Readings: Gen. 17:1–7, 15–16, Rom. 4:13–25 & Mk. 8:31–38.
“Life wasn’t meant to be easy”.
That’s what our former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser told us. I’m sure that our soon to be former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, would agree with him. And I’m sure that it’s a sentiment that each of us here in church this morning have been able to relate to at one time or another. Life isn’t always easy.
That is the certainly the message Jesus gave to his disciples and the crowd, especially those who wanted to be his followers.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus delivered this message immediately after chastising Peter, who had criticised Jesus for telling the disciples that he was to suffer and die.
You can’t help but feel sorry for Peter in this situation. After all, his reaction seems perfectly natural for someone who cares deeply for another human being, as Peter obviously did for Jesus, when they hear that person talking about their own suffering and death. But there’s more to it than that. Peter is not only upset for Jesus as a friend, he is also upset because he had only just come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. And the Messiah was not supposed to suffer and die! The Messiah was supposed to free Israel from Roman oppression!
But having corrected Peter, Jesus must now make sure that people fully understand what is involved in being a true follower of his. It is not going to be easy. There is a price to pay for being his disciple.
We hear that there are two conditions to being a disciple of Jesus.1 The first, as Jesus tells them, is that they must deny themselves. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t allow themselves any pleasures or enjoyment in life, but what it does mean is that those pleasures or enjoyment should be secondary to the demands of discipleship. The second condition, is that they must be prepared to follow Jesus even to the point of death, if that is what is required to satisfy the demands of their discipleship.
That’s pretty confronting, isn’t it? It’s a bit like being asked if you want the bad news or the good news? The bad news is that you might die, the good news is, well there is no good news! But of course there is good news, and that is exactly what Jesus gives them, when he says:
“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
The good news is the life offered by God, beyond the current mortal life, for those who believe in Jesus and the Gospel. The mortal life will end, and what will be the good of any wealth and riches we have amassed during that life? We can’t take it with us when we go. But those who have put the demands of discipleship ahead of all else during the mortal life, will be granted God’s gift of eternal life, which no amount of wealth or riches can buy.
So the message from Jesus is that being a faithful disciple is costly. We can’t let our desire for pleasure and enjoyment come before the demands of our discipleship. And those demands may bring with them suffering of some kind: be it physical, emotional and /or psychological. If we can endure the suffering, however, the reward will be worth it in the end.
Abraham was a faithful disciple of God. Paul told us this much when he wrote in the Letter to the Romans:
‘Hoping against hope, he (that is Abraham) believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.’ (Rom. 4:18–19) As Paul also said, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (Rom. 4:20–21)
That promise, as we heard in the reading from the Book of Genesis, was that God would make Abraham the ancestor of a multitude of nations. Even though both Abraham and his wife Sarah very old, and well past the age of bearing children, God promised Abraham that he would give him a son from Sarah.
Yet for all his faithfulness, Abraham did not have it easy. That’s perhaps something we tend to overlook when we talk about him. He was required to leave his home at the age of seventy-five with all of his family and travel to a foreign land (Canaan). When he arrived in Canaan there was a famine, so he had to leave with his family for Egypt, where Sarah was taken from Abraham by the Egyptians and put into the house of Pharaoh. After getting Sarah back, he was forced to leave Egypt and wander for a time in the desert, moving between a number of places before finally settling in Hebron. Then he was forced to fight a war against the armies of several kings who had kidnapped his nephew Lot. He was not able to father a child until he was eighty-six, but that son was not born of his wife Sarah, but rather from Sarah’s slave girl Hagar, whom Sarah had told Abraham to sleep with. Then when his son from Hagar (Ishmael) had turned thirteen, Abraham had to send him away. So we can see that Abraham’s life was full of challenges, but in spite of that, he never wavered from putting the demands of his discipleship to God ahead of his own desires or interests.
You might have wondered why Paul was writing about Abraham in his Letter to the Romans? Well, Abraham was a central aspect of Paul’s argument that we are put in a right relationship with God, not by any action on our part, but purely by the grace of God, as long as we believe in Jesus Christ.
To explain this further, the first Christians were Jews practiced Judaism. They had been told that in addition to simply believing in Jesus as the Messiah, they needed to observe and uphold the laws of the Jewish Torah, in order for them to be put in a right relationship with God. Paul, however, didn’t see it that way. He believed all that was necessary was for people to have faith; to believe in Jesus. The rest was up to God, who by His grace, would reconcile people to Himself.
Being a disciple of Jesus requires faith. As Jesus told the disciples and crowd in Mark’s Gospel, discipleship is costly. We must put the demands of our discipleship before our desire for the pleasures and enjoyment that life can offer. We must be prepared to suffer for the sake of Jesus. And we do that because we believe it is the right thing to do, and because we believe that by His grace, God will grant us the gift of life, beyond our current mortal life.
The Lord be with you.
1 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading for Mark’s Gospel
(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2008), p. 141.