Jesus modeled God’s selfless, other-centered love in becoming one of us, dying and rising; followers of Jesus are called likewise to set themselves out of the center of life, the center of reality, and look to the good and need of the other.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 24, year B; texts: Mark 8:27-38; Isaiah 50:4-9a
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
In 1543, as he lay on his death bed, we are told that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus had placed in his hands the newly-published copy of his life’s work, a radical re-thinking of the place of Earth in the heavens. Copernicus argued that in fact the Sun was the center of the heavens, not the Earth, and the Earth orbited the Sun, along with the other planets. His theory wasn’t immediately rejected by the Church, but nearly 75 years later it was declared to be “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture.” Of course, with the later help of others like Sir Isaac Newton, it eventually became accepted that he had gotten it right. Except for the idea that the Sun was the center of the heavens. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, astronomers began to realize that even our Sun was simply one star among many, and now we understand that our Sun is at the edge of a huge galaxy of stars called the Milky Way, a galaxy which itself is not very close to the center of the universe. So in less than 500 years, Earth has been moved in human thought from the very center of all that exists to a tiny planet on the fringe of all that exists.
It’s a hard blow to realize that we’re not the pinnacle of creation. One of the reasons the Church always seemed to resist such data as scientists discovered it over the centuries was in part because of our understanding of the Incarnation. Surely if the God who created the universe blessed our existence so much by becoming one of us, then we must be the best, the brightest, the highest of all creation. To consider that we might be living in the boondocks of the universe, to say nothing of the idea that we might be only one of millions of other species of intelligent life scattered across millions of light years can be threatening to some people of faith.
But if that Incarnate One himself, Jesus our Lord, is to be believed today, it’s not merely foolish that we ever thought so highly of humanity. According to Jesus, his coming as one of us was such an act of self-giving, of losing of one’s self on the part of the Triune God, that it calls those of us who would follow Jesus to the same kind of self-loss, self-sacrifice. Rather than see our discipleship as a sign of favor and importance, Jesus invites us, urges us, to see our discipleship as the beginning of the moving of ourselves from the center of our universe, and a changing of our focus instead to looking to the reality, the needs, the pain, the suffering of others before our own.
This is such an important point for Jesus, and it’s so often missed. But it’s core to what Jesus himself experienced.
It’s tempting to think that we’re a big deal because God became one of us. But perhaps it’s the opposite. Surely we can say with confidence that the Triune God thought enough of us to become one of us. John 3 makes that clear, that the Son came because of the Father’s love for us. A love so powerful it hoped to bring us all to healing, to salvation.
But perhaps we might want to realize how unlikely such attention by the Creator of all things this really is. Consider the size of the universe, the immensity of space, the uncountable galaxies that exist, let alone stars. We could learn a lot from the psalmist of Psalm 8 who, in the face of such contemplation, said, “Who are we that you would care for us?” That the Creator of all that is cared about the bipedal beings on a planet on the edge of the universe enough to become one of us in order to bring us back is nothing short of astonishing.
Yet it is also, from God’s standpoint, a huge step down. When I was young, people would say: “Think of how different we are from ants. If you were to imagine what God did, it would be like us becoming ants, so the ants could understand what we really were like, and so on.” That kind of made sense to me. But given the expanse of the creation, surely it’s more like comparing us to single-cell amoebas. Or something even smaller, less coherent. In the life of this world, we’re actually closely related to ants.
And yet . . . and yet. The Triune God was willing to lose all to become one of us. To join our existence, take up our lot, all for the sake of bringing us back into love with God and each other. To suffer our indignities, to be limited like we are. And ultimately to permit us to kill him. This is the One, the Son of God, Jesus, whom we follow.
And so Jesus calls us to do the same. If we see this reading from Isaiah today as one of many referring to Jesus, and his willing suffering on our behalf, Jesus today invites us to see it as referring to us. “If I’m willing to lose everything to be with you, teach you, love you, even my life, then I need you to follow that way,” Jesus says. To be willing to lose all. That’s what discipleship is.
What Jesus says is clear: following him is not a path to self-aggrandizing, not a path to wealth, not a path to importance. My followers, he says, become the least, not the greatest. They turn their cheeks to those who strike them, as he did. They lose instead of trying to win. They don’t think of themselves first, but they think of others.
His is not a message for those who would make governments enforce particular religious beliefs by constitutional amendment or by law, or those who would declare that the ultimate goal is that Jesus’ followers rule the world.
