+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, specifically where Mark records Jesus’s words, 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. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…
Have you ever heard the story of the 26 Martyrs of Japan? If you didn’t know, a few years after Martin Luther died, the first recorded Christian missionaries – Jesuit priests, specifically – stepped foot on Japanese soil on August 15, 1549 at the port of Kagoshima. Initially, for a variety of reasons, the Japanese leaders – the daimyo lords and the overarching shogun – were quite receptive, cordial, and welcoming to the foreign missionaries. However, as decades passed, the Japanese leadership, becoming increasingly wary of colonialism and Western influences, became more hostile to the foreign ancient faith and those who represented it. This increasing tension reached a boiling point in late 1596, with the wreck of the San Filipe, a Spanish galleon, at the port of Urado. While the crew was being interviewed, the Pilot Major mistakenly gave the impression that the only reason the Spanish and Portuguese sent missionaries to foreign lands was to convert the people in order to make them more pliable for invasions by conquistadors. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with the daimyo or the shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself. Hideyoshi gave orders that all foreign missionaries be rounded up, and in the end, in February of 1597, 26 Catholics – 6 Franciscan friars, 3 Japanese Jesuits, and 17 Japanese laymen, including 3 young boys – were marched from Kyoto to Nagasaki (yes, the same Nagasaki), and were crucified there on a hill. After that, Christianity was all but outlawed in the land of Japan, not to be seen again for centuries except in the underground.
Is this what you imagine when you hear Jesus’s words in the Gospel text today? If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. That’s understandable, and certainly it is a beautiful (albeit gory and sorrowful) testimony to their faith in Christ their Lord. However, there’s a different meaning behind all of this, a deeper meaning that is, oddly enough, plain as day. Let’s allow the surrounding context to inform the simple and deep meaning behind Jesus’s words.
Immediately prior to our Gospel text, we have a curious anecdote, telling how a blind beggar from Bethsaida is, initially, only partially healed when Jesus spits on his eyes and lays His hands upon him. The man says, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus then lays His hands on the man’s eyes again, and only thereafter is the man’s vision fully restored. This is curious because it almost sounds like Jesus may have made a mistake, or that He may not have had the power to deal with this man’s blindness – both are utterly absurd notions! No, no, in that story, we see a physical illustration of the point Jesus makes in our text: at that moment, the disciples were only seeing in part. They didn’t see perfectly Who Jesus is and what His mission was.
It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus asks the disciples, on the way to Caesarea Philippi, Who do people say that I am? The disciples give their varied answers, essentially saying that no one knows, really. This prompts Jesus to ask who they think He is. Peter answers correctly, declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, David’s heir. He’s right, of course, but they still don’t see with clarity what that actually means. That’s why Jesus charges them with silence; He doesn’t want them spreading misinformation, a wrong gospel about Him. That’s also why we have Jesus explaining to them immediately thereafter what must happen to Him: His suffering and rejection, His death, and His resurrection three days later. That is what the Messiah must do, Who He is. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.
Well, Peter’s not having any of this! He rebukes, tries to censure Jesus, but in turn, Jesus censures him. Why? Because Peter does not see clearly; his mind is on the temporal, the here-and-now. Even though Jesus has used exceedingly plain and simple terms, Peter simply cannot comprehend what the Messiah is actually called to do. This is why Jesus calls the crowd to Himself; they need to know that Peter’s perception, his vision of the Messiah and what it means to follow Him, is flat-out wrong.
To follow the Messiah is not an easy way. It’s no cake-walk. The one who desires to follow Jesus must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow the Christ. Are we talking about what happened on the outskirts of Nagasaki those four centuries ago? Are we talking about what currently goes on in the Middle East, when ISIS at the height of power would tie beaten Christians to crosses built of iron pipes? Is Jesus talking about martyrdom as a requirement for following Him? Well, no, not exactly like that. For the average American Christian, odds are martyrdom of this caliber is not the norm. More often than not, we are not called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice and testimony – though, certainly, we should all be willing to do so. No, the plainer and more universal meaning is what Jesus is getting at.
The one who denies himself is the one who denies his own ability to save himself. He rejects his own attempts to “be good,” to place any trust in the works of his hands to count for anything toward salvation. Jesus is declaring to those within earshot that self-justification is NO justification. If it were that easy, if Man were capable of saving himself, then the Messiah would not have been necessary! But the Messiah has come, and has come with a purpose: to be rejected, to suffer, to die, and to rise! And it was exceedingly necessary!
THIS is denying one’s self. THIS is taking up one’s own cross: to trust, not in one’s own efforts, but in the sacrifice, the work and offering Jesus Himself made. It is to cling to the promises found atop Golgotha, the atonement made in the broken body of the God-Man, the love that poured out with His blood as it flowed down the vertical beam of the cross. It is the willingness to say, “Yes, I am a lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinner, who deserves nothing but death and condemnation, but I trust that, contrary to all logic and reason, I am forgiven in Christ Jesus. I trust that His sacrifice, and the grace of the Father because of that sacrifice, is enough to atone for my sins.” It is the Spirit working in you to say this, in spite of the world calling you a fool for believing it.
Will you face ridicule for this trust and belief? If you haven’t already, odds are you probably will at some point in your life. Is it a blow to your pride, to be entirely reliant upon another to make satisfaction for all your sin, when you’ve been taught all your life to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and do it yourself? Undoubtedly, it’s humbling, even humiliating. Are you going to be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, testimony, and witness to the love and power of Christ, which is made perfect in our weakness? I have no idea; it’s certainly possible, but that’s up to God alone to bestow such an honor. It was true of the apostles, of countless Roman subjects, of the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, and of the countless other saints who have gone before us. What they shared with all Christians is the trust in this salvific work of the Messiah They are the ones who see clearly, who follow closely the Savior through death, and who follow Him into the life of the world to come.
+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.