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The Second Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2015
The Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
Sermon: "X" Discipleship
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
Then Jesus began to teach his disciples 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 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."
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. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 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."
My first assignment as a priest was at St. Columba’s in Big Bear, California. It’s a mission congregation located in a resort town at around 8,000 feet above Los Angeles. ABC Sports came one weekend there to televise the Winter “X” Games, so I decided to head for the lodge and watch the action.
Now, just in case anyone is not familiar with the concept of X Games, the “X” stands for extreme. The more extreme and dangerous the sport, the better is the idea. Any sport, any activity, it seems, is better if taken to some new “extreme.” Snowboarding is great fun, as far as it goes; but air-boarding (riding your snowboard down to earth after jumping from an airplane) is extremely better. Mountain biking is great fun too; but riding your mountain bike down a snow covered slalom course with nails in your tire tread for traction is extremely better. Jumping from a ski jump is pretty good, but ski jumping off a cliff so as to turn somersaults like a high-diver in midair and still hopefully land on something other than your head, is extremely better. The point of the X Games is that any sport can be taken to a new adrenaline rushing extreme, and the more “rush” the better.
Of course, the place most of us usually see the performances of these “extreme athletes” is from the depths of the easy chair, safely parked in front of the TV. That’s pretty much been my approach to such athletic displays, anyway. Until I saw those games live. Something peculiar started to happen to me as I sat there on the observation deck outside the lodge, watching the Sony giant screen for close up action, eying the grilled hotdogs nearby, and thinking how good a big juicy burger slathered in mayo, covered in melted cheese, with extra pickles, sauce, onions and bacon, and a brew on the side would taste just then.
All of a sudden, as I contemplated the fates of these crazed athletes, and my possible gastronomical delights, I started to almost feel a spare tire growing around my middle. I thought I could actually hear my arteries hardening, and my muscles flattening as I was just sitting there. The thought came to me that maybe those athletes weren’t the ones taking the greatest risks out there. Perhaps, the most risk-laden recreational sports in the world today are the “armchair Olympics or the “couch-potato championships.” In the long run, hurtling through the air may be a lot less risky than sitting in a chair.
Being a priest, of course, I immediately began to see the metaphor there for “X” discipleship; living our lives as extreme disciples. As Episcopalians we tend to avoid anything that could leave an extreme impression. We are especially tempted to take a safe, armchair attitude when it comes to sharing our faith. When confronted by the opportunity to speak up and out, we are often silent about the faith that is in us.
Jesus is confronted by something akin to this attitude in our lesson from the Gospel according to Mark this morning. It starts just following that well-known faith confession of Peter that Jesus is the Messiah. For a moment, Peter is dynamically engaged in full-on proclamation. But it doesn’t last. Peter’s confession is a leap of faith; a genuine risk. He quits being an armchair disciple and risks everything for the thrill of being an extreme disciple. But when Jesus follows Peter’s risk by revealing the God-sized risk he himself will undertake, Peter loses his nerve.
Peter had come to recognize Jesus as Messiah as a result of the “glory days” and good times of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Peter just didn’t believe that his newly confessed Messiah was “big enough” to embrace the disgrace and defeat, the suffering and ridicule, the torture and death that Jesus said would come. Peter thought he had to protect Jesus from this future; shield him from exposing the diving reputation to such an extreme risk. In short, Peter’s understanding of God’s power and purpose wasn’t big enough.
That leads us to the first observation to make this morning: We fear that God isn’t big enough. That’s why we fear to proclaim our faith. We, like Peter, fear to be extreme disciples because we don’t believe that God is big enough to cover us if we should take the risk and proclaim the faith within us. We must stay under cover, we think, and not let people see us as extreme, and God be somehow embarrassed and exposed as inadequate to the world. If God really is so weak that the divine reputation is dependent upon fearful disciples for protection and defense, then we really are in trouble.
We are to stop worrying about protecting God’s good reputation and instead start taking risks for the sake of the Good News of Jesus. We really do have a big-enough God to deal with whatever the world may dish out.
We have a big-enough God to break through cynicism.
We have a big-enough God to push through barriers of race, nation and culture.
We have a big-enough God to heal hatred, despair and anxiety.
We have a big-enough God to rule the vastness of the universe and all its mysteries.
We have a big-enough God to reach through the Internet and the Twitterverse.
We have a big-enough God to be present in all the expanding possibilities in medicine and science.
Sara Maitland is a theologian/novelist/ and rector’s wife in England. She has written wittily about our over-protectiveness of the divine reputation. In her collection of essays, which partly inspired this sermon, she tells a story that illustrates how ridiculous our concerns can be.
“A few years ago, “she writes, “just a day or so after York Minster was struck by lightning, I was on my way to the local post office near my home, when I met an elderly woman. She was most distressed by this bolt from the heavens, this “act of God” as the insurance people call it. She was very upset. Did I think, she asked, that God had done it on purpose, as some newspapers were speculating? The post was about to leave, and I was in a hurry, but how can anyone resist such a subject? No, I said, I didn’t really think so, did she? No, she said, she didn’t really think that God was like that. There was a pause, and I was poised to escape. Then she added, in what I can only describe as a tone of affectionate criticism, ‘But God should have been more careful; he should have known there’d be talk.’”
As silly as that woman’s worries for God’s reputation were, they are not far from expressing our apologetic worries for God. But, the worries are unfounded. God really is big enough for a church that is on fire in faith and extreme in spreading it. Risk taking disciples are just the sort that God can use. God, after all, took the biggest risk in all of history in creating us with the freedom to choose or reject a relationship with our Creator. That divine risk gave way to yet another; a crucified Christ. Jesus incarnated God’s risk-taking love for us by drawing us back to the wholeness God intended for creation. Contrary to our fears, God is big enough.
That leads to the other observation to make this morning: God is an extreme God, and God is looking for extreme disciples. You and I have an advantage over Peter. We can read a few chapters ahead and see how the story comes out. Peter is stuck in the moment. In the end, we know, that Peter’s worries are unfounded. Jesus would be big enough to shoulder the cross, to bear the suffering of the world, endure the scorn and rejection, and accept the judgment of death. Jesus would be big enough to take this ultimate risk, because he knew first-hand the God who is big enough; enough to break through the hate with love, to relieve the pain of the suffering, to roll away the rock from the tomb, and to break the bonds of death itself.
Jesus shows us that there is no risk we can take for him that is so great it could ever separate us from God’s redemption and God’s love. Our greatest risk, Jesus cautions, comes when we ty to “play it safe” and avoid risk-taking with our faith. As he says in our lesson this morning, “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.”
As it turns out, we do not have a little, tame, domesticated God. Thank God! Rather, we have a huge, wild, dangerous God. Well, dangerous only if we think that God ought to be manageable and safe. We have a God of almost manic creativity, ingenuity and enthusiasm. Yet, also a God who is supremely generous and patient; a God of unlimited beauty and chance, and infinitely strong love: an extreme God.
In turn, Jesus wants us to become “extreme disciples,” willing to risk speaking up and sharing the faith that is in us. We have a big-enough God to carry us, a savior to deliver us, to handle the fallout of whatever risks may emerge from our “X” discipleship. We have a God who risked loving us beyond all else; who risked disgrace, embarrassment, hate, rejection, pain and death to win us to that love. We can risk no less if we are to be the church to win the world to that love. So, rise from the easy chair. Leave the observation deck, and get into the game. Become extreme, and let the world know your faith in the extreme God.