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Sunday, March 4, 2012

We Are The Champions (Mark 8:27-9:1)

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.”

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Have you ever met people who, when playing a game, will say, “Let’s not keep score, let’s just play for fun.” This is a phrase that makes no sense to me. Not keep score? What’s the fun in that? I come from a family where we don’t play for fun; we play to win.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to be that competitive AND be a sports fan from Buffalo? Even the high school I went to had, hands-down, the worst football team in our division. Imagine our surprise when, the very last game of the season in my junior year, our boys squeaked out a victory over not just any team, but our cross-town rivals. “We are the Champions” blared over the loudspeakers as we celebrated our first victory in six years that finished our season 1-9 and had absolutely no implication for the playoffs, and it was the first game anyone in the student body, including the seniors, and the super seniors, and the super duper seniors could remember winning. We were still losers, but that night, we partied like we had just won the Super Bowl.

People like to win. Have you ever played a game with a child who wants to keep changing the rules just so they can avoid losing? Nobody wants to be a loser, and nobody wants to be associated with a loser.

Yet sometimes, the rules have to be changed, and Jesus will turn familiar rules on their head and introduce a scoring system that doesn’t look like anything the world has to offer. He will change the definition of winners and losers, as well, and before it’s all said and done, Jesus will announce a shocking and controversial game plan for everyone on his team, and we may very well wonder if he is a Christ worth following. May we pray.

Peter was proud to have gone first in the draft when Jesus was picking a team. He still could remember the day, as if it were yesterday, when Jesus spoke his name along the lakeshore and said, “Come follow me.” Following Jesus didn’t come without cost. Peter and his brother Andrew had abandoned a lucrative fishing business to follow Jesus, a decision his financial advisor called “foolish,” but Peter knew a winner when he saw one.

So far, so good. Jesus’ life and work showed constant signs of God’s reign. Jesus had cast out demons, healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, calmed the storm, raised the dead, fed the multitude and walked on water. The crowds loved him, and Peter was loving every minute of it.

One day Jesus asked, “Who do people say I am?” The other disciples were either too dense to get it or too embarrassed to say it, and so they hemmed and hawed and did a lot of talking without really saying anything. Jesus asked it again, more pointed this time: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, calmly and confidently, said, “You are the Messiah.” His answer hung in the air. Though this rabbi from Nazareth was a long shot, Peter staked his future on the assumption that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah.

Peter knew Jesus was putting together a winning team, Jesus had chosen Peter first and Peter knew that when Jesus set up his new kingdom, Peter would have a share in all Jesus had. Peter was just waiting for someone to cue the music and for “We are the Champions” to start blaring through the loudspeaker. Victory would be theirs. Peter had clearly staked his future with a winner.

However, Peter’s confession had not even settled in when the shocker hit as Jesus taught that the Messiah would be rejected by anyone with any shred of power. He would suffer and die a criminal’s death - naked & humiliated, hanging upon a cross for all to see. Distressed, Peter took Jesus aside and said, “Say it ain’t so. How can the Messiah be both anointed and accursed? How can the Messiah restore honor to the nation when he dies such a shameful death? Jesus, how will we win, if everything about the cross screams our defeat?”

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus called the rest of the crowd together and said, “Listen up, people, and listen good! If any of you would be my follower, if any of you would be my disciple, if any of you wants a place in my kingdom, let them deny themselves and take up their cross - this emblem of suffering and shame - let them take up their cross and follow me.”

I’m with Peter. This is no way to gain followers. Promises of suffering and bearing crosses - that’s just not going to sell. C’mon, Jesus, this is no way to prove yourself as the Messiah! A savior who dies ashamed and accursed, a king placed on death row and executed by the state before he even takes the throne, a long-awaited revolution crushed before it even begins, and Jesus calls this victory.

