Second Sunday in Lent
25 February 2018
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
There is an ad that has been popping up on my facebook feed for a church in downtown Vancouver. They’re a sizable church on Georgia Street and I am happy that they are able to do ministry downtown. But the ad has been driving me nuts. It says that they are ‘the church for the busy professional with spiritual needs.’
Billy Graham died this past week. I always knew of Billy Graham, though I never heard him preach, nor have read any of his books. A few years ago, an evangelical friend from Abbotsford invited me along to a couple of lectures by theologian Scot McKnight. While McKnight is an Evangelical and had no need to burst any bubble, a bubble he burst. He cited recent data from Barna Research and others that stated that by the time most Evangelicals turn 30, they have left the church. The bubble I am referring to is that of conservative churches thriving.
McKnight’s point, however, – intentionally provocative, I am sure – was that this was Billy Graham’s fault. It was Billy Graham’s fault, he argued, because Graham only preached conversion but not discipleship. And the Evangelical movement largely followed him in this.
If you wondered what drove me nuts about the advertisement on my facebook feed, it was precisely this: If you perceive the Gospel of Jesus Christ only to be for people’s spiritual needs, should they ever notice to have any, while you acknowledge that otherwise they are very busy, you are setting the bar very very low. I mean, people have all kinds of needs. In fact, perceiving to have needs is not even a reason to satisfy them, for not all perceived needs are good. If all needs were OK, then rape would be OK, as would have been Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
But more importantly, to state that a church’s ministry is about serving the spiritual needs of people who already are pretty busy, is a misrepresentation of the Gospel. You see, Jesus did not come to meet our spiritual needs, as much as we may like to think so. Jesus came to redeem the world and part of his work of redemption was to call followers and give them an example of service and of love, so that after he had returned to the Father, his followers, guided by the Holy Spirit would live in obedience to him and be part of his redemptive work.
Of course, we may not like the word obedience, it’s not my favourite word either. But Jesus calls us to obey his commandments, and more so, to obey him. This is not about obedience to some despot, it’s also not obedience that requires us to leave our brain at the coat rack, or swallow 26 improbable propositions before breakfast, rather, it involves our whole lives. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. … You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
We live in a consumer society. Capitalism has shaped our thinking in such a way that everything becomes a resource and we will always ask for the greatest benefit to us. We decided what church to attend, or whether to attend at all, by what we get out of it. But the call into discipleship isn’t about us, it’s about following Jesus. That is not to say that there won’t be a benefit to us. As Jesus says in today’s reading, “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.”
Perhaps like most of you, I did not know what to say after the school shooting in Parkland, Fl. I can’t count the mass shootings anymore. There always seems to be another one. As one Christian commentator wrote after the Las Vegas shooting, “As I saw that lowered flag this morning, I had the grim and abject thought that maybe we should just keep it that way. Because one thing we can be sure of is that the next mass shooting is already locked and loaded.”1
And so I failed in speaking to the unspeakable on both, the day it happened, Ash Wednesday, and last Sunday. Partly, because I did not know what to say, partly, because it was a short and busy week, and partly because mass shootings in the United States barely register anymore. Sadly, they now seem as American as apple pie.
Fortunately for me, fortunately for us, Jesus has something to say about it that extends past the most obvious, which is the necessary restriction of firearms.
A few verses before today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Peter had confessed Jesus to be God’s Messiah. It is following Peter’s confession that Jesus first announces his suffering and death.
After Peter’s rebuke and his own rebuke of Peter, Jesus continues by declaring that the life of the disciple shall not be so different from the life of the master, “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?” (Mark 8:34-36)
We have often personalized those verses and taken the cross Jesus speaks of as our cross, or the crosses we bear: Our own hardship, like physical, economical, or emotional struggles we may experience.
Though Jesus cares about our crosses, they are not the crosses Jesus speaks of here. The cross Jesus speaks of here is the cross of discipleship, which includes the emptying of ourselves, to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus, to deny ourselves and to lose our lives.” It is the exact description of Jesus’s own life.
This is instructive in regards to school shootings because we see that it is not about seeking more power and more control, as in the arguments south of the border for more weapons instead of less. Not only do more weapons bring with them greater potential for their abuse and misuse but power also becomes a form of idolatry: Instead of living lives that are vulnerable to each other and to God, we seek lives that put us in control. And this seeking to be in control in fact spirals out of control.
The problem of those defending the right to bear arms is that they are not willing to die. But only the willingness to die can bring peace, can keep us from killing – even if in our thoughts only – and thereby maintain our humanity. And that is how we gain our life by losing it.
Maybe it was overdue to talk about this latest mass shooting. Maybe you wondered why I spent so much time talking about what happened in another country.
However, the notion that God only augments what we already have (as in meeting the spiritual needs of busy people) or the notion that faith consists of propositions and has no bearing on how we live our lives are both idolatrous. And this is good to remember on any day, and also on a day when we hold our annual meeting and examine our our calling and our ministry.
Of course, none of us allow God to be completely in control of our lives, that is why we live by grace and by forgiveness. But we know it is what God wants, and somehow we even know it is what we want, even if we are conflicted about it.
And so when we gather in worship we acknowledge God’s claim on us, and when we receive the sacrament of the table we remember that Jesus emptied himself unto death on a cross, and we remember that we are called to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus who became our bread so that as we eat of this bread we may like him give ourselves for the world.