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Sermon for 16th Pentecost, September 12, 2021: Follow Me (The Rev. Walter Ramsey)

I want to tell you a small story about a successful young woman walking home to her upscale apartment from work. As she approached a street corner, she noticed a little girl standing there begging. She was reminded of a scene from a Charles Dickens or Hans Christian Anderson story as she came near. The little girl’s clothes were paper thin and dirty, her hair matted and unclean, and her cheeks and runny nose red from the cold. She dropped a few coins into the girl’s bowl, gave her a slight smile, and walked on. As she walked, she started to feel guilty. How could she go home to her warm house with its full pantry and well-supplied, expensive wardrobe while this little girl shivered on the street? She also began to feel a bit helpless. In her helplessness, the young woman began to feel angry, angry with God. She prayed a prayer of protest, saying, “God, how can you let these sorts of things happen? Why don’t you do something to help this girl?” And then, to her surprise, God answered. God said, “I did do something. I created you.” The story ends with God’s call to this young woman to discipleship. It wasn’t just God’s clear answer to her prayer but the Holy Spirit’s leading her in becoming aware of and caring about the little girl’s poverty and need. Discipleship or following Jesus takes many forms, possibly as many as people called to be disciples. Still, they all begin in one Way, by denying oneself taking up your cross and following Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Mark pictures a scene on Jesus’ and his followers’ journey north to Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples what they have heard people say about him. People have been talking about him because the disciples have something to report. Some say Jesus is the reincarnated John the Baptist, Elijah, or at least one of the prophets. Then Jesus moves to the critical question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers based on what he has come to know of Jesus, from his teachings, and from what he has seen Jesus do, he affirms, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus seems to accept this title Peter uses, but he tells them to keep quiet about it. – – – Why? Why wouldn’t Jesus want to spread the word that he is the long-awaited anointed one of God? There are very many reasons why Jesus might not want this spread about, primarily political, but the later conversation with Peter suggests at least one reason. It becomes clear that when Peter calls him the Messiah, he may have the right title but the wrong understanding of what the title means for Jesus—restoring the Dominion of God on earth. Jesus explains to them the Son of Man must suffer many things, be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, be killed, and after three days to rise again.

This is certainly not the kind of Messiah Peter was expecting, but we mustn’t be too hard on Peter. he is a human being after all, and at this point, can only see things from the perspective of a human being, not God’s as Jesus pointed out. Jesus calls the crowd together along with his disciples and tells them, “If any of you want to come the Way I’m going, you must say no to yourselves, pick up your cross, and follow me. Yes: if you’re going to save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life because of me and the Good News, you’ll save it.

So here we have it, our roadmap for discipleship, self-denial, and cross-bearing. What does it mean to deny oneself? It’s not depriving oneself of something like my giving up ciabatta bread drizzled with olive oil for Lent so that I can lose 10 pounds. It’s not even like ascetics who deprive themselves of food and sleep to get closer to God. To deny oneself is to say “No” to yourself and “Yes” to God. To view our lives according to our communion with Jesus and living in God’s kingdom. Jesus calls his followers away from self-centeredness and loyalty to the world’s status, power, and achievement norms. Denying oneself occurs when one embraces Jesus as the one to follow. Self-denial and cross-bearing, losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel are crucial elements of a person’s following Jesus.

Taking up a cross recognizes that our society’s dominant ways stand instead of a life of self-denial and sacrifice. It displays to the world what it is to live in God’s Sovereignty. The focus is not on losing one’s life for any reason but doing so because of embracing Jesus and the gospel. WOW, if this sounds really hard and very uncomfortable, IT IS. C.S. Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” (1)Jesus didn’t promise us comfort as a disciple but a cross. Jesus did tell us that his yoke is easy because we don’t do this alone. Jesus helps us bear our cross when we share his faith. But first, we need to examine our answers to the question: Who do we say Jesus is? Would we like to think of him as simply a great human teacher? Would we prefer him as a Superhero figure, able to ‘zap’ all the world’s problems into shape? Are we prepared to have the easy answers of our culture challenged by the actual Jesus, by his redefined notion of messiahship, and by the call to follow him in his risky vocation? (2)

If we respond to the calling to be a disciple of Jesus, how do we accomplish this self-denial and cross-bearing? How do we begin? It begins for us in our baptism. By baptism, we receive the gift of Christ’s faith by the Holy Spirit that elevates our reason to understand spiritual things, things about God that we can’t know by reason alone. Notice that I said we receive the gift of Christ’s or Messiah’s faith, not our faith. The human Jesus’s faith in God’s will allowed him to empty himself, deny his godhood, suffer and die on his cross for our salvation. This is the faith that Jesus’ Spirit so lovingly places in our hearts.

We nourish this faith by self-examination, confession, the Eucharist, and communion with God and one another. by worshiping God and living as a community of the faith of Jesus. Through this, we daily die to ourselves and rise to new life in Messiah Jesus. The Good News of Christ defines our identity as it claims the entirety of our lives. Our witness to this new identity is personal, complete, and public. By taking up our crosses and following Jesus individually, but mainly as a community at all its levels, we are part of the Jesus Movement. As the Most Rev. Michael Curry, our presiding Bishop, defines it.

“The Jesus Movement is the ongoing community of people who center their lives on Jesus and following him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, each other and creation.” “In all things, we seek to be loving, liberating and life-giving—just like the God who formed all things in love; liberates us all from prisons of mind, body, and spirit; and gives life so we can participate in the resurrection and healing of God’s world.”

“As the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, and followers of Jesus’ Way, we seek to live like him through a liberating, life-giving relationship with God (evangelism), to cultivate relationships with each other (reconciliation), and to develop those relationships with all of creation (creation care).” Like the woman in the story, when we cry out to God, why don’t you do something about racism, poverty, injustice, and destruction of our world? God answers, pick up your cross. You ARE my solution. Amen.

(1) Quote by C. S. Lewis: “I didn’t go to religion to make me .... me-happy-i (2) NT Wright on Mark 8:27-38 — Church of the Holy Trinity.

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