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Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cruise Ship or Disciple-ship? (Mark 8:31-38)


31 Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” 32 He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. 33 Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

34 After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37  What will people give in exchange for their lives? 38  Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

 

As president of my college class, one of my responsibilities was to plan and organize the senior class trip.  Previous classes had gone to such exotic locations as New York City, Washington DC, Myrtle Beach, and Hershey, PA.  Each destination was a direct reflection of the fund-raising prowess and leadership of the particular class.

 

As I did the research, comparing prices and seeing how far I could stretch our fund-raising dollars, I raised the bar and set a higher standard for senior class trips – taking 36 college seniors on a cruise to the Bahamas.  Those few days were a welcome relief to a bunch of college students in upstate New York, where even by March, we were still up to our hindparts in piles of gray snow.  To say that I earned the title, “class president for life,” because of that cruise would not be an understatement!

 

Has anyone here ever been on a cruise?  Cruises make their reputation on service and attention to detail.  If you get on a cruise ship, prepare for a few days of rest and relaxation that is focused all around you.  Prepare to be entertained, prepare to be pampered, prepare to be well-fed.

 

One of the oldest images of the Church is of a ship.  It’s an image that suggests the Church is a place of safety and refuge from the storms of life – something about how we’re all in this boat together.  The technical name for the part of the sanctuary where the congregation sits is “nave,” derived from the same word we get “navy.”  And indeed, if you look at the inside roof of many church sanctuaries, including ours, you can imagine that you are sitting inside hull of a ship turned upside-down.

 

So, the church is a ship, but what kind of ship?  Within every church, there are those who will act like it’s a cruise ship – where other people do the work so we can relax and be entertained and pampered and well-fed, which would be very comfortable and pleasant, to be sure, but it doesn’t square very well with the Jesus who tells us, in today’s Scripture reading, that those who would want to come after him must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow him.

 

For those who would like a life of ease and comfort and power and prestige, Jesus is making it very clear that following him will not get you there – news that is perhaps as unsettling to us as it was to his first disciples.

 

Peter, James, and John, and the other disciples had been among the first ones to follow Jesus, to respond to his invitation to “Come after me.”  They had already left behind much – their family, their friends, their careers.  They left much because following Jesus promised much more.  He was performing signs and wonders, healing and casting out demons, walking on water, raising the dead – gaining more fame, more prominence, more popularity with each move.

 

A movement was forming around Jesus, and these disciples were right in the middle of the action.  They had hitched their star to Jesus, and as he rose into positions of power and influence, they would be there at his right and left hand – the power next to the power, as it were.

 

Peter went as far to call Jesus, “the Messiah.”  Jesus said he was correct, but shocked them all by teaching 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.  I was hoping for smooth sailing from here on out, and a cross just isn’t part of my plan.”

 

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are thinking human thoughts and not God’s thoughts.”  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.”

 

Peter, you see, wants and needs a strong God.  Peter wants a strong God...and who can blame him. Are we any different? When the crushing weight of hardship bears down upon us, when the voices of despair drown out all others, when it's one disappointment after another, don't we also want a strong God to avenge our hurts, to right all wrongs, and to put us back on top of things?

 

Except...except that it's precisely when I'm down and out, when life's setbacks and disappointments have conspired to make me feel like I'm nothing, that I wonder what a God of might, strength, and justice--the God of winners, that is--has to say to me, an ordinary schmuck and everyday Joe, who often feels far closer to defeat than to victory.

 

I think this is what Jesus means in his rebuke to Peter by contrasting divine things and earthly ones. By our human reckoning strength is everything, might makes right, and the one who dies with the most toys wins. But God employs a different calculus and measures strength not in terms of might but of love, not by victory but vulnerability, not in possessions but in sacrifice, not by glory but by the cross.

 

Following Jesus is not comfortable.  It’s not a golden ticket to an easy life.  Following Jesus is going to require more than just knowing things about Jesus.  Following Jesus means going where he went, doing what he did.  It means dying to self so we can be part of God’s greater life, submitting our will to Christ’s will.  “Take up your cross and follow me” – Jesus poured out his life, his access to power, wealth, prestige, comfort – in order to give life to others.  We are called to nothing less.

 

You see, there’s a big difference between a cruise ship and disciple-ship.  You climb aboard a cruise ship, and someone will hand you a cold drink and a hot towel.  Follow Jesus and pursue a life of discipleship, and he hands you a cross and says, “Here, you’re going to need this. And in the meantime, grab an oar and start rowing, or grab a net and start fishing, or grab a tool and start fixing, or grab a map and start navigating.”

 

To be part of the church, to be aboard this ship means to be put to work and service in some way.  Now, many churches operate on the 80/20 rule.  80% of the load is carried by 20% of the people.  In such churches, everyone’s favorite person to do a task is “Someone Else.”  Who will teach the children?  Someone Else.  Who will sing in the choir?  Someone Else.  Who will lock up the building?  Someone Else.  Who will lead the outreach effort?  Someone Else.

 

Can I let you in on a secret?  Someone Else already has enough on their plate.  In reality, Someone Else probably doesn’t have the time or energy to get to that project, and so it’s probably just going to go undone. 

 

Friends, the church is at its best when all of its members are at work in loving service in some way.  You see on the front of the bulletin, under the staff listing, “Ministers – all who lovingly serve God and Neighbor.”  The reality is that not just pastors, but all Christians are called to ministry, it’s just that many fail to claim that call.  Important, life-giving, life-changing ministry never takes place, for want of servants who get it all done.  We have important work to do, and it will take all hands on deck to get it done.  I can’t do it all.  Our staff cannot do it all.  Our leaders and committee chairs can’t do it all – each of us has a role to play, each of us has work to do.

 

The exception to that is when we’re going through a season in life where we cannot contribute, in terms of time, talent, or treasure, like we might want to.  Maybe a health or family situation or some other circumstance that is a barrier to us doing everything we’d like to or feel we should – friends, that’s where the rest of the church has a vitally important role to play.  That’s when those of us who can, who are able, need to step it up all the more to stand in the gap on behalf of those who can’t in any given season.

 

That’s something I stress to people who are preparing to join the church as members.  To every person who joins, it’s more than just about having your name on the roll, it’s about making a commitment to the ministry God is doing in and through this church.  Membership is a way to say, “This is my church, I am responsible for it.  I am committed to it.  I will give of my best – my time, my talent, and my treasure – to see God’s purpose through this church realized.”

 

Yes, it’s fun and safe and comfortable and easy to simply be along for the ride.  It’s nice to let everyone else do the work while we are pampered and entertained, relaxed and well-fed. It’s nice, but following Jesus calls us to more.  Jesus calls us to follow him, which will always come with personal cost and sacrifice.

 

The difference between the cruise ship and disciple-ship is the difference between being served and being a servant.  Don’t settle for just being a passenger.  Jesus needs us all to join the crew.

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