Scots Church Adelaide
The Pointy End of the Gospel

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

27 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?' 28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.' 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.' 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

31 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. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'

34 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.'

My immediate response to this week's reading? We are getting to the pointy end of the Gospel.

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

This verse is terrifying. It destroys any Christianity based on twenty-first century belief. Belief in Jesus is not accepting a disprovable proposition, or agreeing with statements of doctrine based on their reasonability. Belief, faith, and discipleship all mean follow. What does follow mean? "Take up your cross and come with me. Live life, as I did, to the point of crucifixion."

Bishop Spong writes about the cross

The cross was not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a living portrait of a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive. Here was a life free to give itself away, a life with no need to build itself up at another's expense.

Am I living this life? Am I free to give it away? Will I be selfless, and help someone, even if it may cost me my life? That's what I am called to do by the text this week.

A couple of weeks ago, I helped a poor immigrant family restore a couple of old pushbikes, which had been ‘rescued' from a hard rubbish collection. We drove across the city and picked up the bikes. Then we found a bike shop, and bought a pump, and chains and new tubes. These folk were horrified that I spent a hundred dollars for them... just on their pushbikes. They were enormously grateful that I spent most of the afternoon showing them how to change tires, and how to use the gears, and teaching them some road rules.

Is this taking up my cross? Hardly! It was great fun. I felt like I was being useful. It was an escape from the books, and a basking in people's gratitude, but not risky, or costly. So much of good works is simply rewarding! It is not selfless; it can even be quietly narcissistic. As Jesus said, in Luke 6,

32 ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

What about stepping in to support a couple of Muslim schoolgirls being 'verballed' by a bunch of young men in the Mall? Or speaking up for what is right, at the risk of losing my job, and then perhaps not being able to pay my mortgage?

I am reminded of a conversation with a friend. "Do you remember," he asked, "How we all talked about discipleship, and being faithful, when we were at Uni? Look at all those old friends with their beach houses and boats, and overseas holidays. What happened?"

All of this is relative. Occasionally I meet people who are impressed that my wife and I spent six years working outback with aboriginal people, and impressed that we work as clergy. But I look at the couple who lost six children in the horrors of Sudan. After they got their two surviving children into school here in Adelaide, they went back to work in the camps. There will always be someone to humble us. And we will always depend on the forgiveness of God, for the little we have done.

34 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. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.'

We don't need a literal understanding of 'the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,' for these verses to question our lives. Will we become old, with the inevitable regrets, but still feel life has been worth it? Or will those inevitable regrets sour us, because they are the sum of what we have been?

The experience of the Faith is that selflessness changes us. It frees us and remakes us. We only have to look at the good grannies of a congregation to see that. Is that what losing our life to save it, means? Or will we find that the pursuit of affluence and appearances, has left us empty? Sometimes, if I let myself get over-tired, and too focused on a work issue, I end up empty. I lose any sense of worth, of purpose, of anticipation. It's horrible, and frightening. Perhaps that is saving my life with hard work, only to lose it.

I was reminded this afternoon of my grandfather, Max Wilkin. He had a certainly courtly grace about him. I remember him tipping his hat, as we met a woman, one afternoon. It had the same warmth, and respect, as the handshake with which he greeted men. He was a strong man inside; the courtesy was no show. It was part of a commitment to what was good and right. I've been fortunate to see it in other men, too, like Rol Nichols, Milton Spurling, and Doug Mills. And in the good grannies; those old women in church, who you could almost miss seeing, until you meet their incredible richness and generosity. Often they are poor pensioners, and have endured horrible events, but have a depth, and peace, which is both humbling and inspiring. I think, "If being old can be like this, I won't mind it at all!" These old people are the grace of God to us. They show us 'saved lives.'

The good news which accompanies the terrifying words of this week's reading, is that those who lose their life, will save it. The "saving" is incredibly generous! A very little sacrifice and selflessness, seems to bear a disproportionate reward and redemption.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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