Preaching the Anti-King

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Hey there, Working Preacher, a quick question:

Have you registered for this year’s Celebration of Biblical Preaching? It’s going to be awesome, an event of biblical proportions. That’s all I’m going to say. (Oh, and that you can get more info. by clicking here! ). Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming. 🙂

Dear Working Preacher,

This week’s reading is in almost everyway possible the center of Mark’s Gospel. It stands, quite literally, near the dead center of Mark’s work. Moreover, it marks the major transition in the story from Jesus’ ministry of opposing all that oppresses God’s people (by healing, feeding, casting out demons and the rest) to Jesus’ journey to the cross. But perhaps most importantly, it vividly and succinctly summarizes the essence of the kingdom of God and why it is so hard for us to accept it.

We know this story well enough to skim the details. Jesus and his disciples have been all over Galilee and now are on the outskirts of the Roman town Caesarea Philippi when he asks them two important questions: who do people say that I am? And, more to the point, in light of all this who do you say that I am? They answer both, the first with comparisons to important biblical figures, the second with Peter’s flash of insight that this is no mere miracle worker or prophet but is indeed God’s anointed One, the messiah.

And then comes the turning point: Jesus begins to explain what it means to be the Messiah and no one — including Peter — can believe it. Why? Because the Jews, of course including Jesus’ Jewish disciples, were looking for a powerful leader, perhaps a military king like David, and so were disappointed with Jesus’ pronouncement. And let’s face it: absent 20/20 hindsight, would we have reacted any differently? Probably not, because more often than not we also look for God to come in strength and therefore often miss God’s coming to meet us in our weakness. And so while we may not get the God we want, in Jesus we discover the God we need, one who does not overwhelm us but meets us in our brokenness in order to heal, restore, and redeem us.

This is a good sermon. I’ve preached it before to good effect, and perhaps you have as well.

What I want to focus on this week, however, are the words that follow, the words Jesus directs to his disciples and the larger crowds. These are familiar as well: words about denying oneself, about taking up your cross, and about saving and losing one’s life. You’ve probably preached on the importance of following Jesus, and I have too. But what sunk in this time around is how little stock I’ve historically put into the phrase “losing your life” and how important it seems to me to understand, not just Mark’s story of Jesus, but indeed the whole of Jesus’ ministry and mission and the kingdom of God itself. I’m still thinking this all through, but I’ll try to explain.

Notice how concretely, literally true these words turn out to be for Jesus as he does, in fact, loses his life and finds it, or really is given it back and more, in the resurrection. So here’s my question: might this also be literally, concretely true for us? That is, in what ways have we also experienced losing our life as the key to receiving it back again? Have we at times noticed, for example, that when we give a gift to another we recognize how much we receive in return? (Interesting recent studies indicate, for instance, that the only way money truly makes us happy is when we give it away. ) Or have you discovered on occasion that only by loving another do you feel yourself to be loved? Have you ever gone without so that someone could have more and felt intensely richer as a result? Or that there’s no better way to find a friend than first to be a friend, and that unexpected rewards come through sacrifice. And so on. Each of these are perhaps small but still compelling glimpses of the “inverted logic” of the kingdom.

I call it “inverted logic” because it is so dramatically different than the logic that runs the kingdom of the world. This logic — one we are taught from a very early age — suggests that the only way to find security is through possessions or power. This logic attempts to persuade us that only by having more can we be happy, and that only by satisfying all our wants can we be content. This logic operates on a notion of absolute scarcity and therefore pits us against one another in a winner-takes-all competition for goods, meaning, and love. And it’s all around us because it’s the logic behind almost all advertising campaigns, political rhetoric, and commercial decisions.

And yet against all of this Jesus comes urging us to give of ourselves, put others first, and take up burdens on behalf of another. No wonder he is not only disbelieved but also rejected: he isn’t just an unusual king, he is the anti-king, almost the exact opposite of the kings of the world.

And no wonder his kingdom still has trouble attracting applicants. He says here that in order to enter you need to be last, not first. Later he’ll lift up the most vulnerable — children, the outcast, and the diseased — as models of exemplary citizens. Who really wants to be part of this club? Jesus is proclaiming an anti-kingdom, again so utterly opposite of what we imagine a kingdom should be.

Why, then, come — to church, to Jesus, to this kingdom he proclaims? Because this logic that seems so opposite all we have encountered thus far invites us to discover our lives by receiving our identity as beloved children rather than trying to earn it through our accomplishments. It invites us to find our purpose in serving others rather than in accumulating goods. It invites us to imagine that our life — and the lives of those around us — have infinite worth simply because God chooses to love us apart from anything we’ve done or not done.

Why do we come? Because this kingdom is about life, not the pseudo-life we’ve been persuaded by advertisers or politicians it’s the best we can expect, but real, honest-to-goodness life. Can you imagine what it would be like if your congregation were the one place where people felt they could really be themselves and know that they were loved and accepted as themselves? That’s the challenge and invitation Jesus offers here.

All we have to do is trade what we’ve been led to believe is life for the real thing. It’s incredibly hard because so much money and energy has gone into convincing us that the best we can expect is a quid-pro-quo world where you get what you deserve. But if we can let it go, even for a few moments, we’ll discover that God still loves to create out of nothing, raise the dead to life, and give each and all of us so much more than we either deserve or can imagine.

I know I haven’t done justice to this week’s passage or this vision of the kingdom of God. But it’s a start, and beside — and thank goodness — neither I nor you are justified by our preaching but rather by grace alone! ? So abundant blessings on your proclamation this week, Working Preacher. Know that what you do matters and whether you feel you are doing it well or not, whether it is received well or not, it is a kingdom message. Or, maybe I should say, an anti-kingdom message! Either way, know that I am grateful for your fidelity.

Yours in Christ,