Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Larry Maley at Dardenne Presbyterian Church on June 12, 2016

“What Is It Costing You to Be a Christian?”

Scriptures:  Mark 8:31-38 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-17

          Maximilian Kolbe was a Catholic priest who was put in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz because of his faith. During his time there, he would share his meagre food rations with those around him who were starving. One day a man in Kolbe’s block escaped. The men in his block were brought out into the hot sun and made to stand there with no food or drink. At the end of the day, the escaped prisoner had not been found, so the Nazi commandant told the prisoners that ten of them would be selected to die in the starvation cell. One of the ten selected was a Polish sergeant (Francis Gajowniczek) who begged to be spared because he was worried that his family would not be able to survive without him.

As he pleaded with the commandant, Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward. The commandant turned to him as asked, “What does this Polish pig want?”

            Kolbe pointed to the condemned Polish prisoner and said, “I am a Catholic priest. I would like to take his place because he has a wife and children.”

The Nazi officer stood silent in disbelief. He then allowed the condemned man to return to his place in the prisoner ranks and Father Kolbe took his place in the starvation bunker. Each day the guards would remove the bodies of those who had died. However, instead of the usual sound of screaming, the only sound they heard from Father Kolbe’s cell, was hymn singing and praying. When Kolbe could no longer speak due to hunger, he whispered his prayers. At the end of two weeks, the cell had to be cleared for more prisoners.  Only Kolbe and three other prisoners were alive. The guards gave him a lethal injection and on August 14, 1941. Maximilian Kolbe paid the ultimate price for following his Master.

The sacrifices and martyrdom of believers like Maximilian Kolbe throughout history cause us to examine our commitment to following Jesus Christ. Jesus could not have said it any clearer and more poignantly when He told His apostles, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

            Jesus had just finished telling His closest followers that He would soon suffer, die, and three days later rise from the dead (Mark 8:31). Brash, impetuous Peter would not listen to that! No way would he accept what Jesus predicted! (Mk. 8:32). The notion of a suffering Messiah was a scandal to Peter. A suffering and rejected Messiah is not the kind of Lord, Peter and the apostles envisioned. Peter’s protest displayed his own unwillingness to suffer. Even today, the Church of Christ does not like to have Jesus’ insistence upon suffering imposed on it.

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond any shadow of a doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to all His disciples as it did to Himself. Just as Jesus is the Christ only in virtue of His suffering and rejection, so any would-be follower becomes His disciple in so far as we share in the Lord’s suffering and rejection. Driving this inescapable truth home, Jesus forcefully responded to Peter by telling him he was mistaken – BIG TIME: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mk. 8:33).

            Peter had failed to grasp the logic of the Cross: WE GAIN LIFE BY LOSING IT! The Christ “must” suffer and be rejected. Suffering and rejection were part of God’s plan. To die on the Cross means to die despised and rejected by humanity. Then, Jesus proceeds to make an incredibly demanding connection between His suffering and the suffering His disciples should expect: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his/her life will lose it” (Mk. 8:34-35).

Jesus does not force anybody to follow Him into suffering and rejection: “Whoever wants to be my disciple…”  You are free to choose or reject Him. Everything is left for you to decide. To deny oneself and follow Christ is to be aware only of Jesus Christ and no more of self. It means rather than focusing on the difficult road ahead of you, the Christian sees only Jesus Christ going before you.

Only by being completely committed to Christ do we become oblivious to self. Once we have denied ourselves, we are ready to bear the cross for Christ’s sake. For when we have chosen to only know Christ, we will cease to notice the pain of our own cross. The suffering and rejection we endure, we view not as our own cause, but rejection for the sake of Christ.

This notion of participating in the suffering and rejection of our Lord has ceased being intelligible to Christians in America today. We have preferred our teachings on Christianity to not be serious about discipleship. We have watered down the Gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and fails to distinguish between the natural life and the Christian life. We regard the calamities of everyday life: the loss of our job, our financial setbacks, or the physical disabilities associated with aging, as “the cross we must bear.”

The cross Jesus insists His followers must carry is a result of being His disciple and obeying God’s will. Each Christian must endure her/his allotted share of suffering for the Kingdom of God. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy the highest form of suffering – martyrdom. For others, it may be the call to leave home and follow Him. For many, it is the call to abandon their attachments of this world and use their resources for Christ’s kingdom. To all, God does not allow us to be tested above what we are able to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). But for every disciple, it is the same death – the death to sin and self.  For whenever Jesus Christ calls a person, He bids them come and die!

Christian discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ. Therefore, it is not surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. Suffering for Christ’s sake is the badge of true discipleship. It is understandable that each of us resists Christ’s call to suffering. We prefer to hear a message on forgiveness without requiring repentance. We relish being told that we can receive God’s blessings without personal discipline. We think we can know God without drawing close to His Word and Spirit. We desire to take Communion without confession. We figure a few alms in the offering will accomplish the work of Christ’s kingdom. We want God’s Grace but not Christ’s Cross!

But Grace is always expensive because it cost God His life. Those who deny themselves and take up Christ’s Cross discover that “life is gained by losing it” (Mk. 8:35).  Because this was true for Jesus Christ, it is also true for you. Give your life away to Christ and you will gain a wonderful, new life. That is the logic of the Cross. It explains why the Bible says “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In the summer of 1967, Joni Erickson dived into shallow water, struck her head on a rock, and became a quadriplegic. During two years of painful rehabilitation Joni learned how to paint with her mouth, and what her disability meant to her faith. At times, she was angry with God, even at times wishing she hadn’t survived. But in the years since, she has learned that it is in her weakness that God’s strength can shine. She has been a source of enormous blessing to people around the world as she shares her faith.

At first, Joni found it impossible to reconcile her condition with a belief in a loving God.  But one night she became convinced God understood. The catalyst was a good friend who said to her, “Joni, Jesus knows how you feel. He was paralyzed, too. He couldn’t move or change his position on the Cross. He was paralyzed by nails.”

That message was profoundly comforting. “God became incredibly close to me,” Joni now declares. “I understand that He loves me. I had no other identity but God, and gradually God became enough. I prayed for healing and truly believed it would come. Now I realize I will be healed. I’m just going through a forty or fifty year delay and God stays with me even through that.”

Now, what is it costing you to be a Christian? Amen.