, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Is this the “rally” cry we expected to hear? Are you “rallying” around Jesus after this conversation? We are hoping to hear something more conducive to our needs—how Jesus could add that missing something that will make for greater contentment or will provide energizing that will make for success.
It is tempting to think we can have all that our Lord genuinely wants to give us without having our Lord himself. But we can’t. Jesus Christ does not give us joy, peace, contentment, strength and encouragement as though he were dispensing tonic from a medicine bottle. Our Lord can only give us himself. As he gives us himself, he does indeed give us “all things with him”, in the words of Paul. Yet we must be careful lest we overlook something crucial: to be bound to Jesus Christ is to be bound to a cross. Warmly Jesus invites people to become disciples; realistically he also tells them that there is no discipleship, no intimacy with him apart from denying themselves. We want Jesus to help us gain the world because we think we know life when we see it. Jesus says that this is to forfeit life. To take up with him is to take up our cross
1. I wonder about our present culture’s opposition to “extremism.” It seems to go hand in hand with an attitude of “whatever.” It has, I think, had the effect of making us cautious of anyone or any institution that insists on certain standards. Insisting on anything is designated as extreme, exclusive, and even bigoted. People want to be their own person and make the lines as they see fit. So when Jesus speaks about being his disciple in this “all-in” sort of way many preachers want to soften it so the gospel can gain a hearing in our culture.
We met a similar “all-in” type call in our reading from the book of Proverbs. There we read of the call of wisdom as she raised her voice in the street. Note that wisdom is personified; not a collection of tidbits of life notes but the person who “will pour out my thoughts to you.” (Proverbs 1:23) As she is rather insistent. “Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices.” Listen again to our Lord’s pronouncement—“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Do we not hear the echo of wisdom in our Lord’s teaching?
The good news of Jesus Christ is counter-cultural in its particularities; counter-culture in Jesus’ insistence that to have him is to have life, to not have him is to forfeit life. It challenges our “non-insistent” cultural mindset and suspicion of any insistence as extreme. It teaches us that God is not subject to us and our inclinations. And the reason for Jesus’ insistence is his love for us; he can see the life he wants to give us even as he is broken hearted that we should forfeit that life for something that diminishes.
2. Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ (Mark 8:27) Note with me that he asks this question of his disciples. He is probing their understanding. Jesus is not asking for “person-on-the-street” interviews as if to be informed about the public’s perception of him. He does not craft a strategy to correct public perception as if better understanding is what he thought people needed. This is no political campaign as if trying to craft talking points or sound bites. Jesus has drawn aside with the twelve closest to him and wants them to be clear about who he is.
There is a pattern here that I think instructive for the church. As we draw aside week by week from our engagement in the world for worship it is crucial that we grow in our understanding and apprehension of our Lord. The gospel needs to be preached and probed among us. As the Lord’s people are being ever rooted and grounded in him so we are being prepared to go to the world and bear witness to him.
In answer to Jesus’ question the disciples responded that people said Jesus was “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” There is a theme that runs through all these answers. Jesus was popularly regarded as a prophet in keeping with the character and ministry of the older testament prophets. He was either the incarnation of an important prophet or could be named in that category with any of these prophets. He was considered to have been sent by God to call God’s people to relationship with the God, to walk in company with God.
It may be very similar to the popular image of Jesus as a wise teacher. He was the person who made mainstream the idea of loving your neighbour as yourself; Jesus is the guy who put the golden rule on the map, so to speak,—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” You know—Christmas, giving gifts, goodwill to men—he taught a lot of good stuff. We live, however, in days where maybe not even that much is popularly known. If you did a person on the street interview asking “who do you say Jesus is”, would people wonder who you were talking about.
The point that Jesus makes with his disciples is that the popular picture is incomplete. He does not deny that he fulfills the role of the prophet. Jesus would certainly own the title of wise teacher that people may ascribe to him today. But that picture is incomplete. It is only part of the story. It is true that such regard may be the reason people would consider getting introduced to Jesus; would seek out a church so that they might learn more of about him.
What breaks my heart is that in much of the church today this is only what you hear about Jesus. Jesus is presented as merely a good teacher who rally’s people to get involved in appropriate social causes. Or he is merely the prophet exposing injustice so the preacher takes this as a cue to rail against the latest iteration of injustice. I am not suggesting that Jesus is unconcerned about justice but to make him singularly so is to miss the reality of who he really is. Keep in mind that Jesus is instructing his disciples at this point in the story. His answer to this popular image is yes, but there is more.
