Jesus said, “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” Mark 8:35. This is part of the gospel text for the second Sunday in Lent, Year B. Often we read Jesus’ call to take up the cross and die as the call of the individual Christian. Certainly it is the call of every disciple. But it is also the call of every group of disciples: every congregation, every judicatory, every denomination. If our worship and program schedules look successful–and no doubt some good is coming about–if things look okay, we presume they are okay, and thus we don’t have to worry about dying. Christ bids the church to come and die. If we want to put people in touch with the living Christ, then we must be willing to die to self as a church.
In the sermon that follows I put it about as starkly as I ever have with my flock. I had been at Morton Church for nineteen years when I preached this sermon.
Those who die with Christ will rise with Christ. Lord, what in me needs to die?
Dying Into Life
A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38 and Philippians 2:1-13
Jesus delivered one shock after the other that day. Peter and the other disciples could not believe what they were hearing! Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “suffering” go together. Everybody thought that the Messiah was going to inflict suffering on the oppressors, not experience it himself. Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that the words “Messiah” and “death” go together. The Messiah couldn’t die! The Messiah was going to kill all his—and our—enemies.
Peter and all the rest had really gotten their hopes up that, after so many would-be Messiahs had come and gone through the years—and yes, there were many—in Jesus, here he was at long last. In Jesus they saw the power they thought it would take. They had seen Jesus heal people, and subdue demons, and feed thousands on just a little food. Jesus had to be the Messiah, and no, the words “Messiah” and “death” do not go together!
Nobody wants to hear the words “church” and “death” talked about in the same sentence, either. But sometimes we can’t avoid it. Recently we received the painful news that yet another small church nearby is closing. We know what this means! It means that children have left, many people have died, and that hopes and dreams have died. Our friends in that congregation are living through hurt and loss. And we can imagine them also experiencing a sense of failure, perhaps, maybe even shame because they can’t keep going.
How can God allow this to happen to good people? How can God allow a church to die? We sure don’t want that to happen to us!
Peter was utterly dismayed! How could God allow God’s son to die? Peter rebuked Jesus, Mark says. Matthew tells us what Peter actually said: “God forbid!” he cried out. “Lord, this must never happen to you!” And implied there also is, “And this must never happen to us, either!”
Jesus’ response to Peter—and the rest—yes, Peter spoke for them all—Jesus’ answer was a second shock. The sting of those words! “Get behind me, Satan! You aren’t thinking God’s thoughts. You are filled with human thoughts.” To be accused of working for Satan! How could Peter not be hurt? I am sure this thought crossed his mind: How can Jesus talk to me this way, as much as I love him, and as much as I have done for him?
And before the disciples could recover from this second shock, Jesus delivered a third: “If you really want to be my disciples,” he said, “if you really want to follow me and you really want to live, then you have to die, too. You must shoulder up your cross and follow. You must travel the same road I travel.”
Traveling the way of the cross means shouldering up the burden of following Jesus. It means accepting the struggling, the questioning, the suffering, and the dying that go with following Jesus. Taking up the cross is the burden we voluntarily accept for someone else’s sake, so someone else can come to know Jesus. So someone else can experience the healing, the saving power of God. Taking up the cross means putting their need for God first, before our own need for comfort, even before our own need to survive.
Peter and the others were so shocked by this call to suffer and die that I doubt they were able to take in the fact that there’s a resurrection to come.
The path of dying and rising, too, is the path Christ Jesus took, and, as Paul points out in Philippians 2, he started down that road when he let go of equality with God and emptied himself, and took on human form. Already he was putting aside concern for his own interests so that he could do what needed to be done for our sake. For the sake of all humanity, Christ Jesus stuck to that road all the way, even to death, even to death on a cross. And then God raised him up over all that is.
Taking up the cross, dying, and then rising is God’s way. It is the way of Christ. Dying is the narrow road that leads to life. And Jesus made it clear that it must be the way of his followers: Peter, and all of you, I am calling you to die!
