Again & Again: Jesus Leads Us on Different Paths

Sunday, February 25, 2024
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner

Mark 8:31-38

Scripture Intro
Today’s gospel places us smack dab in the middle of Mark’s gospel. Jesus’ journey with the disciples is getting very real. They have been with him as he has taught, and healed, and cast out demons. They are all in with him on this stuff. Just before this reading, Jesus asks them who they think he is, and Peter declares as boldly as anyone could, “You are the Messiah!” He’s right. But Jesus makes it abundantly clear that what they have seen and experienced so far is not what being the Messiah is all about. In today’s reading, Jesus shows that following the Messiah will lead to some hard and unexpected places.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our creator, and Jesus who calls us to follow an unexpected path to life. Amen.

When my kids were younger, we read the entire Harry Potter series every night before bed. I think it took us a couple of years. I know there are audio books but reading them was way more fun!

It’s nearly impossible to resist being drawn into Harry’s epic journey from the first time you hear Hagrid announce, “You’re a wizard, Harry!” The whimsy of the magic and the wonder of the relationships make it feel like you’ve gotten your letter to Hogwarts too. But it doesn’t take Harry long to realize that being a wizard is not all whimsy and wonder. It requires something of him and his friends that they don’t always feel they have. It requires them to commit their lives to a purpose far greater than them, with no guarantee of the outcome.

This narrative arch is called the Hero’s Journey. It’s found in literature and sacred texts from all kinds of cultures and spiritual traditions, including the Bible. This arch is powerful because it speaks to the deepest desires of the human experience. From Homer to Hemingway to Hogwarts, and from the Garden of Eden to Golgotha, these stories inspire us to know what is true and worthy of pursuing with our “one wild and precious life.”1

There’s three parts to the hero’s journey – departure, encounter, and return. Any journey we take requires us to leave what is familiar and comfortable and be willing to walk away from the way our lives were ordered before. For Peter, it was leaving the lake and nets. For us it might be going to college or enlisting in the military, or moving across the country for a relationship, or taking time off from a job to care for a loved one or leaving your home to receive more support as you get older. Departures create disorder in our lives and cause us to see the world and ourselves differently.

It sounds a lot like what Jesus tells the disciples and anyone who follows him in our gospel today, doesn’t it? “If any want to be my disciple, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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 find it.” It doesn’t get much more disorienting than this, right? Jesus invites us to leave behind what we think is the “good life” by giving away our life to something other than ourselves.

This is the heart of the encounter with Jesus. That following leads to an uncommon path, but it also comes with new life. We recognize that by leaving the comforts of “home”, we are part of something bigger, something better than a life that only serves ourselves. As Christians, when we join our lives to Jesus’ it means the path we take leads downward, not upward – that more of what the world offers is not the answer. That when we give ourselves away for the purpose of Jesus’ good news, we will find life again and again.  Giving ourselves away may look like putting our reputation or status on the line so that others may have a better life, or offering to pray with someone who’s going through a hard time, or getting more involved with a part of the community you don’t have a lot of experience with to better understand people in that community.

Jesus asks bluntly, “What does it profit to gain the whole world and forfeit your life.” As a pastor I’ve had many conversations with folks near the end of their careers, who have reflected that if they were to do it all over again, they’d be more generous with their time for their families and their communities, that they would have worked to live more than they lived to work. That they realized later than they hoped that you can’t take it all with you. The amount of pressure in our culture to produce and work and achieve so you move upward is nearly impossible to overcome on our own. But Jesus invites, calls, even demands something different.

In following Jesus, we discover that it is not what we possess, but what we give away that leads to real life. In Jesus, God’s way is different. God, in Jesus, achieves victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death.2 And Jesus is bold enough to call us to do the same.

I don’t know about you, but this is sometimes hard to wrap my life around. It doesn’t add up in our minds, we so often want to take it all with us.

It didn’t add up for Peter either. We all might want to tell Jesus he’s wrong, that he’s talking crazy. But look again at Jesus’ path, and you can see that there is room for a whole lot more people and a lot more room for the range of our human experience when the aim of life isn’t to win at all costs. Life is fuller when we share in it with others.

There’s a beautiful grace when life is falling apart beyond our control and we know we aren’t required to achieve anything beyond being who we are. There’s goodness in setting our minds on divine things rather than human things, by lifting each other up and bearing our cross for the sake of Christ and for others.

I recently watched American Symphony. It’s a documentary about musician John Batiste. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic, he was having a wildly successful year. He composed a brand-new symphony that he debuted at Carnegie Hall. He won four Grammy’s. He was the “it” musician of the year. At the same time, his wife Suleika, had a recurrence of cancer after being in remission for over 10 years. They were devastated. She went through a stem-cell transplant, was hospitalized several times, and was so sick through most of his success.

At one point, Batiste said in the film it was like living two completely different lives at the same time – living between the spotlight and hospital rooms, between the highest of highs and the darkest valleys – all in the same day. Several times the film showed Batiste reading scripture, praying, and showing his wife the most vulnerable and loving support. It was clear he was more at home in suffering with his wife, than he was on stage, thrilling the crowds.

I was struck by his commitment to the downward journey with Jesus. His commitment to suffer with his wife, to lift up his collaborators in the spotlight, to find his life not in success, but in service. He didn’t need to gain the whole world. That never seemed to be the goal. Batiste’s faith and grounding show that the downward path with Jesus brings us home and that we are changed in the process.

Following Jesus changes us, challenges us, and makes us something we couldn’t be on our own. Could it be that we (the church) are the community we return home to again and again to tell how we’ve been changed by God and others in our daily lives. What if this is where we are reminded that the challenges we face or the pains we bear are part of the journey with Jesus, but that we’re never alone. What if we are the people to remind one another again and again of this call to not set our minds on human things, but to seek the divine and be Christ’s disciples?

Friends, you are called on a journey that is filled with the wonder of faith AND a purpose far greater than yourself. This journey requires more of you than you sometimes think you can give. That sacrifice, and sure enough, suffering will likely meet you on this journey. But that is not the end of the story – Jesus assures us that when we take this path, there will be life, real, abundant, God-filled life there to meet us, as sure as Christ will rise again. Amen.

1 Mary Oliver. The Summer Day. ©1992, by Mary Oliver

2  Brian McLaren. We Make the Road by Walking. ©2014, by Brian McLaren

Past Sermons