“Deny … Take … Follow”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Genesis 28:10-22
Romans 5:1-11
Mark 8:31-38

I think I mentioned it before, but there is a bumper sticker that says, “If you love Jesus, tithe! Anybody can honk.” The Season of Lent calls us to that kind of serious self-examination and straight talk. That’s why a lot of people don’t like Lent.

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson is filled with straight talk from Jesus, including one of His harshest comments to anyone. Only the Pharisees, and perhaps Herod, received any stronger tongue lashing from Jesus than did Peter in this lesson. When Jesus told His disciples exactly what was going to happen to Him, a one-sentence history of the rest of His life — suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection — Peter rebuked Him. Jesus, in turn, reprimanded Peter with these stern words: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.”

Then Jesus called the whole crowd in on their conversation and said to them all: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The straight talk doesn’t stop there, but these words, which appear in virtually every series of Scriptures for Lent, are enough to swallow at one time.

First of all, I wonder if Peter heard any other word for a long time after “Satan.” Although I’m afraid Jesus may have thought that of me many times, I can hardly imagine how it would feel to hear Him say it. The rest of His comment to Peter is typical of us all. We are all so frequently “not on the side of God, but of men.”

God has claimed us as His children, proclaimed us to be His Church and His people, but we succumb so easily to the pressure of the present. The expediency of the moment compels us far more than the good of the future or even the value of the most righteous of principles. Peter knew that it would not be politically expedient, or even remotely practical for Jesus to go about His mission in the manner Jesus had described. He chewed Jesus out for being so foolish. Many a pastor has been told — sometimes rightly — that he may be in charge of spiritual matters but he doesn’t know much about the business of running the church. Jesus made no division in His “business” between the secular and the spiritual. He was about His Father’s business.

When passages about self-denial come up during Lent, we usually think in the familiar terms of “giving up” something for Lent. Jesus is not talking here about denying something to yourself, like the little girl who gave up spinach. He is not even talking about giving up something we crave, like chocolate, cigarettes, alcohol or meat. He is talking beyond even that which is sacrificial, like the self- denial of a monk whose life of poverty and chastity is truly austere. Denying ourselves in order to follow Christ means placing our entire lives, all our desires, all our values and priorities under the Law for correction and under the Gospel for transformation.

There is no easy road to self-denial. In fact, Jesus caps it off with cross-carrying! You may have heard the story of Anton Lang, an actor who portrayed Christ in the passion play at Oberammergau, Germany. A tourist and his wife went backstage following a performance to meet the actors and actresses. After taking Lang’s picture, the man noticed the great cross that the actor had carried during his performance.

“Here, dear,” he said quickly to his wife, “you take my camera and, when I lift the cross up to my shoulder, snap my picture.” Before Mr. Lang could say anything, the tourist had stooped down to lift the prop to his shoulder. He couldn’t budge it. The cross was made with solid oak beams. In amazement, the man turned to Lang and said, “I thought it would be hollow and light. Why do you carry a cross that is so terribly heavy?” The actor replied, “Sir, if I did not feel the weight of His cross, I could not play His part.”

It is not surprising that most people don’t like penitential seasons or services. With a focus on self- examination, even self-denial, coupled with an emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death, Lent could hardly be described as pleasant. Yet, like this straight talk from Jesus, there is a very positive side. Deny yourself … take up your cross … and follow Jesus, are not three similar thoughts couched in different words. On the contrary, two separate and rather difficult instructions are followed by a golden invitation! We are invited to become the people we were meant to be. Jesus invites us, and the Holy Spirit enables us.

From that perspective, the Season of Lent is not negative at all. It is a generous opportunity from our gracious Lord to rid ourselves of all that makes us less than God wants to help us be. Many of Peter’s actions recorded in the New Testament appear to be the actions of a young or immature man — compulsive, impulsive or unthinking. Jesus’ words imply, on the contrary, that Peter’s acts were thought out. The problem was Peter’s less-than-best thoughts!

We don’t simply “grow out” of such thoughts. We may know “older” people who seem to have grown out of them, but they are inevitably among God’s special people. Dr. Ann Vinson, who earned her Ph.D. in educational gerontology, wrote:

“Each of us knows or knows about models of successful aging whom we love and admire. Many such individuals readily admit that the source of their stability and creativity comes from religious convictions that they have honed and practiced and proved. Professionals who study human development recognize religion as an ameliorative factor in problem solving. Religion teaches that it is not the preservation of an outer shell but the renewal of the inner spirit that defines agelessness. And, because of their faith, devout believers evince fewer death fears than the sporadically religious.”

The sad thing about her observation is that most of the people in the world, including some who call themselves Christians, can be described by her phrase “sporadically religious.” This year, as we prepare ourselves to faithfully remember our Lord’s passion and enthusiastically celebrate His resurrection, let’s begin, as Michael Jackson once suggested, “with the man in the mirror.” He suggested that if you want to make the world a better place, the first change to be made is yourself. He was right, in one respect. The correct part of it is also the Master’s plan. Peter apparently wanted Jesus to change the world by some power play, but Jesus wanted to change it by changing the people.

What Mr. Jackson failed to suggest in his song is that the needed change is not a change we can make ourselves. The woman or man in our mirror will continue, like Peter, to think as a woman or man thinks, and to be “on the side of men,” until God Himself creates the new person within.

The root meaning of the word “Lent” is “spring,” a time when the world itself sheds much of what was formerly valuable and comes out again all fresh and new. We humans may participate is some shedding, but genuine spiritual growth is a gift from God. Let’s begin, as Jesus suggests, through self- denial. The thing to give up for Lent is anything that would claim our ultimate allegiance, everything that would presume to tell us who we are and what we stand for. One thing is needful: the generous invitation of our gracious Savior to follow Him, to be like Him. He is there to empower and enable us.

In Sunday’s epistle lesson, St. Paul reminds us that it was while we were still God’s enemies that Jesus came to us to love us, forgive us, redeem us and enrich us. The cross of sin and death is not for us to bear — He carried it and succumbed to it for us. St. Paul goes on to say that in addition to our faith, which makes us no longer enemies — more than friends — even the dear children of God, Jesus also gives us several additional, marvelous gifts. Look at Romans 5:1-5 and follow the progress to peace, joy, hope and love.

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