Mark 8: 31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” 34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
“34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
I. THE SIGNATURE ANABAPTIST THEME
As I thought over this passage, I kept getting confused. Is this to be a message for Lent, or for Mennonite History Sunday? For as Romans 1: 17 was the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, “The just shall live by faith,” so Mark 8: 34 was the battle cry of the Anabaptist Reformation: “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.”
To get an idea of how important these very words of Jesus were to our Anabaptist spiritual ancestors of the 16th Century, consider the words of one such ancestor, Hans Denck: “No one can truly know Christ unless he follow him in his life, and no one may follow him unless he has first known him.” Or the words of a hymn by Michael Sattler: “When Christ with his true teaching came and gathered up his flock so fair, He taught them all to follow him And patiently his cross to bear.”
Of course these leaders were not talking about carrying literal crosses. Menno Simons described his cross as: “much oppression, tribulation, anxiety, apprehension, bonds, seizure, and so forth…” on behalf of his faith, the church, and God’s kingdom. So, what they were saying with all this cross language was that the grace of God is free, but it doesn’t come cheaply; pay whatever price you have to to lay hold of it and keep it, knowing in the end its a bargain, whatever the cost.
Now the early Anabaptists believed in salvation by God’s grace through faith, and could say along with Luther, “The just shall live by faith.” But whenever they asked the next obvious question, they got in hot water. “So, what does faith look and act like?” they asked. “Is it just to give mental assent to a doctrine or an idea? Anybody can do that,” they said. That’s why they got persecuted for being legalists and separatists. For those first Anabaptist insisted that faith in Jesus should look something like Jesus. Just as there’s no real, lasting love without some expression of it, so there is no real, lasting faith without some expression of it. Faith in Christ will look something like Christ, even to the point of carrying a cross, that is, a non-violent, non-retaliatory love that is so indiscriminate that it even applies to enemies. And so they got Menno’s crosses of “much oppression, tribulation, anxiety, apprehension, bonds, seizure, and so forth…” pressed upon them.
II. FOR GOOD AND BAD
But that raises another question: How much should the expression of our faith in Jesus look like Jesus, to be a living, viable faith? What if I haven’t had to suffer much yet for my faith? What if some days I even find it hard to believe in Jesus, let alone follow him? What if some days I find it hard to love my neighbor or even myself, let alone my enemy? How much does my faith have to look like Jesus to be true faith in Jesus?
And with that we get to the dark side of Mennonite life and history, a dark side characterized by perfectionism, shame and depression. I say that out of love for the people and the movement and the history that have become mine over the last 30 years. This dark side is small compared to the bright side, by which I mean this amazing history of loving, sacrificial service and witness, of courage to march to the beat of a peacemaking drummer when all around us are sounding the drums of war. It was the Mennonite way of doing peaceful, non-colonialistic service and mission that drew Becky and me toward the Mennonite Church to begin with. That’s all based in the Anabaptist way of understanding Christian faith, as actively seeking to follow Jesus in life. That’s the bright side.
But in this fallen world, every light casts a shadow. At the Central Plains leadership conference last week, J. Nelson Kraybill said that an Israeli woman told him that she has encountered more depression among Mennonites in his part of Indiana than among Palestinians in her war zones back home. She said it must be because Mennonites focus so much on carrying crosses and following Jesus. You know, the sinless One, the hero who always knew the right thing to say and to do, and who did them? When Kraybill said that, I thought of today’s scripture focus and felt that I need to talk about that. Of course, I have to wonder if so much depression also has something to do with all the lake effect clouds and snowfall in that part of Indiana where he lives.
So Kraybill asked a local counselor if this was true, that there was a high preponderance of shame and depression among Mennonites in the area. And the counselor said yes, and it is related to high levels of perfectionism. This shame, depression and perfectionism relates to feeling obligated to take up your cross and follow Jesus unless…. unless, that is, they also had a key aspect of following Jesus down. What that “unless” is about I’ll hopefully remember to let you know before I finish this message.
As I have briefly mentioned in the past, I was one of those people who needed and got treatment for depression. In fact, the counselor whom Kraybill talked with was my counselor during that time. Maybe the counselor had me in mind when he replied. I hope he didn’t mention my name, because Kraybill was the president of my seminary. And it wasn’t just because of the gray, cloudy gloom that settles over that part of the country from November through April that I needed help with depression. Maybe it was a physical predisposition to it. Or maybe it was partly because of unresolved family trauma from war and immigration. But I also came to understand that it was because I was so bent on being a hero all the time, and a super-duper cross-carry-er, better than most, I calculated. Isn’t that why I got to be born first, as the older brother of the family? To be the family hero? So that whenever I read the words of Jesus, “take up your cross and follow me,” and whenever I read the words of the first Anabaptists about carrying their crosses of persecution and opposition, I would think, “Check. Got that one down.” Or “I can do that. I already have, by being a missionary.” Hopefully, someone is noticing, and counting.
And if I didn’t feel like I was doing my part to carry a cross, I would go out looking for one. Like coming back from overseas work with a baby and a toddler, trying to finish my seminary degree, itinerate for the mission board, and prepare to go back overseas, connect with family, all in the same year. Twenty years later, I look back at all that and think, That wasn’t a cross I was carrying; that was a self-inflicted burden of needless heroism. More like two or three of them at a time.