3. So Jesus presses them further. “But who do you say that I am?’ And Peter, answering for the disciples responds, “You are the Messiah (Christ).” This is a loaded term for these disciples. They mean that Jesus is the one promised by God sent to redeem Israel; he is God’s anointed one who will put all things to right. And Jesus confirms that they are right about who he is but immediately ordered them not to tell anyone—not just yet. Why does Jesus ask them to keep this to themselves for now? The unfolding story makes it plain.
At the beginning of his gospel Mark has let his listeners in on that which these followers of Jesus are discovering as they walk in company with him. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Messiah), the Son of God,”—that is the first sentence of Mark’s gospel. He tells us that his is a story about Jesus Messiah, the Son of God. This declaration by Peter is the turning point in Mark’s story. It is here that Jesus’ identity is revealed and confirmed. From this point on we turn towards Jerusalem; from this point forward Jesus teaches them openly about what is coming for him there.
“Then he 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.” It is here that we see why Jesus asks that the disciples keep this disclosure the he is Messiah to themselves. Right away Peter took Jesus aside because he thought Jesus deluded and rebuked him. What Jesus was now teaching did not square with his understanding and expectation for the Messiah. It was nonsense. Jesus does not want his identify as Messiah broadcast just yet because he knows the popular understanding to be wide of the mark. He knows that it will foment insurrection. Jesus will be pushed forward for all the wrong reasons—as a champion for their own agendas.
This is the sticking point for many. That the Messiah must undergo suffering and be killed for our sakes. It is in this sacrifice that all things will be set right beginning with our being set right with God. The cross of Jesus Christ is not what anyone anticipated nor is it where people want to go. The cross makes sense to no one. Look at any of the heroes in Hollywood movies; somehow, in these stories, what would end the life of any human the hero survives. But in God’s story Jesus is killed. Resurrection is the conquering of death—not its avoidance. But we don’t like to go there with Jesus because of what it means about us—here the depth of the depravity of my sin is exposed.
In a 2015 interview, the Hungarian composer György Kurtág made a remarkable confession about his struggle to reconcile his atheism with the message he hears in Bach's music:
“Consciously, I am certainly an atheist,” said Kurtág, “but I do not say it out loud, because if I look at Bach, I cannot be an atheist. Then I have to accept the way he believed. His music never stops praying. And how can I get closer if I look at him from the outside? I do not believe in the Gospels in a literal fashion, but a Bach fugue has the Crucifixion in it—as the nails are being driven in. In music, I am always looking for the hammering of the nails … That is a dual vision. My brain rejects it all. But my brain isn't worth much.”
4. You see I want Jesus to push my agenda forward; to make things go well for me. (Of course, if things go well for me I can serve the world and make it a better place.) Instead he calls me to deny all this—to take up my cross, in other words carry the wood that signifies death to self and instead follow him. Consider Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting you mind of not on divine things but in human things.” (But I like human things!) Jesus may call Peter “Adversary”, but he does not throw him overboard instead tells him to get in line and follow.
This is the context of Jesus’ sayings to the crowd following with his disciples. Note with me the constellation of things that belong together in these sayings. On the one hand there is following him, mind on divine things, denying self, taking up the cross, losing life for his sake. On the other is mind on human things, our own way, saving my life, gaining the world yet forfeiting life.
Picture again Peter taking Jesus aside. Here he is following Jesus but now insists that Jesus has taken the wrong path. I wonder how often in life I have done this very thing. I take Jesus aside because I don’t want to give something up—I want to preserve this little thing for myself (i.e. save my life) At the end of the day my Saviour tells me to get in line. What I am trying to preserve is only to forfeit life. After all, says Jesus, what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit the one who is way, truth and life? You have nothing to buy what I willingly give you.
Oh, but I like the gains. We have all experienced how the newness of some acquisition soon fades. Yet we continue to think that some other gain will finally do it and push us over the top and bring satisfaction. Why do we fool ourselves so?
Basketball great Kobe Bryan's gave an interview with ESPN reporter Jamele Hill this year. Earlier in 2015 Kobe said, "Being a great friend is something I will never be." Now in this recent interview, Kobe tried to clarify that statement by saying, "I meant that friends can come and go, but banners hang forever." These gains we pursue always mean forfeiture of other things; they also render us in their image.
In a world where success is the measure and justification of all things, the figure of him who was sentenced and crucified remains a stranger. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?