Tuesday, September 15, 2009

consumed by a desire to lose

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?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But 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." 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? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those 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."

Two years ago, I had the chance to coach one of the greatest sporting events of our time. The sport was football. Well, flag football – basically the same thing. And so don’t think Super Bowl. Think “Luther Bowl” – an annual flag football tournament, in honor of the great Martin Luther, where seminaries from across America – or at least Virginia – fight for two things: (1) glory and (2) the coveted bobble-head Martin Luther trophy. And yes, I had the honor of coaching our seminary’s team – the “fighting friars.” And I have to say, I was consumed by a desire to win. And so even though my official title was coach, I saw myself as somewhat of a general. And so before our first game, like any good general, I sat down my men and issued a call to war. I explained that we were an army, that I needed their allegiance, that losing wasn’t an option, and that our enemies had to be crushed.

There was, however, one problem – our first game was against a seminary that was predominantly – female. And apparently, these women were under the impression that the Luther Bowl “was just for fun” – as if there wasn’t a bobble-head Martin Luther on the line. And somehow, in like the first thirty seconds, I may have accidentally tackled their smallest player. And she may have had to go the ER. And the ref may have cancelled the game. Anyway, really embarrassing. But I tell you this for a reason – if we are consumed by a desire to win, we’re going to lose.

Now, that being said, let’s talk more about war. And about armies. And about generals. Because today’s reading from Mark is about all three. You see, tonight Jesus tells us that we must lose our lives for the sake of the gospel – and believe it or not, the word Gospel is a word about war and armies and generals. After all, the word gospel means “good news,” but in its original context – before the “Christian gospel” as we know it was ever written – the word gospel was a military term used by the Roman army. For example, if the Roman army went to war and conquered another enemy – the general would come back to Rome and tell everyone the gospel – or the “good news” – that Rome’s enemies had been crushed. And of course that general, in the name of the emperor, would ask for the people’s allegiance. And so to reiterate, the word gospel is the good news that a war has been won, that an enemy has been crushed, and that the general –whoever’s leading the army – is worth following.

Now, before moving on, I’ve got to say one more thing. The people of Israel – or the Jews – had been conquered by Rome. And because of that, Rome was their enemy. And Jews in Jesus’ day were ready to go to war with Rome under the right circumstances, and I say the right “circumstances” because the people of Israel lacked one thing – a general, that is someone to lead their army and crush the Romans. And do you know what the Hebrew word is that describes the general that’s supposed to lead God’s army? Messiah.

Now, with that in mind, think about Peter’s confession in today’s reading from Mark. Look a bit different than you first imagined? “You are the messiah.” Not you are God, or you are the second person of the Trinity. But, “you are the messiah. You’re Israel’s long awaited general. You, Jesus, are leading the army. You, Jesus, will conquer our enemy. And if you’re leading the fight, then we’re going to war too. General Jesus, you are the Messiah – and we, we are your army.

And so when Jesus – Israel’s general, the leader of the army – starts using words like suffering, rejected, and killed, not about the Romans but about himself, do you see why Peter freaks out? Why He takes Jesus aside, and ironically, tries to inform him how to be a better Messiah? Think about it. The only generals that end up on a cross are bad generals. Losing generals. And yet, this Jesus, this would-be Messiah, this general tells Peter that he must – that he must be nailed to a Roman cross. And so it kind of makes you wonder. What kind of battle is this? And who’s the enemy? And finally – what kind of general is Jesus?

Not the one Peter expected – that’s for sure. And you know why? Because Peter didn’t understand the enemy. That’s why. Poor Peter thought that Rome was the enemy, that Rome was the problem. Not only is Peter’s view short-sighted, but theologically, it’s really problematic. After all, doesn’t God love Rome too? Are the Romans not also made in God’s image? And so the enemy was never Rome. Or Greece. Or Babylon. Or Persia. Or Assyria. Or any other nation that conquered the people of Israel. And so what is?

EVIL AND DEATH AND SIN. The enemy has always been evil and death and sin. And by “sin,” I don’t mean when we break a rule here, and break a rule there. That’s a cheap view of sin. Because when the bible talks about sin, it uses the word to describe this horrible power that puts our world and our lives out of joint – the evil, the hatred, the abuse. And so by sin I’m talking about that dark place inside each of us that makes us go war with each other, that makes us think we have to conquer at all costs, that makes us think that our opponents just have to be crushed – whether it’s Rome or someone we don’t like or even a seminary flag football team made up of all women. The enemy has always been evil and death and sin.

And so back to our questions. What kind of battle is this? A battle between good and evil, between life and death, between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. And what kind of general is Jesus? The kind that conquers evil and death and sin in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up. By going to the cross and bearing their full weight. By absorbing all the evil, all the hatred, and all the abuse – even unto death – only to rise again and conquer our enemy once and for all. And he did that for us. It’s an amazing thing. In the war against evil and death and sin, Jesus wasn’t consumed by a desire to win. He was consumed by a desire to lose. And in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up, that’s how we won the war.

At the end of every service, I yell something from the back of the church. “Let us go forth in the name of Christ.” In an odd way, this is the church’s way of issuing a call to war. After all, Peter was right – Jesus is our long awaited general, the one leading the fight against evil and death and sin. And while God’s victory over evil is secure, there’s still work to be done. And you and I – we get to do that work. Because to be a disciple of Jesus is to place ourselves on the front lines in the war against anything and everything that opposes God’s desire to reconcile all things to himself. But let us not make the same mistake as Peter. Because if we are consumed by a desire to win, we’re going to lose.

And so here’s the take-home for this week. Be consumed by a desire to lose. Because every time we bless someone that curses us, or turn the other cheek, or serve someone less fortunate, on the one hand, it’s going to cost us. We will deny our self. There will be a cross. But on the other hand, we’re going to discover something amazing – that by sacrificing our self for others, we’re fighting the only war that’s ever mattered. A war that Jesus has already won for us. And when that sinks in, not only will we gladly lose our lives for others – but in a way that’s so beautiful and so strange that only God could have thought it up – we’ll actually save our life in the process.

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