31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For 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. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
An open letter to the people of God at House for All Sinners and Saints from Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber:
Sermon Mark 8:31-37 <——-Click here to listen along. Sermons are a spoken form of communication!
How are you? I am fine.
Actually that’s not true.
See, I wrote another sermon this week. A real one. I worked on it all week. And then yesterday afternoon I threw it away and just wrote you this letter instead. Because I realized that in my sermon I was trying really hard to convince you of something.
In that sermon I threw away I told you about how my mom loves to remind me that the first time I, as a toddler, strung three words together it was “Do it self!” And how Independence and self-reliance comes quite naturally to Americans. Since one of our most idolized American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson had beautiful things to say about life and nature and contemplation. But his most famous essay was on “Self-Reliance,” an ode to individualism and the sanctity of self-sufficiency.
I also mentioned that so much of the American ethos is based on this notion…Rugged individualism is seen as heroic, as though the goal in life is to become some combination of Paul Bunion, the unsinkable Molly Brown and the Marlboro man. Yes, we can “do it self!"
At which point I got really snarky, maybe too snarky. Because I was going to tell you about how religion has colluded in this individualism. How the glorification of the individual can perhaps best be seen in that new title Americans have given to Jesus in the last 100 years…“Personal Lord and Savior."
As though in your contact list between your Personal Assistant and your Personal Trainer can be found Jesus, your Personal Savior.
And he can be YOUR personal Lord and Savior, too, if you just choose him. Like a magical puppy in the pound. If you choose him he’ll be yours. And with your personal magical puppy will come all the warm feelings and love and blessings you can imagine.
But then I was going to tell you how that’s not the Jesus we meet in our text today. This Jesus says deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him. And if you try to save your life you’ll lose it and if you lose it for the sake of the Gospel you’ll gain it.
Of course this saying of Jesus that we are to deny the self and lose our life to gain it has been abused and perverted. Perverted into messages like If you want to be a follower of Jesus you must deny your Queerness, pick up your cross of heterosexuality and follow him. Or deny your diginity and pick up your cross of continued domestic abuse and follow him. Or deny your experience and pick up your cross of trusting religious authorities to tell you what to believe.
I wanted to convince you that when Jesus says "deny yourself," that maybe it’s really denying the self that wants to see itself as separate from God and others. Deny the self that believes that spirituality is a suffering avoidance program. Deny the self that does not feel worthy of God’s love. Deny the self that thinks it is more worthy of God’s love than it’s enemy is. Deny the self that thinks it can "do it self." Deny the self that is turned in on the self.
Because I really want you to know that dying to that false self no matter how painful, will bring you real life.
And I wanted desperately to convince you of this.
But that’s why I threw that sermon out, see, ... because I realized I could never do something that Jesus himself wasn’t able to pull off.
In our text for today Jesus tried to tell Peter that the messiah must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, and priests, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He tried to tell Peter of this great mystery of God and Peter was not convinced. Peter thought Jesus had lost his last mind. You have to love how Peter did take him aside to rebuke Jesus — you know, so Jesus wouldn’t lose face in front of the guys.
Jesus tried to teach Peter the great paschal mystery of Jesus suffering death and resurrection But Peter couldn’t get it from just being told. Because some things have to be experienced. Peter, who honestly is always just a stand-in for us and the other clueless disciples in the text, well, Peter had not yet experienced Good Friday and Easter.
And without experiencing how at the cross God can gather up all of humanity’s violence and abusive power and even gather up Peter’s own denial of Jesus into God’s own self and then respond with nothing but love and forgiveness ... without experiencing the resurrection after what Peter saw as the complete loss of hope. Well, without having experienced all of this he couldn’t know it just by being told it will happen.
So there’s no way I can preach a good enough sermon to convince you that it is not in self-sufficiency and individualism but in dying to self and living to God where life is to be found. There are simply no rhetorical devices at my disposal to convince you of something that has to be experienced to be known. I cannot form a sound enough argument to convince you of the mystery of how God does this death and resurrection thing. But I want to desperately because I have experienced it to be true.
I have experienced the way in which I will pursue what seems to be life in the false promises of consumerism and self-reliance of drugs and liberal politics of higher education and manipulating my family, of religion and p90x until I am laid bare by the emptiness and failure of it all. And I have experienced the way in which God takes that mess of my own making and make something new in me and in my life. Something I never would have chosen out of a catalog or created for myself. It may be a small piece of wisdom, or an unexpected friendship or yet another opportunity for me to be forgiven by you.
I’ve experienced the death and resurrection of this baptismal life so deeply and so often that it’s no longer a belief. It’s a knowing.
So if you are faced with your own limitedness in your life right now ... you can’t manage to stop drinking on your own, or stop shopping compulsively or stop hating yourself or stop loving someone who is hurting you. If you are filled with false pride or filled with fear and unable to find motivation to do what you know should be done. Know there is no shame in that. Because, as St. Paul said, God’s strength is perfected in your weakness.
Denying yourself might just look like letting yourself off the hook for having to be God. As I like to remind myself a big difference between me and God is that God never thinks he’s Nadia. So letting God be God for you means denying the cult of the self. both self aggrandizement and self abasement.
So good people of God, I cannot convince you of this. I can only describe what it looks like (and trust me, it never looks flattering.) When it comes to something I know and not something I simply believe all I can do is write this letter and hand it to you like a field guide.
As your preacher that is all I am authorized to do. I wish it were a magical puppy. Instead, it’s life and life abundant found in the paradox of losing your self in Christ.
May it be so,
Your pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado — an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more at www.houseforall.org. This post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.
(Image by Kelly Richardson /Shutterstock.com)