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Sermons

March 5, 2006 | March 12 | March 26

March 12, 2006

TO WHOM WE GIVE ALLEGIANCE


"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Perhaps no other words of Jesus are more quoted during the season of Lent than these words that Jesus spoke to Peter.

Peter had just earned his A in Sunday School class by telling Jesus that he was neither prophet past of apocalyptic preacher present.

He was the Messiah… the Anointed One.

The One who would restore Israel’s freedom and sovereignty.

Jesus was the One.

Time to celebrate and declare victory.

So Peter thought.

So we think.

Like Peter, we have great difficulty with the message that Jesus gave that day to his followers.

Denying oneself…

Dying on the cross…

Wanting Peter to come and bear the cross with him.

To save his life… to save our lives… we must give them up.

Peter was dumbfounded.

We are dumbfounded.

What is Jesus talking about?

Actually Peter probably understood Jesus message better than we do.

Peter knew very well what Jesus was going to do.

And Peter knew very well what the ultimate end had to be to what Jesus was going to do.

Jesus was marching on Jerusalem.

Jesus was marching against the Temple.

Jesus was marching against the Empire.

Jesus was marching to his death.

Peter knew it.

Jesus knew it.

Now we know it.

Peter did not want Jesus to go and do as he promised.

Peter certainly did want to go with Jesus on this suicide mission.

Maybe he was an illiterate fisherman from a small village with no future…

But whatever kind of future that was… it beat the heck out of dying as a political prisoner hanging for days on a Roman cross with only a few desperate relatives and the vultures for an audience.

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Peter objected.

32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him

Peter was saying to Jesus… “easy for you to say.”

You ask me to give up family and nation… and follow your call from God to face down the empire and be executed for our troubles.

No thanks.

Let’s just stay here… build a campfire and sing Kum-by-ya… serve dinners and have committee meetings and think this thing through.

Let’s not get excited and carried away.

We have obligations… commitments… responsibilities.

We have people who count on us.

We have jobs and duties we must tend to.

We have a country and a family and a community that we are loyal to.

Now you want to throw that all that away by marching on Jerusalem and the Temple and the Empire…

And march and sing and demonstrate ourselves right onto the gallows tree.

Peter understood what we miss… or try not to hear.

We too often hear “and take up his cross” as a call to self-sacrifice.

And self-sacrifice at our convenience… when we can work it in… when we can afford such acts.

We individualize and minimize self-sacrifice to such an extent that it comes practically with a risk-free guarantee.

Deny a little bit here… toss a few bucks there… do a little bit to help… and we have met our and take up his cross quota for the year.

Except that is not what Jesus had in mind.

Not for himself.

Not for Peter.

Not for us.

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Take(ing) up(our) his cross means give it all up.

Everything.

Everyone.

All.

Nothing held back.

Nothing to hold onto.

Denying yourself means turning aside friend and family… country and cause… to respond to God’s call.

Who among us has done that?

Again we try our best to minimize the cost of what Jesus wants us to do.

We believe we can split or share loyalties.

Jesus and family.

Jesus and country.

Jesus and wealth.

Jesus and principles.

Wanting to put our faith in a tidy compartment… a drawer in the dresser of our lives…

We go right on living with our desires and our wishes…

Accumulating and betraying… loving and hating…

Sure that we can reconcile our decisions and biases and our commitments with the Gospel somehow.

Most of us… probably all of us think or believe that while Jesus may be challenging us to must deny (ourselves) himself and take up his cross and follow me…

deep down we trust that Jesus will not really ask us to make such decisions…

That in the end Jesus will be reasonable and assure us that we are only required to do our best… make at least a symbolic or small gesture toward putting aside all of our loyalties and putting ourselves in harm’s way because we believe that God has called to do precisely such an act of faith and martyrdom.

Reasonableness.

I have come to believe that reasonableness is a greater enemy to Christian faith than other so-called enemies of the faith… like idolatry or heresy of agnosticism or even atheism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Luther Pastor in the 1930’s in Nazi Germany.

