The Biggest Loser
Second Sunday in Lent
By Rev. S.D. Spencer
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Grace, peace and mercy from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen!
I am a big fat loser (pause). That’s what Whoopi Goldberg said during a Slim Fast commercial a few years ago. Of course she was talking about weight loss. We don’t mind being a big fat loser when it comes to weight loss. But when it comes to anything else we hate to lose.
I think we learn this early in life. Have you ever watched kids on a school playground, they hate to lose. They hate to associate with losers. They hate to be on the losing team. But it doesn’t stop there. In corporate board rooms no one wants to be a loser. If you’re a loser, you’re fired. In investments it’s about gains and return not loss or losing. Even in churches its crowds and programs ablaze with glory. We want to see ourselves as winners not losers. We don’t associate with losers.
Along comes Jesus, who has definitely been a winner when it comes to dealing with demons and diseases. He turns to His disciples and says, “Guess what? I’m about to become the biggest religious loser you have ever seen. I’m going to suffer at the hands of the most pious people. Those people who should have welcomed me with open arms. I’m going to be rejected and killed. And in three days, I’m going to rise again. And you know what else? If you’re going to join me in this losing venture, you’re going to have to become a loser just like me!”
Jesus made this known in plain language, no parables, no poetic phrases loaded with double-entendres. And He said it by way of necessity. This wasn’t an option, one possible choice among many. He makes it clear, HE MUST SUFFER, HE MUST DIE, so that He would rise. It was necessary for these things to happen.
This didn’t sit well with Peter. Peter had just made that “great confession” - “You are the Christ” - did Peter get it? Did he understand what being the Christ meant? “Christ” to Peter meant messianic muscle, demon busting dominion, power and glory, disease curing, leper cleansing, hypocrite rebuking dynamite. The fun stuff! The first half of Mark’s version of the Gospel is filled with it. That’s what Peter had in mind when he said “the Christ.”
It’s interesting, and I believe intentional, that the episode just prior to this is Jesus’ healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. The miracle takes place in two parts. First, Jesus spits in the blind man’s eyes and puts His hands on him. Then Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?” (Testing one, two, three!) The man looks around and says “I see men but they look like walking trees.” 20/200 on the eye charts. Not blind, but not exactly seeing yet, and please don’t let him drive. So Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, and then his sight was restored to perfect 20/20 clarity. This was Jesus’ last miracle prior to our Gospel reading.
I think Mark is setting us up to see the disciples in terms of this blind man after the first part of his healing, the spit part. Seeing but not clearly, not really clear enough to be useful. Peter “sees” who Jesus is - the Christ, the Messiah - but he doesn’t “see” in the sense of comprehending what that means. You can’t see Jesus as the Christ clearly, until you see Him hanging dead on a cross and rise from the dead. Until then, it’s spiritual nearsightedness; Jesus may as well be a walking tree.
Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him. “No, that’s not the program, enough of this loser talk, Jesus! We didn’t leave the fishing business for this. We thought we were in on the ground floor opportunity of the kingdom building. Suffering and dying can’t be part of the kingdom building agenda.”
That wasn’t Peter talking. That was the diabolical voice last heard in the wilderness, tempting Jesus not to be the suffering Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus through one of His own, the chief of His disciples. How does Jesus respond? “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind God things but man things.”
An easy chair Christ, that’s what the devil wants. Not a suffering servant. No bloody sacrifice. No vicarious atonement. Power, glory and fame and status that’s the devil’s way, that’s also man’s way. Our way, the way of the winners. Not the cross. Crosses are shameful. Losers hang on crosses. Resurrections are cool, but there’s a catch: you have to die first. No Easter without Good Friday, no matter how hard some Christians try to have it that way.
A church without the cross would make the devil happy. And I don’t mean a church without a cross symbol or a crucifix, though the absence does make you wonder a bit. I mean a church that can go on as if Jesus hadn’t suffered for the sin of the world. That’s what I mean by a “cross-less church.”
Why do you think people want to rid the world of the symbol of the cross? Why do you think a crucifix is so offensive, even to some Christians? Maybe you’ve even heard it, that crucifix is so Catholic. Why do you wear that? Because it reminds me that Jesus died for me. The cross is the big scandal of Christianity. God-in-the-flesh hung on this shameful instrument of torture to offer up His life to save a world that didn’t ask to be saved.
Look at what’s happening in the church today, even in some of our own Lutheran churches. The focus is on purpose, prosperity, peace, programs designed to fire us up so we can be winners and transform society. Put your cross detectors on and take a reading. Do modern hymns fix your eyes on Jesus, on His death and resurrection, on His body and blood? Do our sermons preach Christ crucified or some other gospel which is not good news at all? Can we say and do what we want even if Jesus never died and rose from the dead? If we can, then it isn’t uniquely Christian, no matter how piously purpose-driven it might be.
Jesus would say the same to the church today as He said to Peter: You are not “Christocentric” (Christ-centered); you are “Humanistic” (man-centered). That’s the self-centered religion of old Adam in us who would like nothing more than to get rid of that bloody Jesus on a cross and show some slides of pretty flowers and sunsets and smiling children so we can all “feel good about ourselves.” That’s not Christ’s church; that’s the devil’s church.
There’s a reason the church is in the shape she’s in. She’s fat, complacent, comfortable, like the church of Laodicea in the Revelation. Lukewarm Laodicia, rich yet poor, complacent in her comforts. We fight “worship wars” and worry about meeting the corporate bottom line. Look where there is a vigorous and vital Christianity emerging today. It’s precisely where Christians suffer for their confession - in Africa, in communist China, in Siberia. Do you know when the Word of the Lord increased and the church grew the most? When it suffered persecution and martyrdom!
Jesus says: “If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The cross is the way of Jesus the Christ, and of all who would follow Him. There’s no other way. The cross is the narrow door that many seek but few find and our sinful selves want nothing to do with. Who wants to be a loser when you can be a winner?
Deny yourself. We’re not talking about giving up chocolate or coffee for Lent, people. We’re talking dying to your self, denying the Old Adam who wants everything his or her way 24/7. We’re talking about dying to sin and self, that kind of denial.
Take up your cross. This is not some piece of self-chosen suffering, as though you could go to the cross catalog and pick one that matches your Sunday outfit. “Here’s a pretty one. This will be my cross.” Crosses are laid on you, and you are nailed to them. Crosses don’t inconvenience you or hurt you a little bit like a hang nail or a sprained ankle. Crosses kill. They were a form of capital punishment in a day when they didn’t care if punishment was cruel or unusual, in fact, the crueler and more unusual the better.
To put it plainly, your cross is your death. You can’t choose your death (except for suicide, I guess), your death something given you. Jesus tells His disciples, and us, the plain truth about our lives. To save our lives we must lose them in Jesus. To live we must die, not just once, but daily in our Baptisms.
To rise with the winners we must take our place on the cross with the biggest Loser of them all, the One who lost His life to save you, the One who denied Himself to embrace you, the One who exchanged His perfect life for your miserable sin and death, the One who was not ashamed to bear your shame in nakedness, to become your sin in His own sinless flesh so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God and be justified and have peace with God.
The world doesn’t understand this. We have to teach them. We have to show them. Lift high that shameful cross, with the crucified Jesus hanging on it, and do not be ashamed of it. Eat the bread that is His Body and drink the cup that is His blood and so proclaim His death until He comes.
The world of winners will think you've lost your mind. And you have, along with your heart and soul and strength and all that you are. You’ve lost it all in Jesus; and losing it all in Him, you have gained it all forever. In Jesus name, amen and amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, AMEN!