Resetting the Discipleship Compass

Mark 8:31-38

If faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins.

I struggle with this text from Mark 8. Feeling stumped over several days, out of curiosity I looked back on how I addressed this text in 2015.

Then, I avoided my current struggle by writing on verse 35 –For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it. Back then I wrote somewhat eloquently, if I do say so myself, on the psychological distinction between soul and persona; between living from the expansiveness of our soul which bears the imprint of the divine dream upon us – in contrast to lives dominated by our small individual personal stories constructed from neuronal misfiring of memory.

But times change. 2021 is not 2015. To repeat my 2015 message in 2021 feels to me like an intellectual luxury none of us can currently afford. 2021 asks a different question of Mark’s text – question much closer to the ones Mark wanted his readers to hear.

In 2021 I have to ask – is there anything remotely honest to say to a community like ours in the face of Jesus’ words predicting his passion and death?

Can there be anything more comfortable, more smug than being middleclass Episcopalians? Ours is a Christianity that exacts of us little if any cost at all. Our sense of discipleship – if we even think in these terms – meshes seamlessly with – and offers little challenge to the prevailing materialist worldview of our society.

I could stand here and expound on the costs of discipleship as Mark shows Jesus beginning to explain to the disciples. But by what authority would I do so? My fear is by the authority all hypocrites claim – to be holier than thou.

When it comes to following Jesus on the road of his passion – we are milk toast disciples at best. It’s not that we lack conviction, it’s that our convictions mostly come at no cost to us. That like the disciples as Mark depicts them – we think we can say yes to Jesus but dictate our own terms and reset the direction of travel for our discipleship’s direction.

Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

In 2021 I feel compelled to address the bruising encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter.

To fully appreciate the searing impact of the encounter between Jesus and Simon Peter we need to go back to verse 27 where Mark reports that Jesus on his way to Caesarea Philippi asked his disciples about what people were saying about him? Reporting the general gossip – the disciples tell him: Well Rabbi, some say this, and some say that. To which Jesus asks: But you – who do you say I am? His question provokes Simon Peter to declare: We know who you are, you are the Messiah! But giving the correct answer doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what that answer means.

Today’s text picks up at verse 31 with: Then he began to teach them —. What Jesus has to teach them is not what they want to hear. Simon Peter – from his culturally conditioned misunderstanding of messiahship speaks up and taking Jesus aside rebukes him with what I imagine probably went like this: What on earth are you talking about, Jesus. What nonsense are you spouting about suffering and death. You are the Messiah – the great king sent by God to get us out of this mess of Roman occupation and restore us to our status of a great and free nation. So, let’s hear no more of this defeatist nonsense about suffering and death. Can’t you see the undermining effect on morale you’re having on the others when you speak like this?

Jesus’ response could not have been stronger. He fixes Simon with a steely gaze and with a heart stopping authority commands: Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.

Flashback to Jesus experience in the wilderness. During his 40 days in the wilderness, faced with hunger, Jesus realizes that stuffing his face and filling his stomach will not provide the satiation for the real hunger within him. Faced with the prospect of ultimate power over earthly things, Jesus understands that justice is not the fruit of omnipotent power. Faced with an invitation to use his superman-messiah powers and jump off the panicle of the Temple and fly, Jesus reaffirms his humanity. For he has only a human body that will be smashed and broken upon the paving stones below. Jesus passes his time in the wilderness – a kind of messiah confirmation hearing by rejecting human desire for mastery and acknowledging his human dependence on God; proclaiming that he will not question his ultimate trust in God.

In the wilderness, Jesus rebuffed Satan’s temptations by calling out the all too human desire for self-protection through the possession and exercise of power. Now, as he tries to open the disciples’ minds to the cost of discipleship he’s confronted by Satan – this time insinuating with the face and voice of Simon Peter.

Is there anything remotely honest to say in a community like ours about our response in the face of Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death? Like Simon Peter, these are not words we want to hear. But unlike Peter we don’t even have the courage to protest. We just tune out – preferring to think the choice is ours whether or not to follow along with Jesus on our own terms and with no cost to us.

Our temptations tend to come cloaked in very ordinary disguise. We enter upon the journey of another Lent – a season in which we are called to face down our temptations through bringing a particular intentionality, a mindful consciousness, to the task of disciplining our addictive appetites, our unruly wills, and distracted minds. We are faced with having to acknowledge the buried sorrows that often find their way to the surface of the mind as anger feeding a legion of envious resentments and grievances. In some instances, the acknowledgment of sorrow demands of us a spirit of repentance for intensions and actions that have hurt others. But there again, it might require what is even more difficult – the offering of forgiveness to those who have hurt us.

All of this is costly enough on the personal and interpersonal level. But what about our connivance with benefiting from the evils of a society in which we still continue to deny that racism, gender identity oppression, sexual identity persecution, not to mention the really big ones – of pandemic and environmental injustice from which all social injustices flow and become magnified – have anything to do with us. Oh, we decry these evils, but are we willing to pay the cost of doing something about them?

