The scriptures referred to are Mark 8:31-38.
Recently Lord of the Seas hosted graduation ceremonies for a local martial arts school. There were the usual demonstrations of what the students could do, like breaking stacks of boards. And if you're like me, you marvel at what these people can do. Of course the reason they can accomplish such feats is that (A) they got instruction from someone who showed them how and (B) they practiced a lot. Science says that it takes around 10,000 hours to master any subject or skill. That's about 5 years of 40 hour weeks. If you want to be a professional or just very good musician, athlete, scientist, actor, artist, nurse, teacher, cop, pastor or even bureaucrat you have to invest 10,000 hours in learning it.
It helps if you start out with some experience. When my mom went to nursing school, it was a 3-year program attached to a hospital. She spent half the day in the classroom and half the day on the hospital floor. When she graduated she had a year and a half hands-on experience. My Practical Nursing school was only 18 months but after the first 6 months, it was structured like my mom's old RN program, with the result that after graduating I had 6 months nursing experience. However, a Bachelor's degree in nursing treats the discipline as a major, which means the 4-year program splits its time between regular college classes and nursing classes, as well as management classes. During classes on specialties like psychiatry or geriatrics, the students spend a week or two on the psych floor of a local hospital or at a nursing home. Which is why I often found myself as an LPN showing newly graduated BSNs how to do very basic procedures. They had studied them; they could give you 20 reasons why one would do the procedure; they may even have seen the procedure done, either live or on video, but they had probably only done it once. I'm afraid that nursing is being turned into an academic subject.
There is a lot of talk in churches these days about discipleship. And sometimes they make it sound like an exotic undertaking. But the word “disciple” just means “student.” Jesus was a rabbi and the Twelve were his students. They came to realize he was more than just a teacher, but essentially they were selected to learn both what Jesus knew and how to do what he could do. Unfortunately, discipleship is often treated as if it were an academic subject, mainly a matter of studying the Bible. Studying God's Word is essential, like reading nursing textbooks, and you should make it a lifetime habit, like nurses taking continuing education. But what is often lacking is hands-on discipleship.
In the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the title character's trainer and mentor Giles is replaced by a younger man named Wesley. Wesley proudly announces that he has faced a real vampire under controlled conditions. “Well, you won't find any of those around here,” says Giles. “No vampires?” exclaims Wesley, incredulously. “No controlled conditions,” says the older man.
Jesus knew his students would not be benefiting from controlled conditions. They had to be ready for anything. So He sent his disciples out to preach the good news and to heal the sick. He was giving them experience in the field. He was allowing them to face things that they hadn't before, the unexpected and the unheard of. He was giving them the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. He was allowing them to see what they could do. And we are told in Luke 10 that upon returning they were amazed at the power they had been granted over the forces of evil and illness.
And Jesus kept challenging them even when they were with him. For instance, when they realize that they are stuck in the wilderness with thousands of hungry people, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” (Luke 9:13) I think Jesus was serious. He wanted the Twelve to feed the 5000. But when they balked, citing how little they had in terms of resources, he went and fed the crowd himself.
There is a point in the early career of a nurse when she realizes that her idea of being an angel of mercy, saving lives and being thanked by patients and their families, is far from the daily reality of pill-passing and paper-pushing, of dealing with bodily fluids and ungrateful and non-compliant patients, of working with a full bladder and on an empty stomach. If she can't face those unpleasant facts, she has 2 choices: she can leave the profession or go into administration.
Apparently the disciples thought that their careers would also be rosy ones, healing folks now and soon ruling the kingdom with Jesus. But then Jesus starts talking about his upcoming suffering and death. And if that's his fate, what will become of his followers? As if he read their minds, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Jesus' words were shocking. Everyone knew what a cross was and how long and painful a death it afforded one because they had seen it firsthand. Crosses often lined the roads to cities. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for slaves and those judged as traitors to Rome. Usually the bodies were left up for days as a warning for any considering a revolt against the Empire. It was a horrifying death and Jesus said his followers had better be prepared for it.
There is relatively little chance of being crucified today, however. Does this still apply?
As we've seen in the recent news from the Middle East, there are places where Christians are still facing death for their beliefs. According to opendoorsusa.org, the 10 worst countries for Christians to be in are North Korea, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Nigeria. They list 25 countries in which Christians face either extreme or severe persecution. For them following Jesus is a possible death sentence. Open Doors estimates that worldwide 100 million Christians face persecution. Each month 322 Christians are killed for their faith, 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed and 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians, including beatings, abductions, arrests, rapes and forced marriages to non-Christians.
What can we in the West do to help? Open Doors suggests praying, advocating and volunteering to help those who are in prison, who are trying to rebuild their churches and homes and those who are in refugee camps. In America there are 125 million Christians who claim to attend church weekly. And, remember, there are 100 million persecuted Christians. If we all did something to help our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering like the first Christians did, we would make a tremendous impact.
But does that mean Jesus' qualifications for following him are irrelevant to those of us who enjoy freedom from religious persecution? Not at all. Jesus said that first we must deny ourselves. A better translation would be “disown.” It is the same word used of Peter's denial of Jesus that awful night before Christ was crucified.
