Proper 19B, September 13, 2015

September 14, 2015

Ultimate Living
Mark 8:27-38

8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.” 34 He 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. 35 For 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

I’m not getting much help from Jesus this morning when it comes to getting more people to show up for our worship service. He’s not providing me with a very good marketing tool. He’s not exactly telling us how to make America great again! The essence of this morning’s teaching from Jesus is to give up everything dear to you and make yourself available to die a miserable death. He says such suffering leads to true life, but it’s hard to hear that – the suffering part makes it hard to hear the resurrection part. Maybe I’m being a little negative. A more positive preacher probably wouldn’t summarize the teaching this harshly. But I don’t think this is far from what he had to say.

Peter didn’t like what he heard Jesus saying, and he tried to get Jesus to reconsider what he was about to do, and Jesus told Peter that he was speaking for Satan. The truth is that these are hard words for us to hear from the man we aspire to follow. In some ways it would have been nice for us if Peter and the rest of the disciples had been able to do as Jesus said and kept all of this a secret. We could go on thinking that the most important thing in life is to destroy our enemies and to accumulate personal wealth. Of course, we often forget what Jesus taught and we don’t seek to gain life by following Jesus down that difficult path of self-giving love.

The teaching of Jesus Christ is quite counter to the way we are conditioned by society to seek true life. I know that’s true, but it’s hard not to want to gain life in the usual way – to be rich and powerful. This is an oversimplification of the situation. I’m not sure exactly know how to live in our world without any regard for money or how self-giving we are called to be. It’s not simple, but I don’t think this is an excuse to not recognize the radically different way Jesus called for us to play this game of life.

Life isn’t a game, but games reflect life in some ways, and I think games can help us understand some things about life. I like games. There are some games I like to play and some games I like to watch. I wouldn’t say I’m the kind of person who likes to win at any cost – others might say that about me, but in my mind I play for fun. Of course it’s generally more fun to win, so yes, I play as hard as I can, but I don’t generally try to destroy my opponents. OK – there might be some opponents in some games that put me in touch with desire to destroy the opposition, but I try not to go that place. In all honesty I’m probably incredibly competitive and I like to win, but I mainly like to play. I love a good game.

Games are funny things. They can take your mind in different directions. Games can heighten your self-consciousness, but they can also allow you to totally lose your sense of self. They can carry you away so to speak. Playing a game can generate an extreme form of selfishness, but almost simultaneously a good game can cause you to forget about yourself.

Getting totally caught up in a game doesn’t happen to me easily. I generally stay in that place where my ego is straining to win and fearing the agony of defeat. I’m usually highly conscious of how I’m doing and where I stand. Sometimes my participation in a game concludes with my ego being stroked in a nice way, but most of the time games provide me with good lessons on the value of humility. Of course I can take great pride in the extent of my humility. I’m really good at humility. I’ve had a lot of experience with humility.

But there is one game that always put me in that nice mindset of playing really hard and getting lost in the game. The game is called Ultimate Frisbee, and it’s a beautiful game. I’m sure some of you know how to play the game, but for those of you who had the misfortune of growing up prior to the arrival of the Frisbee or are otherwise unfamiliar with the game I’ll give you a brief description of how you play the game.

You have two teams – with seven being the optimum number of players on each side, and you play on a field that’s a little shorter and narrower than a football field. Like all good games you can adapt it to whatever size field you’ve got and play with as many people as you have on hand, but seven on a side on about a seventy yard field is the ultimate arrangement so to speak. To start the game, each team lines up on their goal line and one team throws the Frisbee to the other team. That team takes the Frisbee and tries to advance down the field by throwing it to each other. You can’t run with it. You run to catch it, but as soon as you catch it you’ve got to stop. If you drop it or it gets intercepted the play immediately goes in the other direction and you score by catching the Frisbee behind the other team’s goal line.

I love this game, but I can’t really play it any more. My 57 year-old back has become really fragile, and I would end up in rehab at Lindley’s if I got caught up in a game, but given the opportunity it would be hard for me not to forget about the consequences and play like my life depended on it.

