It’s All About Winning

a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, B

Text: Mark 8:31-38

This is Winning?

“Jesus saves.” A pithy and precise statement if ever there were one. Jesus Saves. He does. But how? From what? It is a statement too simple to be accurate.

Jesus is Messiah and Liberator, Conqueror and King. But every image these words evoke is wrong. For Jesus, it is winning without a contest.

If you remember about a year ago we witnessed the public meltdown of the actor, Charlie Sheen. His falling out with the producers of Two and a Half Men didn’t just go public, they went crazy. Or should we just say that Sheen went crazy. People were so eager to put a microphone in front of his mouth to see what crazy thing he’d say next. And on cue he gave us the strangest, most Shakespearean tragic statement we’ve heard in a long time. In describing his public tantrums and divorce from the TV show and his erratic behavior, Sheen declared that he was “winning”. To even the most casual viewer, Sheen’s sense of “winning” was, at best…interesting. He didn’t look like any winners we knew. In fact, he looked more like a loser. A real, sorry loser. A depressingly talented and tortured soul who was winning nothing. Everything around him was crumbling. He was the butt of cultural jokes and was publicly humiliated.

It was so bad that even our voyeuristic culture had enough.

A Messiah or A Son of Man?

English: Charlie Sheen in March 2009.

He didn't just compare Jesus to this guy, did he?

That must be what the disciples thought of Jesus’s sense of “winning”. We’ll go to Jerusalem and this is what will happen: I’ll suffer, be humiliated, and die. Then I’ll rise again. Not a winning formula according to anyone’s vision of the world.

What happens right before this passage is the same one we’ve covered a few times already:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (vs. 27-30)

Notice that in Mark, Jesus doesn’t affirm the term Messiah but subtly replaces it with Son of Man. We get “messiah” from the Hebrew word mashiach which means “anointed one”. This was then translated into Greek as Christos from which we get Christ. But mashiach is an interesting word. In Hebrew Scripture and history, the term was applied to several people, including David and Isaiah uses it to describe King Cyrus, a foreign ruler. You can see where the confusion starts to set in because it was tied to the protection and freedom of not just the Jewish people, but the Jewish nation. So a messiah would not just be a leader, but a conqueror and ruler. Many Jews then were not on the lookout for The Messiah, but the next messiah, or anointed one who would liberate them from Roman captivity.

And yet, Jesus’s own term is quite different. Not Messiah or Son of God, as Caesar called himself, but Son of Man. Of Humanity. Human. The Human One.

Not The Mighty, but The Mortal.

Not Defeat, But Victory

The rebuke of Peter is Jesus’s vehicle to describe what winning looks like. It is living and dying. Saving one’s life is the way to sorrowful death, but accepting death is the way to a fully-engaged life.

We can get mixed up by Jesus’s funhouse mirror, where thin becomes fat and fat is made thin. His description of the overturned world is painfully challenging, because it attacks deep-seeded roots. It is little wonder the disciples didn’t get it.

But Jesus’s vision of himself is central to reading this passage. He brings everyone together (Peter, disciples, and the crowd following him) and he gives a vision of winning, of conquering and vanquishing that uses no violence, no overthrowing one oppressive regime and replacing it with another. He doesn’t rally the troops with a stirring message a la Braveheart to go get slaughtered.

He seems to say that holy winning is immeasurable, but to the disciples’ culture, it will be measured as defeat.

The Winning Message

Self-sacrifice isn’t a stirring message. This isn’t a “ra ra, go team!” cheer. It is also particularly hard for a church to gather on a Sunday morning and be told that Jesus isn’t an answer man and that the righteous path is evaluated by the world and other churches, as losing. We may even be tempted to pack it in or confuse our current path for the righteous one to declare ourselves winners. To pump ourselves up about our practices.

The focus of this gospel, however, is not on losing, but winning. As crazy as it may sound. Winning is living. Really living. Living a vibrant Spirit-filled life. Living a life outside of our culture. Living, not as a loner, but a rebel—a rebel that revels in rebellious community. A community of love and inspiration. A community of safety and encouragement. A community whose very purpose is to celebrate and live.

In this way, taking up a cross isn’t heavy or burdensome, but light and joyful. It is creating art and telling stories, capturing moments and caring for others. It is bringing a community, this community to new life. Vibrant, scandalous, winning life.