Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 | Psalm 22:23-31 | Mark 8:31-38
“WWJD? – What would Jesus do?” Back in the 90s or early 2000s this question was all the rage in Christian circles, and even outside of Christian circles. This questions was popularized in a number of ways, but none more prominent than in little, colorful bracelets with “WWJD?” on them. Do you remember those?
A family friend of ours once told us a story about a time she saw a family she knew in the grocery store. This family was adamantly not Christian, and was even hostile to Christianity. Our family friend, who went to our church, went up to say hi, and noticed that their little girl had a WWJD? bracelet on. She was pleasantly surprised. She thought maybe Jesus was making inroads into the lives of this family. Salvation was just around the corner!
She said to the little girl, “I like your bracelet. What does WWJD stand for?”
The little girl didn’t miss a beat, “We want Jack Daniels!”
WWJD? seems like an appropriate question to ask ourselves (I mean “What would Jesus do?” not “We want Jack Daniels”). If we claim to be followers of Jesus, it seems that we should be asking ourselves, on a regular basis, what Jesus would do. This question seems innocent enough, so long as we don’t read the Bible. But when we start reading the stories of Jesus we realize how hard it is to answer this question, what would Jesus do? Jesus is hardly predictable. He usually does and says that last thing we’d expect, and when we can figure out what he’d do, it rarely coincides with what we were taught to do in church.
What would Jesus do if he were at a party and everyone got smashed drinking all the booze? I was taught that he would not associate with those people. Maybe he would call the police. Whatever he would do, he definitely wouldn’t engage in or encourage such behavior! But what does Jesus do in John 2? He makes more wine to keep the party going!
What would Jesus do if someone he loved was sick? Well, he would heal them of course. Or at the very least, he would show up and hold their hand through the night so that they would know they weren’t alone. But what does Jesus do when Lazarus gets sick in John 11? Jesus purposely waits for him to die before going to Judea where Lazarus had lived. Granted, Jesus does raise him from the dead, but it’s hardly what we would have expected!
What would Jesus do if those who came in contact with him wanted to spread the good news about him? Surely he would encourage them, right? He’d be overjoyed! But Jesus repeatedly heals people then tells them not to tell anyone about it. In the passage right before our Gospel reading today, Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus immediately tells the disciples not to tell anyone (Mark 8:30).
What would Jesus do if his friends tried to protect him, tried to keep him safe? If a band of people came to arrest him, and one of his disciples pulled out a sword and struck someone in the mob, surely Jesus would appreciate that, right? But, when Peter takes out his sword and strikes the high priest’s servant in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says, “Put your sword away!” (John 18:11).
What would Jesus do if his friend, doing his best to be a good friend, tried to convince Jesus that there was another way to be the Messiah, that he didn’t have to “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again?” Surely Jesus would consider this option, or, at the very least, correct him gently, right? Surely Jesus would respond politely, like I was taught to respond in Sunday school. He would say, “I understand why you feel that way, Peter, but actually it has to be this way.” Maybe he would do us, and Peter, a solid and explain why exactly that’s the way it has to be. But what does Jesus do? Not what would Jesus do, but what does Jesus do? He calls one of his best friends Satan, and tells him to get away from him. “Out of my sight” or, “Get behind me, Satan!” That’s what Jesus does, but it’s certainly not what I was taught that Jesus would do.
When I was asked, “What would Jesus do?” by my elders growing up, the implicit answer was usually something to do with abstaining from things like beer and swear words, being nice to my friends, and obeying authority. But as we’ve just noted, Jesus isn’t always concerned with abstaining from alcohol, and he certainly isn’t afraid to speak a harsh word to his friends. And, as we will see, Jesus is also not very concerned with obedience to authority, at least not human authority. That’s what a cross signified, disobedience to those in power. The cross was for political and military insurgence. And that’s what Jesus tells us to pick up.
What would Jesus do? Peter thought he knew, but he didn’t. And when Jesus shocks Peter and the rest of the disciples with his explanation of what it means to be the Messiah – “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” – which is the opposite of everything Peter would have thought, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. Peter thinks he can answer the question “What would Jesus do?” better than Jesus can.