I’m not saying I was ever a great Ultimate player, but it probably is my best game. I spent many hours on the lawn in front of Old Main playing this game, and there was a time when people liked having me on their team – not that I was keeping score or anything.

I loved playing this game. And it had a spirit about it that I thoroughly enjoyed. Players were to call their own fouls – even in tournaments, and according to the rules, players were simply to resolve their disputes by remembering that it is a joy to play the game. It wasn’t hard for me to remember this rule, and I was a good player because I did remember what we were out to do – which was to play hard and to play fair.

It’s funny how the beauty of this game and my aptitude for playing it continues to grow with the years since I last played it, but in all honesty it was a game that helped me understand what it means to lose yourself. When you love playing something you launch yourself out there without fully considering all the consequences.

I’m not wanting to trivialize the words of Jesus by comparing them to a game, but I do think a good game can help us understand what Jesus was inviting us to do. On some level, Jesus reminds me of a coach who was needing his players to understand a whole new game plan. The disciples knew they were going to Jerusalem to disrupt the godless enterprise that ruled the people of Israel, but Peter couldn’t believe how Jesus said he was going to do it.

When the disciples told Jesus what glorious things people were saying about him I think they thought he would have been pleased to know that he was being compared to all the key people in Israel’s history. And Peter probably thought Jesus would have been impressed to hear him say that he considered him to be the messiah, but if he was, he didn’t react in the manner that Peter expected.

Jesus may have been pleased to hear Peter call him the messiah, but Jesus wasn’t going to play the role of messiah in the manner that everyone expected. Jesus wasn’t playing the game of life in the conventional manner, and he told his disciples that they needed to play it differently as well if they wanted to join him in victory.

You’re probably tired of me playing around with this game metaphor, but if I quit playing around with the metaphor I’ll have to get specific about the way this metaphor translates into actual life. Losing life in order to gain life wasn’t just a metaphor for Jesus. For him, that was the actual consequence of resisting the unholy alliance of the religious and secular leaders who were in control of that small corner of the world at the time.

People knew that the collaboration between Judaism and the Roman government was a godless alliance, so it was no surprise that Jesus would go to Jerusalem to confront it, but Peter didn’t expect Jesus to resist it by offering his life. This must have felt a lot like defeat to Peter because he didn’t yet understand the power of resurrection – in fact Peter doesn’t even seem to hear Jesus say he would be resurrected three days after his death.

Resurrection isn’t an easy concept for any of us and this may have a lot to do with the fact that in order to embrace resurrection we have to accept death, and we don’t want to make room for death in our lives – not even in a metaphorical sense. We are much more inclined to pursue strategies that will bring us more of what we think of as the good life now.

We don’t want to die miserable deaths (even metaphorically) at the hand of our adversaries, but Jesus knew that losing life for the right thing is better than grabbing life in the wrong way. Jesus trusted God to establish the final score, and this is a hard thing for us to accept.

I’m not sure what ramifications this story has on each of us as individuals and our church as a whole. As I already indicated, we live in an incredibly complex society, and I don’t know how you navigate it without any resources or personal survival skills, but what I hear Jesus saying is that we need to let go of the normal rules if we want abundant life.

Peter didn’t think Jesus knew what he was doing, and your neighbors may think the same about you if you truly fall in line behind Jesus, but Jesus did know what he was doing. Peter didn’t really get it at first and your neighbors probably won’t either. Following Jesus is a scandalous way to live because it may well cause you to look like a loser, but things like that don’t matter to people who follow Jesus.

It’s a strange game that we have been invited to play. There’s only one rule in this game, and that rule is to live with love in your heart for God and your neighbor. To follow Jesus is not to be bound by the expectations of our society but to live a life that’s guided by the Holy Spirit and there’s just no telling where that will take you.

Jesus didn’t want anyone to be surprised by the difficulty of this game, but there’s no limit to the abundance of life that we can experience if we will allow ourselves to get caught up in this ultimate endeavor.

It’s the ultimate challenge. It offers the ultimate reward.
Thanks be to God for this ultimate invitation.


2 Responses to “Proper 19B, September 13, 2015”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Thank you for another life lesson that I can relate to.

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