Expressing negativity and skepticism has never been difficult for human beings.
Go back 20 to 25 years ago, and kids and adults were telling “not” jokes.
“Not jokes are always funny … NOT!”
“I can’t wait to get to work… NOT!”
“I love waking up early to exercise… NOT!”
“The Cleveland Browns are going to the Super Bowl… NOT!”
Today, “Not jokes” have been replaced by a similar grammatical construction, which is, “Said no one ever!” For example:
“I love the sound of my alarm clock— said no one ever!”
“Socks look great with sandals— said no one ever!”
“I wish you’d preach longer—said no one in this church ever!”
In today’s text, this cultural colloquialism can become even more relevant through three such statements.
“Sure, Jesus, I would love to live a life of self-denial—said no one ever!”
“Sure, Jesus, I would love to bear a cross—said no one ever!”
“Sure, Jesus, I would love to bless those who persecute me—said no one ever!”
Yet, this is precisely what Jesus requires of his followers. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves…’”
Practice self-denial? What do you mean Jesus?
We can’t “deny ourselves” without understanding the extent of the egocentric culture in which we live: It’s all about “me” and my needs and my wants. This is the principle on which market economics works. It’s the assumption of all advertising campaigns. It is the normative behavior in many relationships—we are going to put our own interests ahead of those of others.
This is one reason conflicts arise; why we often don’t get along; and why there are disagreements; hurt feelings, feuds and broken relationships. It explains in part why people lose their jobs; why they get into a fight over a parking space; and why they seethe in anger when cut off on the highway.
We live in the “World of Me” where there are Me rules, Me goals, Me dreams, Me plans, Me money, Me toys and Me gadgets. When people— and the behavior of people— disrupt life in the “World of Me” “me” gets very upset, because it is all about “me.” It is not about you. It is not about your needs, your feelings, your dreams and goals. It is about me.
Just as expressing negativity and skepticism has never been difficult for human beings, neither has it been difficult to make a home in The World of Me. But to this Jesus would say—since Jesus is both of today and old school— Jesus would say, “The World of Me is a good and faithful place…Not.”
Jesus is telling us, in our text for today, if we want to be fully faithful disciples of Christ, we must change worlds—leave The world of Me and enter The World of the Other.
Jesus calls us to live in The World of the Other, where the other comes first. Where the needs of “The Other” are paramount. Where we live to make certain that “The Other” is cared for, where “The Other” is honored and respected, and where “The Other” is whole and healthy in every way.
This is what a follower of Jesus is to do. They deny their citizenship in “The World of Me”, and embrace a world in which “The Other” is the center.
It’s an “other-centric’ culture, not an egocentric one. We deny ourselves, and do things the Jesus way, which is the way of self-sacrificing love.
The apostle Paul acknowledged this necessity when he wrote to the Corinthians about what he knew to be the ways of following Christ, saying, “I die every day.” Every day. A death. A denial.
German pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a person, He bids them to come and die.”
So to be clear…
First, followers of Christ live not in The World of Me, but in The World of The Other.
Next, according to Paul, followers of Christ are to deny and die, every day, to the World of Me.
And lastly, according to Bonhoeffer, we are to heed the invitation of Jesus, who invites us to “come and die” to the World of Me.
Where do I sign up…said no follower of Jesus ever…except Paul and Bonhoeffer.
This is getting complicated.
So how do we do this? Well…we do it by doing what Jesus said—we find a cross and pick it up.
And how do we do that? Well…think of it this way…
Do you have a hard time loving and befriending a certain person? Befriend them and love them.
Is it difficult to give to charities and nonprofits and the church? Then give more.
Is it hard for you to “bless those who persecute you, and say all manner of things against you?” Bless them, pray for them, write a note of encouragement, slip them a gift card to Starbucks.
That’s picking up a cross. That is active discipleship. That is leaving the World of Me and living in the World of the Other. Jesus calls us to do this because he knows when we do our attitude and our perspective toward that “other” will change. We will start to see this “other” with new eyes, eyes that reveal purpose and value, eyes that see the “Other” differently—we will see them as someone worthy of blessing and worthy of loving.
Because here is the critical take away…
As difficult as it may be to endure the suffering it causes, the cross is not the illness or chronic problem we have.
Cross-bearing is a voluntary act of discipleship.