But Jesus sets him straight in no uncertain terms, and then he goes a step further. Jesus says, “Oh, that’s not just my future, that’s also your future, if you really want to follow me, if you want to be my disciple.” That’s what it means to be a disciple: wherever Jesus is going Peter is going, we’re going. In this case, it’s to the cross.
But before explaining what it means to be a disciple, a follower of his, Jesus does something wonderful: he calls the crowd. V. 34 says,“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples…” This invitation into discipleship isn’t just for the 12, it’s for everyone. It’s for all of us.
We all came to Jesus first as the crowd.
If you’re here today, you’ve been drawn to Jesus like the crowd. You may be hanging on the outskirts, or you might be right up front. How wary you are and how much you already know about him varies from person to person. So also do our reasons for coming to him.
Personally, I never chose to be a part of the crowd. My parents brought me with them when they came. They carried me to him as a baby, like the parents who bring their children to Jesus in the Gospels, and they kept bringing me to him as I grew older. A few of you probably have a similar story.
Others of us came to Jesus only recently. Perhaps there was a deep hurt you couldn’t deal with, and for some reason you had a feeling that Jesus might just know what to do with that.
Or maybe you came because you met someone who was already on their way to see him, and they invited you to join them.
Or maybe you were drawn out of sheer curiosity. What’s the big deal with this Jesus person? He must be worth checking out.
And for others of us, we find ourselves in the crowd after a long time away. We have been here before, but the first time we came we couldn’t hear Jesus or see him for all the others in the crowd who were yelling over him, blocking our view, stepping on our toes, or telling us we didn’t belong. Now we’ve come back, but we’re, perhaps, a little tentative. We’re hanging back on the periphery, scared to be drawn in too close, scared to trust.
Others of us have followed Jesus for a long time. We’re like one of the 12 disciples. We don’t really understand any better than the rest of the crowd, but we’ve decided we’re in for the long haul.
But now Jesus turns to us – all of us, the crowd and the disciples – and calls us closer…and gives us the worst sales pitch imaginable: “Anyone who wants to follow me can. You just need to deny yourself and pick up your cross – an instrument of capital punishment reserved for military and political rebels used for humiliation and torture – and you’ll be good to go.”
As we, the crowd, here these words, we are shocked. Does human life matter so little to you, Jesus? What about when you said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly?” (John 10:10). Are you glorifying suffering? Fetishizing pain?
And Jesus says, “No, no. You’re misunderstanding me. The way to the abundant life is through death to self. You see, if you spend all your time looking out for yourself, trying to nail down the American dream, putting up walls to keep people out, being afraid of everyone who isn’t like you, you won’t truly live. You’ll be so preoccupied with saving yourself, you’ll lose yourself.
“But whoever trusts in me and my way (the Gospel) and risks their life to embody the radical love of God, even at great personal sacrifice, they’ll be full of the life I have. Look at me! I’m travelling all over Galilee, being led by the Spirit, doing God’s work, spreading the good news of the Kingdom – I’m living! – but it’s making people mad. Because I’m exposing all the lies people love to believe, lies that justify exclusion and dehumanization, lies about who is worthy of God’s love and who isn’t. And when you expose the lies people love to believe, they’ll hate you for it. They’ll kill you for it. So you might as well pick up your cross now, because you might just get killed for all the living you’re doing.”
That’s what Jesus is talking about. He isn’t encouraging self-hatred. He says outright that he wants us to find our souls, find our true self, but our false self has to die. We have to give up some things that are in the way. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” He asks, “Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
For starters, it’s hard to hold a cross and an AK-47 at the same time. It’s hard to carry the cross meant for your execution and a gun meant for executing others. I guess part of being a disciples means choosing whether or not we’ll carry a gun or a cross.
But beyond that, I have to admit that it’s hard to really know what it means to pick up our cross in this day and age. None of us are really in danger of being executed by the state. The scholar Raquel St. Claire argues in her book Call and Consequence: A Womanist Reading of Mark, that Jesus isn’t calling us to suffer for the sake of suffering, he is instead telling us that suffering will inevitably be the consequence of discipleship, since following Jesus will inevitably put us at odds with the status quo. So if Jesus isn’t saying we should suffer for the sake of suffering, how do we pick up our cross? What does that look like for us?