What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs?

What will it cost us to be agents with God in the healing of the world? This is Jesus’ 21st century discipleship question. What will it take for us to discover what the disciples eventually came to understand – that the fruits of discipleship cannot be separated from the costs.

My message is not entirely a counsel of despair with a focus on the cost of discipleship along the road of suffering and death. Living on the far side of the resurrection we know that the discipleship path opens us to undreamed fruitfulness of living. But if faith is to deepen, hope to strengthen, and love to flower in our lives and to flow through us abundantly into our world, Mark 8 is where the journey begins. It’s from here we reset our compass needle towards the resurrection.

The Shame of Love

In those daysJesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son, with you, I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9-11

Notice how in Mark, God speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased”. Compare with Matthew’s account where God says “This is my son, the Beloved,” as if speaking not to Jesus but to a wider audience. For Mark God’s address to Jesus is deeply personal: You are my son, the beloved!

At Jesus’ baptism, God claims Jesus as the be-loved one. At our baptism God likewise claims us as be-loved.

Now I know I am loved by God, but do I experience myself being loved by God? My answer is mixed and equivocal – a yes and no. I know that God loves me. Looking back on my life I can see that God has deeply loved me. Looking to my future I know that God will always love me.  Yet, in the present moment, I often feel very detached from the direct experience of God’s love.

The real challenge of my spiritual journey has been – and remains – to experience the reality that God loves me with an unconditional love in the present moment – a love that has nothing to do with how much or how little I love God in return.

There’s love and then there’s shame. It is tempting for me to put my lack of a sense experience of being loved in the present moment by God down to two sources of shame. Firstly, there is my inability to love God as much as I feel I should. If I loved God more I might feel more of God’s love for me. Secondly, I feel myself to be both unworthy of and certainly ungrateful for God’s love. Despite my longing to more powerfully feel God’s love of me, the sorry truth is shame leads me to shy away from the experience of being loved. Being the one who does the loving – no matter how imperfectly – is easier than being the one who is loved. The lover is always in control while the beloved has no control over being loved. There’s a paradox for in being loved unconditionally exposes me to my sense of shame.

In his poem Love III, George Herbert describes my experience of shying away when God tells me he loves me. I too want to cry out with Herbert: I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee. It’s as if I want to tell God: thank you, but no thank you! To be beloved of God is too intrusive and potentially demanding, too intimate an experience. Being loved exposes me to my vulnerability and shame. Between humility and humiliation – there lies the finest of lines.

We are in a continual negotiation around the shame of loving and being loved. As the lover, God pursues us and has no intention of allowing us to set the comfort level for intimacy.

In Love III, George Herbert describes our struggle with the shame that causes us to shy away from the fullest experience of being loved by God.  

 I, the unkind the ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee.
 Love takes my hand and smiling did reply, ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
 Truth Lord, but I have marred them, let my shame go where it doth deserve. 
 And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
 Ah, my dear, then I will serve.

 You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat,
 So I did sit and eat.  

Yet, in the end, we must capitulate in the face of God’s relentless pursuit to love us. 

I’ve had the courage to speak honestly and in very personal terms because my experience is not an isolated one, unique to me. We all know that when it comes to God’s love, it is not about earning and deserving but believing and receiving. Yet, so much of our identity is predicated on being worthy – which is just a way of dressing up the fact that we want to remain in control. If we are deserving of God’s love, we tell ourselves, it can only be to the extent of having somehow, earned it. What a ridiculous notion!  

The truth is we are be-loved. We are all be-loved because God’s love is a gift – gifted to us without strings. Capitulation to being loved is the only healthy response we can make.

As we move into Lent, let us look more deeply into our own experience of temptation and struggle. In particular, let us face the greatest temptation of all – to allow our shame to come between us and the experience of being loved by God. This is for many of us hard to do and comes only with the practice of prayer and the discipline self-examination – the purpose of which is to let: our shame go where it doth deserve.

Mark ends this section with Jesus returning from his time of preparation in the wilderness to find John has been arrested. The time he says has come, the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news! For us Lent is a time remind ourselves that for us also, there’s no time to lose!

[We will be familiar with Love as part of a series of metaphysical poems written by the 17-cenutry Anglican priest, George Herbert. Less familiar to some may be that in 1911, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams took love together with four others of Herbert’s poems setting them as his Five Mystical Songs within which the poem Love is the third in sequence. You might like to listen here.]

Love (III)
George Herbert - 1593-1633
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
            Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
            From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
            If I lacked anything.
"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here":
            Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
            I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
            "Who made the eyes but I?"
"Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
            Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
            "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
            So I did sit and eat.