Sometimes it is a call to bodily death, but often it is a call to another kind of death. For those first disciples, the first thing that had to die was their understanding of what a Messiah is, and of what his agenda is. Their dreams of political power and triumph had to die. They needed to let go of their own notions of a kingdom, empty all that out completely, so that God could let them in on what God’s notion of a kingdom is.
The call to die is clear. But I can understand why disciples, and why congregations of disciples don’t want to think about dying in any way. I want my church to be comfortable and comforting. Who doesn’t? I have hopes and dreams for the church that I want to see realized! And above all, I don’t want the church to die before I do. And here’s a church leader’s prayer: Lord, please don’t let it die on my watch!
The thought of dying can be so fearful it’s understandable why congregations make survival their goal. Yes, it would be nice to have more people—that would make us look good in other people’s eyes. And it would be nice to have more hands to do the work, and more money to make things easier. But if we just buckle down, work harder, don’t rock any boats, and be really careful, then maybe we can stay relatively comfortable, maybe we can at least be stable. And maybe we won’t have to die, or at least not any time soon.
It’s one thing to think about suffering and dying for someone else’s sake as long as it stays theoretical. It’s another thing when it sounds like discomfort and sacrifice could get real. Here’s what I mean. Back in the summer I read a story that hit me between the eyes, and some of you have already heard this story because I shared it in the Adult Bible School class and in the Fellowship Sunday School class.
Early in the summer there was a big gathering of Presbyterian organizations in Atlanta. They were all meeting at the same time, and they shared some activities together. It was called the Big Tent Event. One of the workshops sponsored by the Evangelism and Church Development group was called “The Disciple-Making Church.” It was about how there’s a difference between recruiting new members for the church and making disciples for Jesus Christ. The leader, Glen McDonald, told the participants that one time he asked a church group who would be willing to sacrifice their lives to save the life of a child or grandchild. Immediately, everybody’s hand went up. Then he asked the same group, “Who would be willing to change the music in your worship service in order to reach a child or grandchild?” Not a single hand went up. (Presbyterian Outlook, July 13, 2009, p.11.)
Why does this story evoke such strong reactions? As I’ve reflected on it, it came to me that I, and maybe others, too, in a knee-jerk reaction, automatically assume that the man asking the questions meant completely switching over to genuinely bad music, or at least to music that isn’t to my taste. And on the surface it sounds like the questioner is implying that changing the music is the magic bullet that will pull young people from out there into the church.
But for the moment we need to set aside our beliefs and strong feelings about church music. The questioner was really asking those church members something deeper: Are you willing to take on and tolerate discomfort, and sacrifice so that someone else can meet Jesus Christ, so they can receive life from him? How much are you willing to let go for someone else’s sake? To what extent are you ready to travel the narrow, hard road for somebody else’s sake? The real question is, are you willing to die in order to bring people to Jesus?
Are we willing to die, if that’s what it takes to put people in touch with Jesus? Sometimes even good dreams have to die. We have to let go of them and let God take control. We have to empty out to make room for God to work.
In his book In Dying We Are Born, (Click the link for a review of this book.) Canadian pastor Peter Bush lets us in on another pastor’s musings, pastor Sarah of St. John’s Church. Her thoughts ran like this: “Maybe it isn’t just the elders who need to die to their plans and dreams, to their desire to be in control, to their sense of who St. John’s Church is. What if I have to die to my plans, my agenda, my desire to be right,” she thought. “Have the elders and I started to assume that St. John’s is alive because of our hard work? Have I started to accept credit for what is happening at St. John’s? How do we, as leaders and as a congregation, learn to die every day?” (Bush, In Dying We Are Born, Alban: 2008, p. 10.)
I’ve been thinking recently about the prayer “Thy will be done.” How often do I pray that prayer with other stuff attached to it, stuff like this, “Thy will be done, Lord, and I want it to look like this: I want the Sunday School to fill up again. I want people to come to worship and fill the sanctuary. I’ll be even happier if they look nice and can help out around here.”
