A homily on Mark 8:34 on the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross¹
By Deacon Jason Ketz – September 17, 2017
I was recently reading a research report, the National Study of Youth and Religion², where a few pastors interviewed several hundred Christian teenagers about their faith, hoping to see if they could link attitudes, feelings or thought patterns with behavior patterns.
Connections such as: do teens who go to church more often describe God differently.
Overwhelmingly, the teens surveyed described a nice faith. God is nice; churches are nice. Churches help us learn important social, moral values; God is kind and loving, helps people when they really need it, and certainly thinking about God can help us through tough times.
That was the prevailing sentiment in this survey. Nice. Maybe even “Minnesota nice.”
But when the study asked whether the students’ faith in Christ, their belief in God, actually weighs in on serious decisions or situations in their lives, nearly 80% of these students admitted that, no, they do not consult God when making decisions.
God is not involved in decisions about future college or career choices, about where they want to live, who they date or marry, how they vote, or any significant, but positive life event.
Jesus is there when they are struggling; ready to boost their self-image, assure them of a better tomorrow, but when life is clicking along, the students happily imagine that God is elsewhere, helping those who really need him. So God and Church are nice, it seems, but usually absent and largely irrelevant.
Now, I suspect that this faith the teenagers describe is largely the faith that they see around them; their faith is a rough imitation of the faith we portray to them. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all guilty of seeing God as nice, but not always relevant or present.
I know we’re constantly guilty of trying to manage our lives ourselves; guilty of compartmentalizing our faith, so that we conduct ourselves with good morals and ethics, we live wholesome, charitable lives, but we save our big prayers for ‘emergency use only.’ And this strategy works very well to get along in 21st century America. Very well, in fact.
There’s just this one little problem: it’s lukewarm; neither hot nor cold. Such a passive, lukewarm, nice faith is entirely the opposite of what God expects. God hates lukewarm. It’s useless and gross, like cold chicken noodle soup.
In fact, God spat out the church of Laodicea (Rev 3:16), whose works were lukewarm. And he will spit out this 21st century polite Christian piety for the same reason: Lukewarm, pragmatic, convenient faith it is not what is taught, exemplified, and requested by the crucified and risen Christ.
Not even close!
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us “If any man 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; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)
He doesn’t say “check in every once in a while” and he doesn’t say “I’m there if you need me; otherwise, I’ll keep out of the way.” And why doesn’t he say either of those messages?
Because those ways of thinking place not God, but us, at the center of our own universe. This light, lukewarm Christianity that I suspect we’re all guilty of at least once in a while, and that came out in the study of American teens is very ego-centric at the end of the day.
It hinges completely on our own belief that “I can handle it.” I will decide if and when I need help, and then I’ll ask for it.
That’s really very self-centered. Well intended, of course, but self-centered.
But authentic faith in Christ is exactly the opposite of that – it is a decentralizing experience, and today’s gospel is a decentralizing message. “Deny yourself, take of your cross and follow me.
For whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Or maybe a better translation: “whoever wastes his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
What a curious phrase that is – to waste our lives for the sake of Christ and the gospel.
Christ never expected our faith in him to be a mark of pedigree, to be a sign of good citizenship or social maturity, and if we feel our Christianity is entirely compatible with our daily experiences, then either we’ve achieved real holiness, or we aren’t quite sure who it is we claim to worship.
We aren’t quite hearing our Lord’s decentralizing message. Right now, we’re just sort of smiling and nodding along.
So what, then, is the solution?
How can we hear and process our Lord’s decentralizing call to discipleship, his call for us to deny ourselves and follow him? The way forward begins with a serious reflection on the significance of the cross.
Because the cross is the perfect expression of God’s love for the world.
The faith I described earlier, that lukewarm Christianity, is very measured, and pragmatic, and rational.
But the faith of Christ in the Gospels is driven by love. True love. Young love. Heart on fire, head-over-heels, Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love. It’s combustible, passionate, dangerously spontaneous, maybe even reckless.
What do we see in the scriptures?
Christ dining with prostitutes or tax collectors – bad optics;
The shepherd leaving 99 sheep alone to find just one who is lost – risky;
The man who sells all he has to buy a field with a buried treasure – foolhardy;
The father who rushes to embrace his son who just came home from the pigsty – messy.
And that perfect expression of God’s reckless, passionate, burning love is in the cross.
Christ gave up everything to come and find us; to save us.
Not even death could stop God’s love for us.
What incredible, overwhelmingly passionate, and incendiary love!
And it’s this passionate love of Christ that is decentralizing. None of us want to share the spotlight with somebody else for no good reason.
But any of us who have felt our hearts burn for another, or break for another, know exactly how to move out of the way and let somebody else, somebody we truly love more than anything, be the most important person in our lives.
Lovers, parents, long-time friends.
Deep down, we get it; we know that feeling.
And what we’re hearing today is that our God is moved, driven, by that burning love for us. And he’s assuming we feel that way about him as well. So do we? Do you? Do I? Maybe we think that we don’t know him well enough yet to make that decision. But falling in love isn’t a rational act anyway.
is a leap of faith. Can we make such a leap of faith for Christ? Can we take a big chance on his love?
That’s the choice that is set before us today.
We have again been shown Christ’s love for each of us, God’s burning love for the world. Now it’s on us to take that fire, and kindle it within our own hearts, to carry the flame within us, to let Christ’s warmth into all the cold, dark corners of our lives; to not save Christ’s love for emergency use only, but invite him into the mundane, daily events, and especially bring his love to bear in the positive, significant life choices we make, so that we can then bring this incendiary love of Christ out to the world, where it will catch fire!
Our Lord makes no promises about our well-being either, but when you’re in love, who cares?!
All Christ promises is the one thing that a lover would want to hear: I’ll never stop loving you.
So may we all feel the heat of this burning love of Christ today. May it set ablaze our lukewarm faith, and drive us forth into the world as Christ’s disciples, to the Glory of God the Father.
1 This reflection was presented as the homily on Sunday, September 17, 2017 at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, Minneapolis. MN. Dn. Jason’s writing style approximates his style of speech, with some fragmented sentences, repetitive statements and colloquial expressions.
2 The study is even broader and far more incisive than the introduction suggests, but for the purposes of this homily, the summary statements are a reasonable distillation of the data.
Special thanks go to Kenda Creasy Dean, whose monograph Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. (Oxford: Oxford Univ Press, 2010), presents and discusses the data, and whose reflections throughout Part 2 of the book provide some of the basis for my own reflection on the Gospel of Mark.