He says, “take up your cross,” be willing to face the worst in following me. Be willing, as I was, to lose everything. Because – and this is the key – because to bring the healing he needs, the love God envisions, the grace Jesus’ death brings, it will take all of Jesus’ followers to reach all who need such gifts, and those followers will need to be willing to let go of all their needs to accomplish this mission.
But what we are being called to discover is not a false humility or self-denigration, nor is it an explanation for various sufferings we might have.
Too often we’ve taken the expression “take up your cross” and applied it to daily pains and annoyances. Even real suffering. We’ll say, “that’s just my cross to bear,” speaking of whatever it is that causes us difficulty. But as real as pain and suffering are, that’s not at all what Jesus means by this expression.
In “taking up our cross,” Jesus means us to take up suffering and loss for the sake of others and for the sake of the world. If any of us do bear a cross, it’s when we move ourselves off of the center of our lives and look to where we can be God’s grace and love to others. It’s certainly not the unlooked for and uncontrollable suffering that exists in the world, hard as that might be.
But a worse problem is the false sense of martyrdom that this call sometimes evokes in Christians, the manufactured humility. As much as I’m amused by Garrison Keillor, I’m increasingly tired of his caricature of Midwestern Lutherans. And it’s probably because it’s an accurate assessment of the reality. There is in us a tendency to talk down about ourselves, minimize our accomplishments, act as if we’re called to think poorly of ourselves in order to follow Jesus.
But even though it’s an accurate take, I think it’s dangerous for us to admire it, or to consider it a virtue, which seems to be an element of our reaction to such humor. If we were to take the best of what Keillor offers, we would use his humor to laugh at a situation as a way to start changing who we are.
Jesus isn’t asking us to play the part of martyrs, sighing and letting others have their way, while being certain that it is noted by all how much we’ve given up. Nor is he calling us to think ill of ourselves, knock ourselves down, act as if we’re worthless, crummy people. Jesus loved humanity enough to become one of us and die for us – that’s honor beyond anything in the universe. And lastly, we’re not called to play-act humility, to pretend to be humble and lowly as if others can’t see through it. We’ve all seen that in others, and it’s revolting. It’s just as bad when we do it, but we often can’t see that as clearly.
And none of these ways of acting out Jesus’ call today look at all like what Jesus is doing, or calling out in us.
In fact, what we are called to do is to see the world without ourselves as the center, the focus, the important thing. To have our own internal Copernican revolution.
It’s actually as simple as that. Jesus says, “What if you didn’t filter everything you experience through the question of what’s in it for you, how it affects you? What would that be like?” It’s a call to transcend ourselves and learn a way of life where we don’t focus our thoughts, plans, hopes, dreams on what we want and need, but on what God needs, and what God’s world needs.
Every once in a while the Holy Spirit saves time and doubles up on inspiration. That happened this week, when both your cantor and your pastor were walking down this path separately. When we met to talk about hymns on Wednesday, and I was telling David where I thought this sermon was heading (much of which you’ve now heard), so he could think about what hymns would work with that, he said that was something he’d been thinking a great deal about with regard to worship and music. You can see his reflections in the Olive Branch which just came out on Friday.
And he’s right: in worship we are at our best when it’s not about “me” but “us.” When we put our selves aside for the sake of us. And even more deeply for the sake of the God around whom we are gathered to worship.
Because that’s the deeper truth here: we move ourselves off the center of our lives and put the Triune God there, where God belongs. We learn this best in worship, but it’s a learning Jesus today calls us to take with us every moment of our lives. If the God who made all that is, who loves us with a death-defeating love, who fills us with life and grace, if this God is the center of our thoughts and being, then we will also be focused where God needs us, on those whom our God loves. Until we’re able to free ourselves from self-centeredness we cannot truly love God as God loves us, and we cannot truly follow the Son of God as disciples.
It’s just as shocking to understand this as it was to begin to see that the Earth might not center all things.
But once we move ourselves off of center, we begin to live the way we were meant to live, and we see its abundance. We find the joy of self-giving, the hope of being able to see ourselves as given to the world for healing and life. Best of all, we begin to see how we might actually follow Jesus fully, because we begin to understand how he lived for others, for us, for the world.
Let us pray that the God who once gave up everything for us would help us likewise shake free of our self-centeredness, our antiquated view of our internal universe, and move our lives to circle the astonishing, loving, and gracious Triune God who made all things. And let us pray that in so doing, we become fully disciples in the mission to bring all the creation back into place, and all God’s creatures into the life and grace God intends for all.
In the name of Jesus. Amen