Deny, Take Up, Follow

by Hugh Farquhar 

The Lectionary Gospel Reading for next Sunday is Mark 8:31-38.

At some point in time, I jotted down in my notebook these words of sarcasm by the essayist, Wilbur Rees, “I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please, not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine . . . I want ecstasy, not transformation; I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.”

He relates in his sardonic style that much contemporary religion is fundamentally self-serving. What’s popular is a package of God that provides just enough to the lower the guilt level and make folk feel good inside, just enough to soothe anxieties and console sorrows, just enough to guarantee a ticket to heaven.

When self-serving comfort characterizes our understanding of Christian faith, we are off the mark! When the focus of our faith becomes “I-me-mine-myself” or “we-us-our-ourselves” we have distorted Jesus’ message. When the essence of our spirituality is all comfort and no challenge, we have simply missed the boat as far as an authentic understanding of what Jesus was about is concerned.

Jesus made that as clear as clear can be in the words of this week’s Gospel. He called the crowd alongside the disciples and said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

He was up-front about his expectations for those who aligned themselves with him. They would not be putting themselves first! They would taking up some measure of personal sacrifice! They would not be going off on their own way! They would know the tender and personal ministry of God, whom Jesus would one day call “the Comforter,” but Jesus was careful to emphasize the challenge of the invitation as well.

The community that Jesus had in mind was never meant to be a cozy religious club existing to pamper us, but a somewhat disturbing organism existing to challenge us look outward and become lovers and healers in the world..

William McElvany wrote a book called Good News is Bad News is Good News in which he stated, “The majority of Christians apparently want the church to be a comfort station rather than a community of challenge . . . Without Divine Disturbance, the church becomes a haven for pious platitudes, placebos, and palliatives.”

Not just comfort. Not just challenge either. But both integrated.

Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB and teaches Biblical studies online at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.

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