Writing in 1943 just for he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp… Bonhoeffer wrote about his life and the life of his country in the 10 years since Hitler had come to power.

10 years that Bonhoeffer had resisted Hitler.

Bonhoeffer thinks about “ who stands fast.”

He rejects the “reasonable man” because…

With the best intentions and a naive lack of realism, they think that with a little reason they can bend back into position the framework that has got out of joint… they want to do justice to all sides, and so the conflicting forces wear them down with nothing achieved. Disappointed by the world's unreasonableness… they step aside in resignation or collapse before the stronger party.

Peter was a reasonable man.

We are reasonable people.

We would be right there when “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “

Peter is just asking Jesus to be reasonable.

But Bonhoeffer understood what Peter did not.

Reason in the face of evil is powerless.

Reason seeks to accommodate all sides… and in the end is crushed by all those unreasonable and powerful sides.

Bonhoeffer argues that most other approaches fail too.

The fanatic fails because “The fanatic thinks that his single-minded principles qualify him to do battle with the powers of evil; but like a bull he rushes at the red cloak instead of the person who is holding it; he exhausts himself and is beaten.”

When we become fanatics… we believe the fight is more important than the cause or God we serve.

People of conscience fail because “who fights singlehanded - with no advice or support except from his own conscience - tears him to pieces… , till at last he contents himself with a salved instead of a clear conscience, so that he lies to his own conscience in order to avoid despair…”

Relying on your conscience isolates you to self-righteous behaviors and arrogant assumptions… until you stand utterly alone without friend or God.

The person who believes the answer is to do one’s duty fails because “no one who confines himself to the limits of duty ever goes so far as to venture, on his sole responsibility... The man of duty will in the end have to do his duty by the devil too.”

If the Nuremberg trails taught us anything… it was that “doing my duty” or “just following orders” is no excuse before the law and acts of faithlessness.

Neither can those who believe people of great virtue can stand against the world. “Only at the cost of self-deception can (the virtuous person) keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action. In spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of his peace of mind.

Virtue may be its own reward… but in the face of moral dilemmas and choosing to act or stand aside… virtue surrenders inevitably to the seductive power of evil.

Bonhoeffer rejected reasonableness, fanaticism, conscience, duty, and virtue.

I don’t know which one of those characteristics you chose to identify with…

but I know he got me on at least 2 or 3.

If being a person of faith… if denying ourselves and picking up our cross and following Jesus does not require reasonableness, fanaticism, conscience, duty, or virtue... what does it require?

Bonhoeffer answers this way: Who stands fast? Only the (person) who final standard is not their reason, their principles, their conscience, their duty, or their virtue; but who is ready to sacrifice all of this when they are called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God-

the responsible person who tries to make their whole life an answer to the question and call of God.

What is the question and call of God?

Jesus knew.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever wants to save his life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Bonhoeffer knew.

In 1939 he had been brought to the US where he was safely out of Hitler’s clutches.

He stayed 9 months.

Finally he told his sponsors… "I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people."

Bonhoeffer soon became involved, along with members of his own family, in a revolutionary group that believed Hitler must be eliminated. From then on he was living what his biographer calls a ‘double life’ – churchman and conspiratorial agent. He was arrested in April of 1943 for his complicity in a conspiracy and held in Tegel prison until late 1944. His Letters and Papers from Prison has become a treasure house of theological reflection. On the ninth day of April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the National Socialist Government of Germany upon the personal order of its Chancellor.

This past February marked the 100th birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We can learn from his example. He understood what Jesus meant by denying self and carrying his cross.

Maybe we will never face such a choice. Maybe we will. Let us pray if we do… we can reject reasonableness, fanaticism, conscience, duty, and virtue. Let us pray we can make our whole lives an answer to the question and call of God.

AMEN.

A Memeber of the United Church of Christ