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Profit and Loss

March 2, 2015

“Profit and Loss” Mark 8:31-38 © 3.1.15 Lent 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

They’re such simple words. Short. Common. A child can grasp their definitions. “Profit” means “getting.” “Forfeit” is “giving up.”

Jesus uses another word: “want.” “If any want to become my followers.”

Peter wanted to be our Lord’s disciple, certainly. But maybe for a different reason than Jesus had in mind. When he rebuked Jesus for all the talk of suffering and death, Peter may have been speaking only for himself. Maybe the rest appointed him to the unpleasant task. Whoever he represented, Peter saw his relationship with Jesus as leading ultimately to a position of power, and in the meantime, to having the satisfaction of seeing the Romans booted from Judea. He and his people had watched for too long as Roman legions tramped through the streets armed to the teeth. He had chafed under having to turn over part of his hard-earned fishing income to the occupation government. And Peter was tired of putting up with pagan rulers who didn’t honor the true God. Jesus was going to kick them out and restore the glory of Israel.

But his ultimate fantasy was becoming Jesus’ chief of staff or maybe the prime minister in the kingdom over which our Lord would rule. Peter would receive dignitaries in a richly appointed room, give his advice on weighty matters, order something to be done and expect the command to carried out without question. Even the chief priests and scribes would listen to what he had to say. He almost salivated at the prospect of finally getting the respect he craved.

So Peter was terribly disappointed when Jesus started talking like a loser, like a victim. What did he mean he was going to be killed? Peter almost panicked. No way, Jesus! You can’t spoil my plans like that! You can’t do that to Judea and all the people depending on you to act against Romans and any countrymen who had collaborated!

But if the apostle was disappointed, deeper down he was scared. It began to dawn on him that if Jesus were crucified, that his followers would probably be hunted down, tortured, and killed in the same way their Master had been. And no more than any of us did Peter want to die, especially in the slow, agonizing, perversely imaginative way the Romans had come up with.

Peter’s doubts and difficulties didn’t prompt Jesus to back down. Indeed, he becomes all the more insistent, all the clearer about what it takes to be a disciple, a follower. We hear the words every Lent: deny yourself, take up the cross, lose your life in order to save it.

The very repetition of such phrases may make us immune to their real meaning. Denying ourselves is reduced to not eating another three double stuff chocolate cookies after already consuming that many or having only two gin and tonics before dinner. It’s giving up something for Lent, again usually some food, like meat or chocolate. And then when the forty days are over, we go back to our old habits, feeling holy and convinced that we fulfilled our obligation and showed great discipline.

There’s another common take on denying self. There are well-meaning folk who hate themselves, consistently put themselves down, deny to themselves anything that would bring happiness, strength, color, and joy to their dreary lives. They let themselves be pushed around, walked on, put down, all the while believing that’s what Jesus requires.

A therapist once described this mindset as seen in a young woman who came to him for counseling. She “had been raised on a steady diet of self-denial: wanting things for oneself, taking care of one’s own needs, developing independence of spirit and action were all lumped into the refuse bag of ‘selfishness.’ The net result was that while the poor woman had strong and moving desires to help other people, she had no resources of self to bring to the task and was, effectively, paralyzed. She had been taught to cancel her self out rather than to cultivate it for use in the service and lives of fellow human beings. There is a vast difference” (J. Randall Nichols, The Restoring Word: 43).

If self-denial is not merely periodically refraining from indulgence, doing without things we might enjoy or the blanking out of self, what, then, does Jesus ask of those who would be his disciples? For John Calvin, the denial of self meant that “almost forgetful of ourselves, surely subordinating our self-concern, we try faithfully to devote our zeal to God and his commandments” (Institutes 3.7.2). The yearning to possess, the desire for power and the favor of people are erased from our minds, as well as the craving for glory. We abandon conceptions of pre-eminence. We make space for others, inviting them to enter into conversation and relationships full of meaning and mutuality. That’s what Rob and Kristen Bell call the “zimzum of love,” which is an old Hebrew mystical word for “contraction.” Most of all, denying self is knowing and practicing that we belong not to ourselves, but to our faithful Savior, as the catechism puts it.

Jesus’ call to self-denial is not addressed to us in our weakness, but in our very great strength. It’s a summons to a choice, to align our wills, goals, wants with those of Jesus. Self-denial means that we may go our own way and seek our own good, but we do otherwise. We could use our talents to advance our own cause, but we decide actively and intentionally to further the cause of Christ. We give over our imagination, power, influence, education, creativity, whatever it is we have and are for the kingdom of God.

If we potentially and probably misunderstand denying self, so also does common usage often misrepresent what it means to take up, to bear, the cross. Usually we talk about the cross we have to bear as some problem or pain imposed on us. Or maybe it’s the burden of some personality trait, physical limitation or lack of competence in our work. I will always remember a plain-spoken church member in Alabama who told me my children’s sermons were the cross I had to bear. I don’t know if she meant I was lousy at them or they were something that had to be endured as part of my job each Sunday.

I don’t mean to discount the trauma and seriousness of those potentially death-dealing concerns we have, the times when life says “no” like an enraged two year-old. And there are indeed obligations in our families or our work that are frustrating and heavy, duties we’d rather be rid of. But the taking of the cross to which our Lord calls us is not the patient shouldering of pains and problems. The cross is an instrument of death, and a horrific, painful one at that. The very Latin word “crucio,” as the kids know from Harry Potter, means “to torture.” The cross represents the end of possibility, the relinquishing of every appeal. In taking up the cross, we trust in God against all hope. The death we die is to the old being that clings and grasps, which insists on its own way, so the new way of God may be born within us. It’s laying down our lives, whether literally or metaphorically, for the sake of Christ and the gospel, trusting to save us the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

There are many ways to bear the cross, from the smallest act of kindness to the great gift of dying as a martyr. A teen who shuns popularity if that means forsaking good values takes up the cross. A parent who for the sake of his or her children and spouse refuses to be a slave to schedule and success takes up the cross. A persecuted Christian in the Middle East who dies at the hands of extremists takes up the cross.

However we or anyone may shoulder the symbol of ultimate self-giving and sacrifice, Jesus bids every disciple to be proud of and vocal about their association with him. “Whoever is ashamed of me, of them I will be ashamed,” he warns. The world is filled with philosophies and approaches, ideas and actions that are put in place of Jesus or are hostile to him. So, as much as he did, we live in the midst of an “adulterous and sinful generation.” “Adultery” here means breaking covenant with God and with each other, becoming idolatrous, putting something, anything in the place of Jesus Christ. To be sinful is not simply to do wrong things, but at the heart of our being to consider that we are the center of the universe. It’s arrogance, presumption, over-weaning pride in what ultimately is worthless. That’s the context in which we live; it’s also the reality of our lives too often.

Every Christian is called to take up the cross. Some may carry it to martyrdom or prison. Others may undertake a mission that involves deep personal risk or privation. Most obviously are not called to such extreme sacrifice, but that does not make their commitment any less serious or the deaths they die any less real. We follow Jesus, denying ourselves and taking up the cross, in different ways. But it is the same cross we carry, the instrument, the symbol, of death. We bear it knowing that our Lord, too, has borne it and has been vindicated in the resurrection of the dead. We carry it with confidence in the God whom Abraham trusted was fully able to do what he promised. We follow Christ, affirming with Isaac Watts that “were the whole realm of nature mine/that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine/demands my soul, my life, my all” ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross").

“Profit” means “getting.” “Forfeit” means “giving up.” Such simple words. But how profound and how powerful!

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