Sermon for Pentecost 14, Year B
Based on Mk. 8:34-35
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Today in our gospel we encounter “the” central teaching of Jesus concerning Christian discipleship. This teaching is a hard one. It’s hard because who really wants to deny themselves, take up the cross and follow Jesus?
Indeed, the values of our society today are the exact opposite. Society today promotes selfishness, greed, comfort and even rebellion as virtues for people to live by. In conflict with these values, our gospel reminds us that Christian discipleship is costly. Oftentimes, for many a Christian, discipleship has been very costly.
Indeed, it has led many a person down paths which “angels fear to tread.” Who can ever forget people that gave their lives for the cause: people like Polycarp, Joan of Arc, Jan Huss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, along with millions of less-famous Christians have counted and paid for the cost of discipleship. Many a Christian martyr knew very well that the cost of discipleship would be their death. When we look at our lives, and compare them with Christians like Joan or Dietrich, most of us fail to measure up.
What are WE prepared to pay in terms of the cost of OUR discipleship? Former bishop of the Christian church in South India, Lesslie Newbigin, somewhere once told the story of some new ‘converts’ to Christianity. When he visited these women in their village, they always welcomed him royally. They would have good Bible studies and worship services in their homes together with the bishop.
But none of the men, all of whom were merchants, ever showed much interest in having the desire to become Christians. As time went on and the bishop knew the men better, his curiosity got the best of him and he asked the men why they were not interested in becoming Christians. Their answer was very honest and direct. They said: “We admit Jesus was a very wonderful person and had many good teachings. We also respect him for what he did to help so many people. But we cannot accept his teachings about giving away our possessions because that costs too much. We cannot afford that.”
“It costs too much. We cannot afford that.” Jesus does tell us that the cost of discipleship is very high: it involves nothing less than our whole lives. Like the men in that Indian village, there shall always be people who find the cost of Christian discipleship far too expensive. But, as is the case with material things, so too it is with Christian discipleship. The costly item is generally of a superior quality to the cheaper one. In many cases, we do: “Pay for what we get.” Our Christian discipleship is very expensive, but the rewards of it are greater than we shall ever be able to measure.
Christian author, C.S. Lewis once described costly discipleship in this way: Christ says, ‘Give me ALL. I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work ~ I want YOU. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self….I will give you a new self instead. In fact I will give you myself, my own will shall become yours.’[i]
The problem with most of us is that we do not really want to give up our whole natural self. We do not want it killed completely. We would much sooner lose a branch or two than to have the whole tree down. We would sooner rather have the tooth fixed than have it out. We kind of like the old natural self because we believe that if we can preserve it we shall be able to enjoy life. However, as Jesus knew so well: we get so preoccupied with preserving the old nature that, as a matter of fact, we actually become miserable rather than joyful. The old natural self is so busy trying to live that life itself becomes a process of death and dying. Jesus was right, whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever will lose their life for his sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.
Harriet Tubman, the very brave American black woman who lived in the days of slavery and worked for its abolition, was only a child of thirteen when she stood between a bullying master and a slave, and was hit by the heavy object that he flung at the slave. She suffered from the effects all her life. Her youth was anything but happy, for she was forced to do work that was beyond her strength.
She decided to run away to safety, and was soon able to earn money for herself in freedom. Yet Harriet was still unhappy, thinking of those she had left behind in misery. She felt that she must go back to rescue them, and she did! On her own, she led parties of slaves to the free states, through deadly perils, angry owners following close on their heels.
She did not lose one person in nineteen trips. It is easy for us to help others when no self-denial is required of us; but, like Harriet Tubman, what joy we find when we are ready to sacrifice of ourselves for others.[ii]
May the example of Harriet Tubman, of countless other Christians down through the ages and today, and, most of all, the perfect example of Jesus himself be a constant source of strength and inspiration for us all. May we too love our God enough to pay the cost; to deny ourselves; to take up our cross and follow Christ.