Tuesday, August 30, 2011
I never made a sacrifice
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Then Jesus told his disciples, “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 will find it.”
I want to begin by introducing myself and saying what a pleasure it is to be with you this morning at St. Catherine’s. My name is John Newton, and I currently serve as the Bishop’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation. And I’m really excited to be here. In fact, I was at a conference with Mike in Boston this summer where he gave a presentation on the amazing work that God was doing in this community. And it wasn’t just me who got excited – our presiding bishop was also there and she was excited, and because I work on the bishop’s staff I can say with the utmost certainty that the entire diocesan staff is excited about what’s happening in this community. And so thank you for having me this morning – this is truly a privilege.
There’s a word that I think best describes the ethos of life in 21st century America – and that’s consumeristic – you and I live in a world that teaches us to consume. And consumerism’s a powerful idea because it feeds on the deepest desires of the human heart. You see, we all want to be happy. We want to be whole. We want to know who we are and why we’re here. And consumerism’s goal is to tell us how to do that – by consuming – what I call the “if only” mentality. If only I had a newer car, a nicer suit, if only I had a bigger house, a better paying job, a thinner waistline or a 52 inch flat screen – if only I had that, then I’d be happy and whole. As Homer Simpson put it, “the answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle, they’re on TV!” And so the comsumeristic worldview can be summed up like this. “Meaning is found out there, and so if any want to become fulfilled, let them deny nothing, take up their urge, and follow it. For those who want to save their life will fill it.”
Now in complete contrast to this me-centered, I need to consume or I’ll never be happy mindset stands the Christian Gospel. And a few years back I came across a quote that’s had a huge impact on how I understand this Gospel. David Livingstone was a 19th century missionary, and this quote’s his response to a Cambridge student curious as to why he’d give up everything to serve the poor in Africa. And this is what Livingstone said. “People talk of the sacrifice I’ve made in spending so much of my life in Africa. Is it a sacrifice which brings its own reward in the consciousness of doing good or that brings hope of some glorious reward in the future? Away with such a thought! It is emphatically no sacrifice, say rather a privilege. And then he said something I’ll never forget. “I never made a sacrifice.”
But isn’t sacrifice what Jesus calls us to do? I mean in today’s Gospel Jesus is pretty clear that if our primary motivation is to save our life – to preserve our own interests at all costs – we’re going to forfeit the very thing that we seek. And so here are the questions I’d like to wrestle with the morning. What exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And second, where do we find the strength to make that sacrifice?
Now you may recall from last week that in the context of Matthew’s Gospel Peter has just confessed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Well, this week Peter decides to tell Jesus how to do his job. You see Peter has a really clear picture of what a successful Messiah looks like, and what Jesus says about the cross doesn’t really jive with Peter’s script. The Messiah’s supposed to restore the Jewish kingdom by defeating the Roman authorities – not be defeated by them. And so when Jesus says that his strategy is to suffer and to die, to lose his life, Peter decides to intervene. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
But you know what I think Peter’s really saying. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to me.” You see Peter – I think he just wants what we all want. To be happy. To be whole. To know who he is and why he’s here. But Peter thinks that in order for this to happen, Jesus needs to start acting like a proper Messiah – like the kind that’ll overthrow Rome and appoint Peter to his cabinet. Peter’s thinking, “Jesus will be president and I’ll the VP. Because when that happens, I’ll finally be important. I’ll be happy. I’ll be whole. I’ll know who I am and why I’m here. But the cross? God forbid it. That must never happen to me.”
You see Peer didn’t rebuke Jesus because He was looking out for Jesus. Peter rebuked Jesus because He was looking out for Peter – because he was trying to find his own happiness his own way. And what I want us to see is that even though Jesus’ response is harsh, what Jesus is actually doing is showing sympathy. Because the point of today’s Gospel is not that Jesus wants us to stuff the deepest desires of our heart. It’s that he wants us to find the deepest desires of our heart in Him. “You want to be happy?” Jesus says, “You want to be whole? Do you want to know who you are and why you’re here? Then deny yourself. Take up your cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life are going to lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And so let’s go back to that first question – what exactly does Jesus ask us to give up? And here’s what I’d say about that. The primary thing Jesus wants us to give up – what he wants us to sacrifice – is that consumeristic lie that says that we can have the deepest desires of our heart met outside of an intimate relationship with Him and His mission to save the world. What Jesus asks us to sacrifice is our desire to be happy apart from Him, not because He’s mean, but because it doesn’t work! Jesus loves us, and he doesn’t want us to spend our lives looking for water in the midst of empty wells. But that doesn’t stop us from trying – from investing our ultimate home in our job or our net worth or in what so-and-so thinks of us or in how we look or in our marriage or in our children or in something other than Christ. And whatever that idol is for us – whatever it is that’s out there that “if only” we had we think we’d be whole – that is the very thing that needs to die. This is how CS Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.
Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day: submit with every fiber of your being. Keep back nothing. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
In other words, what has to die in each one of us is our desire to be happy apart from Christ.
But that’s hard – and so where do we find the strength to make those sacrifices? Well, let’s start with the good news. We’re here. We’ve gathered this morning as a community of disciples to hear the Word of God, to confess our sins, and to reach out our hands and ask to be fed. And so we start by showing up and just acknowledging that Jesus is not a seven-easy-steps to losing your life kind of Savior. I mean think about it, the disciples in today’s Gospel – they’ve been following Jesus for a while now and it’s today, for the very first time, that they begin to grasp the meaning of discipleship. And so here’s the point I’m trying to make. We never know the cost of following Jesus when we join the church, or when we’re confirmed. The disciples in today’s Gospel sure didn’t. And so we begin by showing up with an open heart, week after week, because the meaning of discipleship is always learned along the way.
But that being said it is learned, which is what formation is all about, and so here’s what I’d like to leave you with this morning. We do not find our life – the deepest desires of our heart – in Jesus by deciding to try harder. No, our heart has to be moved so that we can say with Livingstone, “I never made a sacrifice.” And so let the focus of your heart be the only sacrifice that is at the center of the Christian Gospel. And I’m not talking about our sacrifice for Jesus. I’m talking about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Because the first cross we’re asked to embrace is not our own – it’s Jesus’. In other words, we’ll never take up our own cross until we first learn to take up His. After all, that question Jesus asks us – “what will you give in return for your life?” – is the same question the Father asked Jesus. “Jesus, what will you give in return for their life?” And the good news of the Christian Gospel is that Jesus had an answer. “My own. I will give my own life in return for theirs.”
Focus on the Lord who lost His life for you, and you’ll find the strength to lose your life for him. Mediate on Hebrews 12:2, which says, “For the sake of the joy that was set before Him Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.” And then ask yourself the question – what was the joy that was set before Jesus that made the cross seem as nothing? Equality with God? Perfect bliss with the Father in Heaven? The entire creation? The worship of angels? And of course the answer is no, because Jesus already had all these things. And so what was the joy set before Jesus that, according to Hebrews, made the cross seem as nothing – what didn’t Jesus already have? And of course the answer is us. Jesus’ love for you and for me was so great that to Jesus the cross seemed as nothing.
In fact, I love thinking about God the Father, on that first Easter morning, thanking Jesus – thanking him for his willingness to sacrifice His own life for the world; for the sacrificial love of that one singular act. And then I like to imagine Jesus’ response, as He thinks about you and me and this church and the world and then deciding to say this in response. “Father, I never made a sacrifice.”