There’s a world of difference between following after Jesus, even should you find a cross, and following after a cross, hoping to find Jesus. The first is discipleship, the second is, for lack of a better word, masochism. Following after Jesus is about receiving a gift of love, enjoying it, and holding on to it whenever the world and the devil try to steal it from us; the second—a gratuitous heroism– is about trying to earn a gift that has already been given. Following after Jesus is a recipe for joy, a joy that even the cross can’t kill; the second, following after crosses hoping to find Jesus, is a recipe for perfectionism, shame and depression.
III. THE DIFFERENCE THAT JESUS MAKES
Still, Jesus seems to put a lot of pressure on us for perfection on us when he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves.” Yes, Jesus pays us the compliment of putting a high calling on us. But this is Jesus, the merciful, compassionate friend of sinners, the unconditional love of God incarnate, who is saying this. What a difference that makes! And consider what harsher, more strict expectations the world has of us, and what little guarantee of mercy it gives, what few fresh starts we get from others. In the world we’re always being evaluated, judged and found wanting, even if only by ourselves. We can be our own worst critics. I was, when I was in the throes of my depression. And often for all sorts of unimportant and ridiculous things, like our appearance, our speech, our level of education, our skin color, style of clothes and their condition. Any love or approval we get from the world is always conditional, and temporary, until our next moment of weakness, need or failure.
Yes, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves. And I have no doubt that what he had in mind included denying our normal right to property, security and even to life itself, if that’s what following him requires. But what a difference it makes that it is Jesus calling us to deny ourselves, the same Jesus who denies us nothing of what we need for eternal life. And if we haven’t decided on anything to deny ourselves yet this Lenten season, how about the biggest sacrifice with which true Christian discipleship begins and continues: our trust in our own powers to please God by our own efforts and sacrifices? For there’s nothing we can do to please God nor earn his favor, for God is already more pleased with us as his children, his handiwork, his creations than we know. And any good works we offer him are only borrowed from his infinite storehouse of virtues and spiritual gifts already. So we can’t earn God’s favor; we can only accept it. Or not. This just may be the hardest act of self-denial and sacrifice of all: giving up our ego-centered effort to earn the favor that God has already given us. Because its hard to recognize such trust in ourselves as the act of self-indulgence and distrust that it is.
I thought of that this week during the PBS documentary on the Amish. Some of the Amish, or at least their interpreters, spoke about “gaining eternal life” or “earning the favor of God,” and I thought to myself, “I already gave up on gaining or earning that several times,” because its already given. If I didn’t quite get it down on the day of my conversion, I had to learn it again, years later, under treatment for depression. Both times I discovered the grace of God. Or more likely, the grace of God discovered me, and confronted me with an acceptance that I had been too proud and self-reliant to accept until then.
Still, if we weren’t feeling enough pressure already, Jesus also warns us about shame, when he says, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” For twenty some years I have tried to get rid of any and all feelings of shame, and it hasn’t worked as well as I might like. But now I’m coming around to thinking that the real problem is that we let ourselves get shamed for the wrong things, by the wrong people. So now the most pressing question is, Who do I want to disappoint? God or other people? Whose approval matters most? Whose approval lasts?
For there’s no way to please everybody; somebody’s always going to be disappointed with anything we say or do if they look hard enough. Like when Lucy told Charlie Brown, in the Peanuts cartoon series, “I don’t think your dog Snoopy is all that smart, Charley Brown; he moves his lips whenever he reads.”
And whether we feel any shame from other people’s assessment of us is a question of mind over matter. If we don’t mind being found wrong or wanting or imperfect in peoples’ eyes, it doesn’t really matter. If they’re wrong about us, God is still pleased with us, and God will make it up to us. If they’re right to any degree, God is still pleased with us, and we get to learn something. Either way, we win.
IV. THE HARDEST SACRFICE/THE SWEETEST GAIN
But that requires of us the hardest sacrifice of all: giving up our reliance upon ourselves to justify ourselves in the eyes of others and of God, who already says of us, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” He said that to Jesus, in the waters of baptism, before Jesus had ever even done any ministry. And that is the very thing that that counselor told J. Nelson Kraybill that the depression-prone Mennonites needed to grasp: the grace, the forgiveness and the approval of God for us. That is the great “unless” that makes all the difference between perfectionism, shame and depression and joy when it comes to following Jesus and taking up our cross.
So we’re free to surrender all efforts to justify ourselves before God and others, to stop following crosses and hoping therein to find Jesus, and be freed from perfectionism and its twin handmaidens of shame and depression. Then the call of Jesus, to “take up your cross and follow” becomes an invitation to freedom, life, love and even joy.
V. OUR JOY IS JESUS’ JOY
For our joy was also the joy set before Jesus on his last journey to Jerusalem, by which he endured the shame and despised the cross: our joy at being set free from the merciless and worthless judgments of the world, the flesh and the devil; our joy at being set free to follow Christ in this life and to know him. Its a joy no cross can kill. For long.