What does it mean to disown oneself? A dictionary definition would be “to repudiate any connection or association with, or responsibility for” or “to deny the validity or authority of” something or someone. To disown oneself is to give up having authority over yourself, to give that to Jesus. It's rather like the relationship of a soldier to his superior officer. If he is told to go on a mission, he can't refuse on the grounds that he could get killed. The whole point of being a soldier is that your life is ever on the line.
As we've said, it is unlikely that in the West a Christian would physically die for his or her faith. But I think that the more important sense of dying, which Jesus meant as well, is that we are to give up all rights to ourselves. It means to stop thinking of our time, our talents, or our treasure as our own. It is to follow Jesus selflessly, putting serving him and serving others in his name ahead of ourselves. Living for Christ can be as hard as dying for him.
A peculiar heresy has arisen in the church in the last century. It is the Prosperity Gospel, the idea that God wants us all to be rich and to live like kings in this life. The problem with this is that it moves the focus off of Jesus and other people and puts it squarely on oneself and one's comfort and personal happiness. It is an unholy alliance between spirituality and materialism. And it ignores the fact that we cannot find true happiness in things outside ourselves but only in the God who is within us and in our lives.
Such a focus on the individual can also lead to people thinking they can be Christians without belonging to a church. But how is one to truly practice loving other people, people who are not friends and family, if we do not belong to a group of disparate people who are trying to do the same thing? It's quite easy to love others if you leave that vague and don't make it specific, like “I love Bob” who has body odor, or “I love Carol” whose politics are antithetical to mine, or “I love Brian” who is a bit too intense a Christian for my taste, or “I love Fiona” who always seems to have drama in her life. Trying to be a Christian without belonging to a church is like wanting to be an Olympic hockey player but not wanting to practice with anyone. You'll never be on the team if that's how you act.
If our discipleship is to be more than just words, we need to reach out to others, both those who can help us and those we can help. We not only have to read the Bible and pray but also join a community of others who are also trying to follow Jesus. We are to worship with others and serve others and tell others the good news about what God has done, is doing and will do in Jesus Christ.
One other thing: Picking up our cross doesn't mean simply dealing with our own problems. Jesus carried that cross for us, not for himself. If he minded his own business, he would never have been crucified. Our cross is the problems of others that we shoulder, the burdens that we bear for others, especially those who are unable to do it themselves. When we run errands for a shut-in, buy goods for the food pantry, help someone learn the language, relieve a sick person's caregiver so they can take a break, hear out someone who is upset, fill out a form for someone who is confused or frustrated by it, give blood, buy a meal for a homeless person, drive someone to their medical appointments, volunteer for Habitat for Humanity or a soup kitchen or a nursing home or a classroom, we are picking up our cross and following Jesus. When you notice a need in your community that is not being met and do something about it, you are picking up your cross and following Jesus. There are a lot of people who won't and don't go out of their way or give up their time for someone else, especially someone who is not a friend or family member. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus showed that our neighbor is anyone we encounter and loving that neighbor can mean committing oneself to the long-term welfare of someone you don't know from Adam.
Jesus' message was not that we need to be just a bit nicer to one another but that we shown emulate him in his self-sacrificial goodness towards others. It's not a matter of meeting people half-way. Some folks can't make it that far. Many won't even go that far to help someone else. Only if we commit ourselves to going above and beyond what is deemed reasonable by the world will we be able to make real changes in this world and in its people.
Stephen Colbert is remarkable for being able to interview non-comedians live and be funny while staying in character. He attributes it to his years doing improvisational comedy. He says that in improv, your attitude has to be “Yes...and...” That is, you have to say “Yes” to whatever premise the audience throws at you, and whatever embellishments your cast members introduce. If the audience suggestion is that you mash up a private eye film with a Godzilla film, you can't balk; you just have to dive in. If then a fellow cast member says Godzilla has just started tapdancing, you can't say, “No, that's silly!” You accept that twist and then you add one of your own.
Following Jesus is very much a matter of saying “Yes...and.” You say "Yes" to whatever he throws at you and bring your personal talents to it. That's how it happened with me. When the folks at St. Francis said, “Will you go through the process and the schooling to be a Canon 9 priest and lead the church you've been a lay member of for 13 years, even though it can only be part-time?” I said, “Yes and I'll bring to my pastoral care everything I've learned as a nurse and to my preaching everything I learned as a radio copywriter.”
When Don Roberts, a Lutheran pastor from Marathon, said,“When I retire will you succeed me as chaplain of the jail and visit it at least once a week ?” I said, “Yes and I'll agree to expand my visits to 3 times a week so I can get to all 10 units in the jail each week.”
When the folks at Lord of the Seas said, “Will you be our interim pastor?” I said, “Yes and I'll make it work despite having two other part-time ministries. Because in my mind I'm still working for the same guy.”
When the Father said to his Son, “Will you give up your prerogatives as my equal, become a human being, subject to pain and hunger and thirst and exhaustion and all the other vulnerabilities that go with it, and will you live in poverty in a violent and unjust world, and try to teach a bunch of stubborn people to change their ways of thinking and behaving, and die at their hands in order to save them from themselves?” Christ said, “Yes, and I'll show them both what you are like and what they can become.”
And when God asks you, “Will you put aside the comfortable life you could easily have in order to live for and like Jesus, even when it means making some sacrifices of the time, talents and treasure I've given you, in order to serve me by serving others,” what will you say?