How can I—and we—learn to pray, “Thy will be done. Thy will, O God. Period.”? How can I make my heart, my self, how can we make our heart, our self as a church empty? How can we be a completely clean slate so God can write God’s will on us?
It means completely letting go. It means dying. But it also means resurrection. Jesus didn’t only say the Son of man must die. He also said that the Son of Man must rise. Those who take up the cross, those who take the path of death, get raised to new life. They receive the gift of resurrection. Those who die with Christ also rise with him through the power of the living God.
And that is true even when death comes to a congregation in the form of closing, what is happening to our friends at the church that is closing. A resurrection is coming, even for them.
Elders and ministers from the other local Presbyterian Churches are serving as a commission to walk with them through this sad time. An elder is representing our flock on the commission. Our prayers go with him.
When I learned about this, I gave our elder an article that I’d also like to share with you. It’s a hope-filled article about how God’s promise of resurrection holds even when churches close. Yes, even then. It tells the story of Bethel United Methodist Church, a church that had lived a long time and had survived much, even surviving Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea during the Civil War.
For many reasons, it became clear that the folks at Bethel needed to let go. They could not keep going. They signaled that they were ready to meet with their district superintendent about it. They gathered with him on a rainy day that matched their mood. Everyone was so sad.
The district superintendent opened the meeting with prayer, and he was about to explain the procedure for closing to the congregation when one of the oldest members of the church asked to speak. Her name was Miss Laura, and Miss Laura was one of those church members who had done everything through the years: she’d been piano player, Sunday School teacher, you name it. And she was a direct descendent of the charter members of the church.
All eyes were on Miss Laura. You could have heard a pin drop. Was she going to urge the congregation to work a little harder and try a little longer? No. Instead, Miss Laura asked the congregation to picture all the biblical characters that had become their friends in this place, and how God’s power worked through all these flawed Bible characters, and even through their failures.
Then she told the assembly that she had especially been thinking about Jesus, and how he died on Good Friday, and how that seemed to be the greatest failure of all. But then God raised him up on Easter. Miss Laura noted that Christ willingly accepted even the great failure of death in order to be close to our weakness, and God redeemed it and lifted him up.
“Being the church is not just surviving,” Miss Laura said. “It’s pouring out our life, just like Jesus did. It’s trusting God to work through all things—all things—even failure, to move the world closer to [God’s] kingdom. Maybe God wants to use this failure, Bethel Church’s death, to work toward that end.
“So, Mr. Superintendent,” Miss Laura concluded, “we’re ready to move into whatever future God has in store for us, even if that means we will no longer exist as a congregation. Please pray for us, then instruct us. And may God be glorified.”
The congregation cried many tears that day, but there were tears of joy among the tears of sadness, to remember with thanksgiving that God still held them in God’s hand, and that God had a new life in store for them. And in that spirit they moved on to serve God in new ways. (Weavings, Vol. VII, Number I, January/February 1992, pp. 34-41.)
We pray that God will do that for our friends. It hurts to lose a dear little flock. But God is good, and God holds a resurrection in store for them. Those who die with Christ will rise with him. We need to pray for our friends as their church closes. May God wipe away their tears and open them up to a new life.
And we need to pray for ourselves, for this flock here at Morton, a prayer that is not so much, “Lord, how can we get people to come in here and share this life here that we love so much?” but instead, “Lord, how can we go out there and show them the Jesus who loves them so much?”
A prayer like this: Lord, we don’t want to die here at Morton. But we know you love us. We know our Christ loves us, with every last ounce of his own life, poured out for us. What do we need to do to empty ourselves and obey you? What do we need to let go of? What needs to die here? What needs to die in me and in all of us? Help us, God, and help us to trust you to fill the emptiness.
We believe, God. Help our unbelief. Help us not to run from pain and struggle and death. Help us to lift high the cross!
Into your hands, Lord, we commit this church. Into your hands, Lord, we place the Morton Memorial Presbyterian Church.
And may Christ be glorified.