Cross-bearing is not the bearing of something that befalls us in the daily course of things, or befalls us in situations over which we have no control, or befalls us because of situations we have foolishly brought on ourselves.
Cross-bearing is a voluntary act of discipleship.
Cross-bearing always involves the “picking up” and having an active and intentional faithful role within a matter that is killing our spirit of Christ-like compassion and empathy for an “other.”
Cross-bearing is something we choose. We can pass the cross and leave it behind—and ignore the call of Jesus. Or we can leave the World of Me, enter the World of the Other, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Cross-bearing is always up to us.
And while it is always up to us, Jesus is clear in saying his followers must embrace the way of denying the self and bearing the cross, which mandates we leave the “World of Me” and enter into the World of the Other. Because unless we practice a life of denial and cross bearing, in which God and others are given precedence over our self, we can’t be a disciple of Jesus because the ways of Jesus aren’t in The World of Me.
“Sure, I would love to follow Jesus— said no one EVER!”
Actually, many people have said they would love to follow Jesus. The statement should be more like, “Being a follower of Jesus is easy— said no one EVER!”
It’s not easy because we can’t fully follow Jesus in the World of Me. And we can’t fully follow Jesus without the cross. Jesus knows this. And those who faithfully try, come to know it too. And some accept it, and seek to do it. And some accept it, and decide that can’t, and they fade away, sliding back into the World of Me.
And this drifting away from Jesus’ principles and agenda occurs because we prefer leadership to followership. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except when the decision is about whether Jesus is the leader or we’re the leader.
When we wander from Jesus’ leadership, to live in the World of Me, not only have we stopped being a disciple, we have dropped the cross. And rather than denying ourselves— we’ve denied Jesus.
So, truly, “Being a follower and disciple of Jesus is easy—said no one ever!” It’s not easy. But it is meaningful. And it is, in its own way, rewarding. And that reward is life. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” said Jesus.
Jesus even uses the word “profit” in verse 26: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” Jesus himself knew that, although he was going to Jerusalem to die— and that would not be easy—beyond the cross was resurrection. When we deny ourselves, although it may be difficult, we will find that happiness and real living ensue.
The words of Saint Frances are apropos when he said, “For it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
The Disciples to who Jesus was talking to could not possibly have understood at the time that Jesus’ comments were in any way intended to be literal. They scarcely understood that Jesus himself was going to die on a cross.
Jesus was not asking them literally to find the cross on which they would die and carry it. So they understood Jesus’ comments in a figurative way. And if they did, we should too.
So may we… Seek to leave The World of Me, and take up permanent residence in the World of the Other. May we choose to pick up a cross, and bear it until we fully understand the power of new life that comes from doing so. And may we know, with certainty, the new life that will come will be far better than anything we could ever imagine in the World of Me.
After all…A life of self-denial is an intensely meaningful life, said no one ever, in The World of Me. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, September 24, 2017
Gracious God, in the comfort of this place, make us aware that at times we need you to make us uncomfortable so we can come to the realization that your ways are far better than our ways.
Help us to understand the desolation of seeing the world with only half-opened eyes. For too often we see the beauty of your creation but fail to be careful stewards of the earth to preserve it for those to come. We hear the laughter of children but fail to heed the cry of children in lands far away. We taste the bounty of the harvest but do not volunteer at the homeless shelter. We delight in the salty ocean air but neglect to clean up the trash on our beaches.
We further confess, O God, sometimes we see another and immediately see them as our opposition; someone who we have to combat so we get what we believe is due us.
So we ask you to forgive us, and then open our eyes fully to the ways of your world as shown to us through your Son, our Savior, Jesus.
We pray you help us to see the other as your holy and beloved child who you have extended grace and compassion and unconditional love.
We pray when we hear slander, you give us courage to speak truth; when we witness persecution, you grant us strength to defend the oppressed; where we see grief, you enable us to bring comfort.
Help us to see not only what is, but also what could be. Let us look to the hand of you our Master to make your kingdom come, your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven.
Holy God, we again add to the prayers of many who are praying for your presence in the midst of unthinkable devastation—once again by hurricane, especially in Puerto Rico and neighboring countries, and in Mexico City after a horrific earthquake.
May your capacity to create order out of chaos be revealed to those struggling to rise up from these unthinkable disasters. And may you guide us all to find the ways in which we can respond faithfully.
Hear now we ask, the prayers we need to lift to you in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of Christ Jesus, who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”