Last Sunday in Epiphany Mark 9:2-9

We stand in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

We’ve arrived at the last Sunday in the Epiphany season. Epiphany as a season is a series of showings – of revealings – each one stripping away the filters that prevent us from seeing that which is hidden in plain sight, that is, who Jesus really is. But more significantly – and I want you to hold onto this – the series of revealings not only strips our filters from seeing who Jesus standing in plain sight as the Christ, but also strip away the filters that hide seeing who we are are as opposed to who we want to think we are.

There is a cumulative effect in this season of showings, beginning with the Visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Mark does not record this event but takes up the epiphany theme with the Baptism of Jesus, and then in the course of his first chapter to focus the revealing of Jesus true identity through his encounter with the demonic.

It would pay dividends to revisit the sermons for the last two Sunday’s. Two weeks ago, I drew attention to the way Jesus confronts the demonic – not by destroying it but by disembodying it – in effect rendering it homeless. Evil manifests in human bodies, in human hearts, in individual lives – and by extension collectively, in human society.

Last week Linda+ reminded us that:

The vocation of the people of God as healers of the world requires that we not turn away from the evil that manifests itself in humanity’s brokenness and suffering. Seeing it, we must name it and defeat it every time, in whatever form it takes.

We name evil and defeat evil rendering it homeless through truth telling, justice making, and the spiritual restoration that disembodies evil – one truth, one heart, one act of compassion at a time.

We leave the season of Epiphany with the story of the Transfiguration – the final filter stripping event revealing that which is hidden in plain sight. Remember that what is hidden in plain sight is not only who Jesus really is but who we really are. From here, we journey down the mountain of transfiguration to begin the slow Lenten journey of discipline and learning discipleship.

When the filters fall from our eyes we come to see that what is hidden in plain sight – we see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – squirming and wriggling.

Of the Evangelists, it is Mark who most graphically depicts this journey that Jesus begins after coming down the mountain. This is the journey that will lead him to his ultimate destination – to Jerusalem and the reality of the cross.

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. (Mark 8: 34-5)

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this road? Actually, if we were in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. The problem is that we hear this invitation clothed in our wrong minds. Minds shrouded by a preoccupation with our own self interests.

The disciples heard Jesus invitation clothed in their wrong minds which caused them to play dumb, to resist through continually misunderstanding Jesus, and to accept his invitation thinking that they could dictate the terms and set the direction of travel. Mark continually slams the disciples for their willful resistance to the reality of Jesus invitation to follow him. He offers four clear instances of the disciples’ resistance to the true nature of Jesus’s discipleship call from the very outset of the journey from this point of transfiguration:

  1. Peter refuses to accept Jesus’ political fate (8: 31-3)
  2. Peter misinterprets the transfiguration vision (9: 5-7)
  3. The disciples discuss who will be greatest among them (9: 33ff)
  4. James and John try to secure the highest rank (10: 35ff)

In these refusals do we not hear the echo of our own self preoccupations? Like the disciples, we also think we can follow Jesus by resetting the directions of his roadmap and dictating the terms of travel. Like the disciples we stand clothed in our wrong minds. When that which is hidden in plain sight is revealed we find ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling.

Think back to how you looked at and felt about the world this time last year. Now ask yourself -how are you different today and what is it that’s made you different? Over this past year we have been buffeted by a prolonged experience of epiphany that has stripped the filters from our eyes – filters of willful and self-protective blindness.

Even though the temptation is to think we can accept Jesus invitation to follow him on the road to the cross in the mistaken belief that we can somehow dictate the terms, do we have a choice? As Christians in some shape or form, we are on the road with Jesus whether we like it or not. The question becomes what kind of experience will we allow this to be?

This Lent the extended pandemic has given us a gift of time – time to be more reflective – time to cultivate a deeper awareness and practice of being in God’s presence – or to put it another way – letting God be more present on our lives. In 2021 we enter Lent with the advantage that we have had a year of buffeting that has worn away our glossy illusions about ourselves and the world we have created.

Lent is a time for discipline. Discipline does not mean punishment. Discipline describes the practices of discipleship-making.

Whatever we decide to do this Lent by way of a different spiritual practice – the key is to to strip away the filters that prevent us from seeing ourselves revealed as we are in plain sight making the disciplines of our Anglican spiritual tradition part of our own daily and weekly experience. These are namely:

  • Prayer – making space in our day for God.
  • Study – deepening our understanding of God’s call to be agents for the healing of a broken world through one truth telling, one heart turning, one act of compassion at a time.
  • Repentance through – making room for sorrow through self-examination, – voicing a lament for the painful journey of loss and suffering we see all  around us, – self-denial as the practice of listening to and privileging others first
  • Worship – journeying to God – not alone – but in the company of others.

Who in their right mind would want to follow Jesus along this discipleship road? Actually, if when we become clothed in our right minds this is exactly what we would do. There is no shame in acknowledging discomfort – to acknowledge our wriggling. Our shame is when we hide our doubts and discomfort from ourselves and from God. So, this Lent, let’s learn to see ourselves standing in the shadow of the cross – wriggling. At least that’s a beginning.

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