August 6, 2006
Certified Lay Speaker
Christ United Methodist Church
Piscataway, New Jersey
Mark 8: 34-38
When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? "Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?
"For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."
I know a family where one parent is a practicing Christian and the other an observant Jew. “Isn’t that a bit confusing to the children?” I asked. “Well, yes,” said the mother. “But look at all the holidays we get to celebrate!”
I think she was being a bit facetious, but one day those kids will have a decision to make. And it will affect them eternally. They will discover that following a faith is much more than just holidays. In many respects being a Christian today is no easier than it was in the first century A.D. In our passage from Mark today Jesus was brutally honest. He pulled no punches. He never does. Unlike some we see on our TV’s who claim to be preaching His gospel these days, our Lord did not say to His prospective followers:
“Give me enough money and My Father will take care of everything. You’ll be rich, healthy and your children will rise up and call you blessed. I’ll even send you a lovely thank-you gift. The phone lines are open. Visa and Mastercard accepted. Unless I hear from you today I may have to shut down my ministry. By the way, did you miss My Sermon on the Mount? Own it for just one denarius plus shipping and handling; Specify parchment or stone tablets. Express camel delivery available. Act now.”
He did not say that! Nor did He say “If you can dream it, you can do it.” “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” or “Prosperity is just around the corner.” And I guarantee he did not say “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am; I have what it says I have; I can do what it says I can do.”
Platitudes and quick fixes were not His style. The celebrated Scottish New Testament commentator William Barclay observes, “Jesus never tried to bribe anyone by the offer of an easy way. He did not offer peace; He offered glory.”
We heard an echo of Christ speaking this passage from Mark from Winston Churchill during the Second World War. He promised the people of Britain only blood, toil, sweat and tears in exchange for the ultimate victory. Meanwhile Hitler and the Nazis were only too happy to forfeit their souls in an attempt to gain the whole world. What did it profit them?
Whoever loses his life for my sake…will save it. Is the Savior saying we should all go out and take one for the team? Earn our heavenly reward as soon as possible and be done with it? I don’t think so. There’s too much that needs doing right where we are. But neither should we fear death in His service – either physical death or death to our former selves. Jesus was warning His disciples it would never be easy to follow Him. To speak and act in His name would be risky – why else would Peter feel the need to deny Him three times?
Following Him remains risky today. According to “Voice of the Martyrs” more Christians were killed for their faith during the 20th century than any other in history. Those of us blessed to live in America are not called upon to offer up our lives for the faith, although many in the world still must. But, even here, decades of cultural domination by the forces of secularism are taking their toll. Christians once defined the culture. Now we’re the counter-culture. Many of our public institutions such as the courts, legislative bodies and schools have chosen to march to the prevailing drumbeat of political correctness rather than Biblical wisdom and American tradition.
The Gospel may give us eternal life in heaven but it does not necessarily sow peace on earth. The efforts by secular society to keep the name of Jesus out of the public consciousness seem to redouble daily. The divide between believers and skeptics is as wide as it’s ever been. Did you ever imagine that the Ten Commandments or the Pledge of Allegiance would become controversial? And those who pray publicly in Christ’s name these days risk serious repercussions. Traditional celebrations of His birth and resurrection have been virtually outlawed in our culture. This comes as no surprise to Him – He told us this would happen.
And Jesus can even divide families, neighbors, co-workers. You may recall that media mogul Ted Turner dumped his wife Jane Fonda a few years back. Now divorce among the rich and famous is hardly big news. But word has it he was motivated by her conversion to Christianity. That’s not your typical Hollywood break-up!
At the same time Jesus has the power to bring together people of many different backgrounds, cultures and languages in His name. Just look at the gathering at Pentecost in Acts, chapter two. It was truly a miracle, a Tower of Babel in reverse. I am blessed to be a part-time student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary where men and women representing some 30 different denominations and many ethnic backgrounds come together for the common goal of serving Christ. And it is also a blessing to join together with our brothers and sisters of different faiths and traditions in the pursuit of common goals. In the process we tend to discover that the things which unite us with non-Christians far outweigh those which divide us.
Yet I believe Jesus is telling us that when it comes to acknowledging Him as our Lord and Savior, it’s OK – indeed it’s essential -- to stand up and say to all who will listen: “I am a Christian. This is who I am, this is what I believe. From this I will not move.” If we stand for nothing, we will fall for anything.
Back to Mark: "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."
Who among us has any difficulty proclaiming their undying loyalty to a baseball team, school, political party or even a favorite beverage? Yet somehow many of us seem to have a hard time going public with our relationship with the One who saves our soul for eternity.
Jesus is telling us it is not enough merely to accept His offer intellectually or even invite Him into our lives privately. We must make a public acknowledgement of our Christianity. We publicly declare our wedding vows and then try to live our lives to honor them. New members of the clergy are ordained in a public ceremony. A few months ago New Jersey inaugurated a new governor. It wasn’t done in a private office somewhere in the bowels of the capitol in Trenton. It was a public ceremony, part of a day-long series of events shown on state-wide television. The new governor then publicly addressed his constituents. Public promises invite scrutiny and accountability. And that’s as it should be. So must we publicly declare and live out our commitment to Christ. For was He not born publicly? Did He not call out His disciples publicly? Did He not preach, heal, minister, stand trial - and die – for all to see? Should we do any less?
We just never know who may be watching. I like to take a walk every morning before getting ready for work. I’ve been walking the same route around the neighborhood – rain or shine, hot or cold - for years now. Not long ago a man driving by stopped and called out to me. He said his seeing me every day has inspired him to start walking. I told him he’s welcome to join me any time. I have no doubt we’ll soon be sharing that morning walk. Now I know I didn’t get his attention because of the dashing figure I cut in my sweats and sneakers; and he certainly was not impressed by my speed. But he saw me being out there, consistent and dedicated in my walk. Isn’t that how we can get others to share our walk with Christ, too? This man never would have seen me on a treadmill in my living room.
Some lessons take a while to learn. As a youth, late Sunday nights would find me in bed with lights out but not sleeping. Instead I would be huddled with my little transistor radio listening to “The Hour of Decision” on WJR-AM in Detroit, Michigan. I knew my Jewish parents would not approve of me listening to Billy Graham preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So I was ready to turn off the radio and feign sleep at a moment’s notice. Was I ashamed of my belief in Christ? Or did I just fear my parents more than I loved Him? I’m haunted by those questions still.
Many years later I was baptized in the church as an adult – in front of God and the congregation. I’ve done it, I told myself. Jesus can never say I was ashamed of Him. But that was on His turf, in front of the home crowd. About a year later the leader of a Rutgers University ministry invited me to give my testimony before his group at one of their Sunday meetings – not at a church but at a public hall on campus. Who knows, some of my students or colleagues could be there. I had never done anything like this before and was apprehensive. Even my wife, who is a wonderful, committed Christian woman, expressed concern. She understandably feared possible professional repercussions.
After much thought and prayer and remembering
This led to my taking four Disciple Bible studies at my church which led to the Basic and Advanced Lay Speaking courses offered by our district which led to New Brunswick Seminary which will lead……..well, I’ll leave that up to our Lord.
© 2006 Tim Espar