I don’t know for sure, but one way I think we can pick up our crosses, one way we can deny ourselves, is to confront the lies we tell ourselves that justify a comfortable existence, that keep us content with the status quo. Maintaining the status quo often involves us telling ourselves lies about those who are not like us. Here’s an example:
The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop, working on a sermon. And these two fairly respectable looking, older white men sat next to me. They seemed normal enough, but it didn’t take long for them to reveal themselves.
I don’t know how they got to it, but all of a sudden one man started talking about how ridiculous it is that designers are making clothing for plus-sized women. I won’t repeat the exact words he used, the ways he degraded women who are children of God made in God’s image, but it was upsetting to say the least.
Somehow, from there, he launched into another rant, this time about houseless people and how lazy they are. He said he has a neighbor who puts out donuts for the houseless people in their neighborhood, but when she isn’t looking he throws them in the garbage.
Then he went on to say that there are some poor people he’ll help, bless his generous heart. He helps people who are clearly mentally ill. He said that there was one person sitting inside the dumpster outside his house, howling for hours. Since that person was clearly mentally ill, he decided it was okay to help him, so he gave him $5. This man is sitting in a dumpster howling and you think $5 is going to solve the problem?
Then he started talking about how someone he knows who, in his view, abuses food stamps, and how atrocious that is. According to his logic, I guess that means everyone who receives food stamps is abusing them?
And then, after all these lies they told themselves about the poor, lies that supported their way of life and justified their worldview, they switched immediately to talking about their investments! They’d just finished maligning those who don’t have enough, and then they started talking about what they do with all their extra. It was very disturbing.
At one point the other man said, “I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand it.”
After I left, I thought of what I wished I’d said – we always think of what to say when it’s too late. I wish I’d said, “You’re right! You don’t understand! That’s the first true thing you’ve said since you sat down. But the truth is you don’t want to understand, because if you understood the value and dignity of plus-sized women, you’d have to respect them and recognize that the flaw is not in them but in you, in your perverted sense of beauty. And you would have to change.
“If you understood what it’s like to be poor, to be throttled with debt, to lose your home, to have nowhere to go, to sleep on the street, you’d have to give some of that investment money you love so much to those who actually need it. Your life would have to change.
“If you understood what it’s like to be mentally ill, you couldn’t just give someone $5 and feel good about it, you’d have to befriend that man in the dumpster, you’d have to give up your time and your money to help him find resources. And that would inevitably impinge on your way of life.
“And if you understood the way all these things intersect, you’d see the way obesity and poverty are often tied together. You’d learn about food deserts and the way fast-food companies target poor communities. You’d learn about how hard it is to find healthy produce in low-income areas, and how many people can’t afford it even if it is available.
“If you understood, you’d have to give up the life you’ve created for yourself – a life that is a very fragile lie, like a house of cards you have to keep attending to. You have to meet with your friends in coffee shops to reinforce these lies, because it only takes a little bit of truth to knock them all down.
Do you see what understanding would demand of these two men…and let’s be honest, what it would demand of us? Their lives – our lives – would look very different. They’d have to give up the lives they have now.
But Jesus tells them that they’d find life in giving up the lies they’ve told themselves about plus-sized women, and houseless folks, and the mentally ill.
Jesus tells us that the way to life is paradoxically through death, that to save our souls we have to give up the world we’ve created for ourselves and the lies we’ve told ourselves. That we have to believe in the value of life so deeply that it will bring us into confrontation with systems of death and dehumanization, just as Jesus came face to face with Satan in the wilderness in our reading from last week. And that when we stand up for the lives of others, when we really carry the abundant life in the Spirit into places of violence, that violence may turn on us as it turned on Jesus.
Jesus isn’t telling us to worship death, he’s telling us to love the abundant life so much we’d die before we denied it to anyone else.
So Jesus has come to the end of his bad sales pitch on discipleship. He looks at us one last time. Even though he’s tried to scare us away, because he wants to be honest, he wants us to know what we’re getting into, I can’t help thinking there’s a hint of pleading in his eyes because, really, he does want us to follow him. Because he wants us to live…really live. He looks at us one last time and then he turns away and begins to walk the long road to Jerusalem, the road to Golgotha, the road to the cross.
Will we follow him?
Will we deny ourselves and pick up our crosses?
Will we become disciples?
Or will we stay behind with the crowd?
What would Jesus do?