Why Would Anyone Take Jesus Up on What He Has to Offer?

About an hour before worship I went to the local hospital’s ICU to see a congregant who was dying. I anointed her body and prayed with her family. Then I cried into the mic during the greetings at the start of worship. Whatever the ins and outs of theology, the discipleship practice of knowing each other may by far be the most costly and rewarding, the most grievous and the most glorious.

OFFER

Why would anyone in the ancient world sign up for what Jesus has on offer?

At this point in our study of the gospel of Mark that includes:

  • Bailing on regular employment, food, and shelter.
  • Constant travel.
  • Large crowds.
  • Rough seas.
  • Being ignored, mocked, disrespected and challenged on whether you are faithful or merely a blasphemer.
  • Having to confront embodied forces of non-being.
  • Constantly having to interpret parables.
  • Constantly having to monitor your own heart and keep it holy.
  • Possibly being allowed to die so that Jesus can use your death as a teaching tool.
  • Getting run out of town.
  • International political familial intrigue.

And as of today, Jesus’ offerings also include

  • Saying he will be killed and not brooking any argument about or fear in response to the suggestion.
  • Chastisement when falling short of complete attention to the divine.
  • Dying in order to live?
  • Threats of shaming at the hands of angels and God alike.
  • Visions.
  • Auditory theophanies.

Again, who would sign up for that?

Let’s see who has, so far: Laborers and independent contractors and subsistence farmers and agents of the state directly invited by Jesus. Women and men and children—all kinds of people—who have been directly healed by Jesus.

At this point in the gospel, we know of no disciples that have not met Jesus face to face. Which is not a very effective campaign.

INEFFECTIVE

If Jesus’ movement is reliant on direct access to him, it won’t get very far.

We hear about crowds gathering around him, showing up wherever he goes, but in numbers that Jesus can’t possibly minister to directly. If these stories from first eight chapters of Mark that we have studied were all they had, what was Jesus offering other than becoming an outcast and dying that might pull people out for those crowds and into full discipleship?

From those stories, all I can find is this line in chapter one:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1.15)

That’s it. In the nine weeks since Christmas, this is what Jesus has to give to those who have not been called by name or directly healed by him:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. (Mark 1.15)

Which takes me from the question of why anyone in the ancient world would have signed up for what Jesus had on offer to why we would.

WHY US?

Why would we?

Jesus’ words have been proved wrong: The time has not been fulfilled. The kingdom of God remains immeasurably distant. And in addition to all of the negatives of being a Jesus follower already listed, we can add on all of the negatives of being a Christian in 21st century America: Affiliation with an at times lethal bigotry and an institution that does more to perpetuate itself in all of its segregation and comforts than to help the sick and the dying with theirs. Association with builders of barriers and buildings, not beloved community.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, that isn’t fair.

It isn’t fair of me to assess Jesus based on only part of the story. There is more yet to come. More rabble-rousing, more resurrection.

And it isn’t fair of me to assess us against American Christianity at large. We are a branch of the Christian family tree that is trying to do better, to be more aligned with the daughter of Jairus and the Gerasene demoniac than Peter in his monument-building reaction to seeing evidence of God’s ongoing presence in history.

What happened to all of those nice sermons from the last few weeks about healing and God being skin to our skin in our good days and our last ones?

Why am I turned so hard on us all?

Because the end of the gospel doesn’t mean the end of the story. The ending of gospel is not a place of comfort. It is not a place of resolution. Resurrection is confusing and impossible. It offers no safe or complete position from which to assess Jesus Christ.

And so long as so many still sleep outside of buildings, we cannot rest on what kin-dom building we have done.

But mostly because I want to emphasize, underline, highlight, and stress the significance of what some of you are assenting to today.

VOWS

You may have noticed the liturgy of membership in your bulletin.

Last year our church leadership, the Executive Board, began a process to change how membership works in our congregation. The traditional model of insiders and outsiders, with special privileges like discounts on the building and voting rights for the insiders no longer rings true to the gospels or the open table.

As a first step, last November I invited anyone and anyone who wanted to state anew or affirm their covenant with God through this church to do so on little blue cards that were placed in the offering plate rather than having to come forward. Nineteen people made that covenant for the first time that day.

Our by-laws, though, haven’t caught up with that new process yet. So, with big decisions pending about the future of staffing and our campus (the engineers are giving this floor five years) some of you have asked to join in the traditional way, that you may make your perspective official, make it count.

From that perspective, joining a church doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s practical to want to have a say on how your gifts to God through this church, are spent.
That doesn’t explain being here in the first place, though, let alone becoming a member.

Church participation is no longer a given. There is no longer mass disapprobation for non-participation. It isn’t even an essential for business promotion or professional networking anymore.

And more importantly, membership is not all about this church. Coming forward to make public vows is to join, without direct call or healing from Jesus, that inefficient, risky, open-ended movement that began so long ago and so far away.

So, I could ask again why anyone, any one of you, would take Jesus up on what he has to offer but I think instead I will simply thank God.

I thank God that in spite of the deep failings of the movement after Christ, despite the risks entailed, as well as the uncertainties, Jesus’ vision of people healed and the capacity of any who heed his call to create healing themselves still rings loud enough and far enough to move some to make their way forward.

I thank God that in a time in which words are so easily weaponized and when public oaths no longer seem to bind, we are witnesses and partners to people who are willing to step out of the crowds now 2,000 years deep, to exchange vows not remotely practical or logical but life-saving and holy.

Vows that, like all Jesus has so far offered in this gospel and what we know of the story to come, may well cost those who take them everything.

(I offered an invitation for new members to come forward.)

Do you profess Jesus Christ as teacher, guide, agitator, and scandalous presence?

Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom found in love of God, the life and teachings of Jesus the Christ, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Do you promise, by the grace of God, to disciple yourself to Jesus Christ, to resist oppression and evil, to show love and justice, and to witness to the work and word of Jesus Christ?

Do you affirm your desire to learn more about God, Christ, and Spirit and explore discipleship through Christian fellowship?

Do you promise to participate in the life and mission of this family of God’s people, sharing regularly in the worship of God and enlisting in the work of this local church as it serves this community and the world?

Ames United Church of Christ, what promises do you make?

In the name of God and with God as our witness, we promise to be in community with one another as we strive to be faithful disciples of Jesus, whom we proclaim as the Christ, God’s anointed. We profess our belief in God who created and is still creating us. We hold as our vision for the world Jesus’ vision, where all are welcomed, where justice reigns, and where peace prevails. We affirm that we can only be faithful disciples in community with others who share that vision and who work to achieve it. Therefore, we promise to attend the services of this church, to volunteer our time to its mission, and to contribute financially to its work. Finally, we earnestly pray for the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit that God might bless all that we do together.

Let us, the members of Ames United Church of Christ express our thanks, and welcome, and affirm our mutual ministry in Christ.

We welcome you with joy in the common life of this church. Amen! Thanks be to God!

Why Would Anyone Take Jesus Up on What He Has to Offer?: Mark 8.27- 9.8
Delivered at Ames UCC on February 23, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary.

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