Passion. It can mean two different things according to the dictionary:
- strong and barely controllable emotion.
- the suffering and death of Jesus.
Passion is a word that elicits both a deep yearning to experience the world in a most authentic way, and it also helps tell the story of the death and resurrection of our savior Jesus the Christ. It’s interesting then that people can use the same word to communicate very different world views. One view is to embrace as much of this world as humanly possible. ‘Carpe Diem!’ Seize the day! The other view, if we understand this to be a proper understanding, is the teaching that the passion of Jesus was not to embrace this world, but on heavenly things—the Kingdom of God. It seems that we may have stumbled upon a paradoxical definition. It can’t possible mean two completely different things! Or can it? Are those two perspectives really not as oppositional as we once thought?
People often ask me what I like about ministry with youth, and it comes down to two things: being able to listen to Taylor Swift without shame because I say it’s in the name of youth ministry research, and genuine passion. And while I thought about preaching today on ‘shaking it off’, l think it’s helpful for us today to discuss the genuine passion of today’s young people, and how today’s Scripture messages exemplify such passion.
Almost every week I get to visit a different congregation and preach. I go into a local congregation, preach a sermon, and most everyone will come up to me afterward, shake my hand, and say ‘I enjoyed your message.’ While most people do really mean what they say, there are some within the congregation that simply do it out of habit or niceness rather than anything else. Every now and again I like to check with people about this presupposition. I sometimes ask a follow up question after their affirmation: ‘Oh really, what did you like about it?’ Somewhere between the time their mouth eventually gets picked up from dropping, and the stammering ends, I usually give them a break and let them go on their way (I may do it today—watch out!).
But youth…well, they will tell it how it is no matter what. Young people know the difference between when someone is talking about something that they believe in, and when they are simply going through the motions.
There was a book written back a few years ago called ‘Not a Fan,’ by a pastor named Kyle Idleman. He goes on to talk about how Jesus has a lot of fans, similar to sports fans. Ever been to a sports event recently? It’s a great time, really! There is music, entertainment, people joining together to cheer on their favorite team! And then the game is over, and the people go home back to their normal lives; back to work, school, and family. Many churches are like sporting events in this way, with a lot of fans. We gather together each week, cheer on our savior like a Holy Pep Rally with music and entertainment, and then when all is said and done, we go back to our normal lives for the other 6 days and 23 hours of our weeks. Idleman would say that Jesus doesn’t need fans; he needs followers.
Young people want to experience this genuine passion within their faith lives as well—they want to be followers, they just don’t know how to do this. The problem, however, is that Idleman is right; there are a lot more fans of Jesus than followers. Many churches today choose comfort and sustainability over passion and revolution. And to be honest, it has done these churches some good. They have been around for hundreds, even thousands of years. But is this what following Jesus is all about? Sustainability? Is that what living with genuine passion is all about?
We very quickly pick up in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus foretells of his death. This will not be the last time he shares with his disciples about what will happen in the coming days, but it is the first. Just before this Jesus was feeding thousands with loaves and fishes, and was speaking with his disciples as he asked the question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ He will later ask Peter this question directly, and Peter will share with Jesus, and the world, that he is the Messiah, the Son of Man. Everything seemed to be going so well! And then Jesus lets this news out?!
It must have felt like an abrupt change of conversation and events then when Jesus not only shared with the disciples what will soon happen with him, but he also rebukes Peter concerning such things. Jesus then calls over the people and his disciples and moves on to another topic: what we in the Church know today as discipleship.
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
In a series of paradoxical teachings, Jesus lays down for us what it means to be a true follower. So what does he mean, exactly, when he teaches about ‘taking up our cross’ and ‘losing our lives’? Should we literally be carrying a cross around town? Should we literally give our life in the name of Christ?
Can you imagine what the disciples and the crowds were thinking after all of this? Just moments before all seemed right with the world. It was a beautiful day! Everyone was happy! There were no worries, no anxieties, no stresses to be concerned with. And then, in what must have felt like an ‘out of the blue’ moment, Jesus lays this BOMBSHELL on everyone discussing not only his own death, but the ‘death’ of all that choose to follow him.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if some people just decided, ‘well, that’s enough!’ and walked away from Jesus forever that day. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some people that were deeply troubled by what they heard, and needed time to ‘think things over.’ What I would be surprised about would be the people who without flinching said ‘yes’ to what Jesus was offering.
And yet while many of us in this church today would share such reservations about such sacrifice in the name of faith, there are many people in this world, especially young people, who yearn to hear of such sacrifice in order to live life to the fullest—to live with genuine passion.
Here is my confession this morning for the Christian Church. While so many of us gather each Sunday to proclaim a risen savior who broke the bonds of this world so that we can live as liberated beings, we often are still slaves to the world; not because Christ wasn’t able to free us, but because we have come to accept our lives as the world has presented them to us. While we teach freedom in Christ each Sunday, our lives are not reflecting such freedom when we talk about war, economics, human rights, family values, and even our own life choices. Our young people want to see the roaring fire of what it means to follow Jesus, and instead we offer them a match.
The choice to follow Jesus should not be taken lightly. It should not be something that is expected of you because of the family you were born into, or even the church you attended as a child. It should not be because everyone else is doing it, or because that’s what will be the path of least resistance within that community. No, the decision to follow Jesus is fraught with consequences, uncertainties, and even death. This is not something to simply jump through the hoops with.
Many in today’s churches unfortunately have chosen to follow Jesus for all the wrong reasons, and have lived lives of faith that would be akin to being a ‘fan’ of Jesus, instead of a follower. Today’s young people see right through this. They don’t want a God to cheer on from the bleachers; they want a God worth dying for, and in so doing, finding new life.
Today we celebrate the passion that Christ offers us in our walks of faith. Yes, we know that such decisions are not lightly made, and will have consequences. But we also hear today’s Good News in paradox: in order to find our lives, we must lose our lives. Christ offers us new life beyond what we have come to know in the world today. Christ offers us a resounding ‘yes’ to a life of genuine passion when others have taught us to just accept what’s given to us.
These few weeks during the season of Lent as we journey to the cross of Jesus, let us be reminded that we do not need to live our lives of faith as fans in comfort of the world as we experience it today. We are invited to follow Jesus to the cross because it is there that we are offered new life, with new opportunities to live with such passion.
Yes, we are called to live with passion, both in this world, and as we prepare for the next. We are called to passionately follow Jesus wherever the journey may lead us; no matter how uncomfortable it may be, or how many sacrifices we are to make. And when we do, we not only free ourselves from the bonds of this world, but we free others who wish to follow alongside of us, as we journey to the cross together. Amen.