Losing the Old Life

(Mark 8: 31-38)


When I was the Drug Court prosecutor for Jefferson County our addicts in recovery would regularly refer to their “old life” when talking about the way they lived when their drug-seeking behavior dominated their every-waking minute.  In their comments you didn’t get the feeling that their references back to the old life was a pleasant walk down memory lane, a fond longing for the good old days.  They understood how self-centered and destructive their old life was to not only themselves, but to the people they loved and who still loved them, and to society in general.  I was so impacted by their stories of the old life that I made the decision to expand the parameters of who we would allow into Drug Court.  Previously, we admitted the “low hanging” fruit, the ones who had committed minor felony offenses and who also presented the best chance of success and completing the program.  After a discussion with my felony prosecutor, I agreed with his idea of considering what we called a “high-risk” offender for admission into the program.  Our first high-risk offender was not only well known to the local drug-seeking community but also to law enforcement and our office as well.  We gambled on the hope of offering her a new life which could only produce good fruit and, hopefully, a reduction in crime.  We were right and our gamble paid off.  She did well in the program in spite of her struggles, amazed us with her progress, was a mentor to other participants around the table, graduated from the program, obtained her Chemical Dependency Counselors License, got a job working with others in addiction, and asked me to officiate her wedding to another successfully recovered addict.  She had taken up her cross of addiction and suffering, gave up the old life, and accepted a new life free from guilt and shame.


And giving up the old life for a new life is exactly what Jesus is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning.  We start out with Mark telling us that Jesus began to teach his disciples telling them: The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then after three days, rise from the dead.  This is Jesus’ first prediction of his coming death and Mark tells us that he said this plainly so there wouldn’t be any confusion.  This wasn’t one of his parables with a hidden meaning.  This was Jesus telling his disciples that his role as Messiah is inseparable from his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection.  He will be rejected by the establishment, those learned in Jewish law, Jewish beliefs, the Torah, and the promise God made to Abraham centuries before.  Peter, who can best be described as spontaneous, took hold of Jesus, scolded him, and began to correct him.  Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter saying: Get behind me, Satan.  You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.  At first blush this seems pretty harsh.  Peter was one of the first disciples Jesus called to come and follow him and would be the one upon whom His church would be built.  Jesus wasn’t calling Peter Satan but was acknowledging that Satan was trying to work through Peter and derail Jesus’ ministry and mission on earth.  Peter represents what the other disciples and followers of Jesus were thinking.  We’ve waited for your coming for such a long time and now you’re telling us you are going to be killed!  That can’t be right!  We’re just getting started!  Who’s going to run these Romans out of Israel?  They’re also thinking that if Jesus, their leader, endures persecution, rejection, and death, the shame of these punishments and perhaps the punishments themselves, could also fall upon them.  Peter is rejecting any role other than a warrior-Messiah who will defeat Israel’s enemies.  He was not considering God’s purposes, but only his own natural human desires and feelings.  Peter wanted Christ to be king, but not the suffering servant prophesied in Isaiah 53.  He was ready to receive the glory of following the Messiah, but not the persecutions.  You really can’t fault Peter or any of the other disciples for feeling this way.  Unknowingly, the disciples were trying to prevent Jesus from going to the cross and then fulfilling his mission on earth.  They were motivated by love and admiration for Jesus.  Nevertheless, the disciples’ job was not to guide or protect Jesus, but to follow him, as difficult and as confusing at that may be.


At that point Jesus called the crowd together along with his disciples and said to them: All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.  By telling the crowd that in order to follow him they must “say no to themselves” he’s telling them that they must be willing to give up all the things that they thought were important.  He’s telling them that they need to reprioritize and stop putting themselves first.  By telling them that they must take up their cross and follow him, Jesus is not calling them to martyrdom.  It’s more accurate to think of this as a demand for a total reordering of the commitments we make in our lives.  We can, and should, still have and honor our commitments to others but our commitment to following Jesus must come first and before all others.  Jesus rhetorically asks: Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?  What will people give in exchange for their lives?  He’s not talking about that unbridled pursuit of whatever we think will bring us true happiness.  He’s talking about having that life and that liberty one can only have through a true and total commitment to following Jesus in all we do or say.  Jesus knows it’s a big commitment for those of us who have gotten used to our old life, but to underscore his point he says: Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this unfaithful and sinful generation, the Human One will be ashamed of that person when he comes in the Father’s glory with the holy angels.  He’s telling us that we shouldn’t be ashamed of being his followers and that there shouldn’t be any doubt in our commitment based upon how we lead our lives when everyone is looking.  It should be plainly obvious that we’ve given up the old life for the new life.


In the original calling of the first four disciples Jesus does not fully disclose the specific requirements of “followership”.  He merely says “come” and they do.  But now, as a response to his new kingdom revelation, Jesus is demanding everyone to re-enlist as disciples.  One may have followed because of countless miracles, but now is being called to a whole new existence, with suffering and cross-bearing at the core.  Jesus used the image of carrying a cross to illustrate the ultimate submission required of his followers.  The Roman cross was a symbol of terror and crucifixion and was considered the worst way to die, not only because of the victim’s prolonged agony, but also because of the total humiliation of the victim and, by extension, his or her family and friends.  As such, we have been transformed from followers into disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  A task that requires commitment and sacrifice.


For us Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ, we Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, Jesus is talking about the heroic effort needed to follow him moment by moment, to do his will even when the work is difficult, and the future looks bleak.  We should be willing to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel, not because our lives are useless but because nothing—not even life itself—can compare to what we gain with Christ.  Jesus wants us to “choose” to follow him rather than to lead a life of sin and self-satisfaction.  He wants us to stop trying to control our own destiny and to let him direct us.  He wants us to let go of our old lives, to lose that life that leads to nowhere, and let Jesus lead us to a new life that has a final destination worth living for.


Let us pray.


Take up they cross, the Savior said, if thou wouldst my disciple be, deny thyself, the world forsake, and humbly follow after me.  Yes, blessed Savior, move us by your Spirit to give up our old life, to take up our cross, and follow you as you lead us in our new life.  Through the will and the way of the Father we can willingly lead a life of love, peace, grace, and service to others.  Use us in Thy service to show others how futile clinging to their old lives of putting themselves first can be damaging to not only themselves but to those who love them in spite of their destructive path and lifestyle.  By your grace, let our lives of humility and service be a beacon to the lost who long for a life of peace and purpose.  In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.

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