Like us, Peter had his mind set on human things - the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Jesus says, “My kingdom doesn’t work the same way. If you want to be a winner in my kingdom, if you want to be part of my team, if you want to be my follower, then take up your cross. Be willing to give your life for my sake, and once you have lost everything, then you’ll find that you have gained everything.”

The kingdom of God has often been called “an upside-down kingdom.” According to Mark, Jesus defines discipleship as a contrast between human values and God’s values. There should have been clues all along that the very definitions of winners and losers would be reversed. Jesus proves disappointing to all of us who have “We are the Champions” cued and ready to start playing. Our preference would be a Savior who is kickin’ butt and takin’ names. Instead, we get suffering and death, and a call to follow him all the way to the cross.

Only those who follow Jesus all the way to the cross will realize that Jesus is rarely the Savior we want, but he is always the Savior we need. If we stop before Calvary, if we bypass the crucifixion, if we go right from the “Hosannas!” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias!” of Easter and skip Good Friday, then we misunderstand. We will mistake him for just another miracle worker, or just another wise and compelling teacher, or just another champion who beat the odds. If we crown Jesus as King and Kings and Lord of Lords but gloss over the cross, then we proclaim a false Messiah, for Jesus’ true identity can be known only at the cross.

Why follow a crucified Christ? Because, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Only a suffering God can help.” Because God is, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, the “fellow sufferer who understands.” Only at the cross do we realize this. Only at the cross is God revealed as the One who suffers with us in our suffering, in order to ease all suffering.

Friends - this is God! The cross of Christ bears witness to a God who hears the cries of the poor and defends those who cannot defend themselves. In Jesus, the God of the Bible comes among us as a vulnerable baby born among the homeless, lives as a stranger in a strange land, associates with sinners and outcasts, gives hope to all who are hopeless, and is then executed as a criminal, and buried in a borrowed tomb.

Our Christian faith has always seen this terrible, shameful, degrading death as a victory, indeed the victory by which God vanquished the power of evil once and for all. What the world names as losing, we name as winning. What the world names as shame, we name as glory. A crucified Christ is good news to a bruised and broken people, for he gives witness to the God who sheds glory to join us in our shame, who leaves heaven to enter our hells-on-earth, who abandons strength and power in order to join us, embrace us, hold us, love us and redeem us in all our places of weakness.

And yet, we are all like Peter - we’re ready for God to vindicate, but instead we get Jesus on his way to the cross, hardly the conquering hero we wanted. He is just going to take what the world dishes out. He doesn’t fight back, he doesn’t lash out, he doesn’t call down fire from heaven to consume his enemies, even though that’s what we would do, and that’s what we think he should do.

Not only does Jesus not retaliate, but he prays for his tormentors even as they drive the nails into his body, even as they strip him naked and deny him of his dignity, even as they insult him and spit on him and gamble for his clothes, Jesus prays words of forgiveness for those causing his pain, even while they are doing the very thing that is causing his pain. And then, he looks at us, and he says, “OK, now your turn - deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.

Being a disciple of Jesus requires that we change our tune. It’s pretty hard to sing “We are the Champions” with a cross upon your shoulder. The song of discipleship is not “We Are the Champions,” for the question that comes to us through the ages is this: “Are ye able,” says the Master, “to be crucified with me?” “Yea, the sturdy dreamers answer, to the death we follow thee.” It is in the cross of Christ we find our glory, and what the world calls losing, that is the place we name as our greatest victory.

What will it profit any of us to gain the whole world and lose our life? Not much, according to Jesus. It might just give us everything we’ve ever wanted, and end up costing us everything we need. Jesus isn’t looking for winners, at least not according to the world’s standards. If you want to be a winner in Jesus’ kingdom, lose everything, for starters. Your dignity, your control, your comfort. Your affluence, your achievement, your appearances. Give it all up for the sake of Jesus and the gospel.

Friends, Jesus isn’t looking for champions of the world. He’s looking for followers. Jesus is choosing his team right now. If you want to be his follower, take up your cross and follow him.

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