There are moments in life which ask us questions, and starting as a student is one of them. E.g., it asks the question, ‘Can you cook?’ I was talking to a first year a few weeks into his time here and I asked how it was going. And he said, ‘Well, actually I’ve had a bit of a chequered week – I set light to the kitchen in my halls and they had to call the fire brigade.’ So I said, ‘What were you doing?’ And he said ‘Cooking pasta.’ So I said, ‘What – did you let it boil dry?’ And he said, ‘No, I didn’t realise you had to put water on it.’ I mean, how do you get that far through life without knowing that? How do they let you into university without checking on things like that?
But the biggest question that starting as a student asks you is this:
In a new place and a new stage of life, what are you going to do with Jesus? Now some of you will be saying, ‘I want to carry on trusting and living for him as I’ve already begun to.’ That’s what I was saying as I arrived at uni. But for others, your honest answer to that question, ‘What are you going to do with Jesus?’ may be: ‘I’m not sure.’ If your life is like a building, maybe so far you’ve been surrounded by the scaffolding of Christian home and family and so on. And suddenly, all that scaffolding’s been taken away and the question is: what’s underneath – when you take away your parents’ commitment to Jesus, your brother or sister’s commitment to Jesus, your friends’ commitment to Jesus, and it’s just you? But there may be others here with none of that background. First week at uni has also been your first brush with Christians, and here you are – your first chance to find out about Jesus or forget about him.
What are you going to do with Jesus? Well what we’re going to do is: look at that bit of Mark’s Gospel we read earlier, where Jesus’ first followers reach a moment in life that asks them exactly that question. So would you turn to Mark chapter 8? Mark’s Gospel is one of the four records in the Bible of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection from the dead. And Mark got his information from Peter – one of the eyewitnesses we’ll read about – and then wrote this within 35 years of the events. Now chapters 1 to 8 tell how those first eye-witnesses heard Jesus claiming to be God’s Son, and saw him doing miracles to back that up. And Jesus then brings their thinking to a head. Look down to Mark 8, v27:
27Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?"
28They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."
29"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"(vv27-29)
And that’s the question this moment of life may be asking you. Not, ‘Who do other people say Jesus is?’ – your parents, your older sister who’s already at uni and nailed her Christian colours to the mast – but who do you say he is? Well, second half of v29:
Peter answered, "You are the Christ."(v29)[which basically means ‘God’s King’ – the person God had promised to send, to bring us back into relationship with him as King, to restore his rightful rule in our lives.]
And in fact the simplest definition of a Christian is that it’s someone who’s saying to Jesus, ‘You are the rightful King of my life,’ – and not just saying it, but trying to live it. So look again at v29:
29"But what about you?"[Jesus] asked. "Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, "You are the Christ."[So he’s begun to see who Jesus is – but he needs to understand a lot more before he can go explaining it to others – which is why, v30:] 30Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.(vv29-30)
That is, not yet. So Jesus says to them, ‘You’ve begun to see who I am, but now you need to see more. You need to see: what I’ve come to do; what it means to have me as King; and why that’s ultimately worth it. Those are the three things Jesus talks about in the rest of this passage. So we’re going to work our way through them, to help us with that question, ‘What am I going to do with Jesus?’
So Jesus wants us to see,
Firstly, WHAT HE CAME TO DO (v31)
When we go door to door visiting round here, I often ask people, ‘What do you think Jesus came to do?’ And the answer’s always the same and always wrong. It’s always, ‘Well, he came to show us how to live a good life, didn’t he?’ Well, no: that’s not what he said he’d come to do. Look on to Mark 8, v31:
31[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [another title he used for himself] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. (v31)
I.e., he came to die on the cross. And if you’ve not understood that yet, you’ve not understood Christianity yet.
A friend of mine was brought up going to church and, Sunday by Sunday, he refused to listen to the sermon because he assumed it would just be telling him to try to be good – which his parents and teachers were doing anyway. So instead of listening, he counted bricks in the wall at the front. And during the average sermon he’d get up to about 1,000. And it was so boring that one Sunday he thought, ‘The sermon can’t be more boring, so I’ll give it a listen.’
And I remember him saying, ‘I got the shock of my life: all those years I’d assumed they were telling me how to be good, so God would accept me. When in fact they were telling me what Jesus did to make me acceptable, because I’m not good enough and never could be.’ And what Jesus did to make us acceptable was: to die on the cross.
Now you may still be thinking you’re acceptable to God as you are – or can be if you try. But the Bible says, ‘No,’ to that kind of thinking. It says that although God made us, and is our rightful ruler, consciously or subconsciously we’ve each said, ‘No’ to him – ‘I don’t want you telling me how to live.’ And that’s utterly offensive to God, and makes us utterly unacceptable. And it means we deserve the judgement of him saying, ‘No’ to us in response – ‘You will not be part of my kingdom; you’ll be shut out, instead.’ But on the cross, Jesus took that judgement in our place so that we might be forgiven, and re-start life with God in his rightful place.
And I wonder if you’ve come to see that? Because if not, you’ll probably just see Christianity as a set of rules – to try to keep so that God will accept you. I remember seeing it like that, and feeling it was just a burden and a guilt-trip. Because I knew I wasn’t good enough and couldn’t be. And maybe that’s how you’ve felt inside the Christian scaffolding – and like it might just be a relief to walk away and leave it behind. But if that is you, can I say: please don’t walk – because you’d be walking away from a caricature of Christianity. Because it’s not about a set of rules; it’s about a person who loved you enough to come into this world to die for you, so you could be forgiven back into friendship with him. And maybe so far, you’ve been putting the cart of trying to live God’s way before the horse of being forgiven and knowing God accepts you because of the cross. In which case, the thing to do is not walk away, but to put the horse first. And in my experience, if you ask Jesus to forgive you and come into your life by his Spirit to help you live for him, you wont’ find it a burden or a guilt-trip.
Then for others, the horse and cart are in the right order – but you’ve had a bad Freshers’ week as a Christian, or a bad summer, or a bad gap year, or a bad few years. And you need to know that you can be forgiven for everything up to the present moment, draw a line under the past, and start again. Because on the cross Jesus paid for as many new starts as you will ever need. And I want to ask: will you believe that again tonight, and get going again with Jesus tonight?
So that’s what Jesus came to do. Then he wants us to see,
Second, WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE HIM AS KING (vv32-34)
Look down to v32. Jesus has just said he must suffer, be rejected and die, v32:
32He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (vv32-33)
Now Peter’s problem was partly that he didn’t see how much he needed forgiving, and that forgiveness had to be paid for at the cross. But it was also partly that he did see very clearly the implication of what Jesus had just said. Because if you follow a Master who suffers and is rejected, the implication is: you’re likely to suffer and be rejected too. Which Peter didn’t want.
It’s like those times in sport lessons at school where the teacher would pick two captains from the class and the captains would then pick teams. And sometimes (in my experience, anyway) the teacher would pick a captain you knew was a lemon – a guaranteed loser – and you could feel everyone thinking, ‘I don’t want to be on his side.’ And there you all were, trying to avoid eye-contact and trying to look inconspicuous and untalented when it was his turn to pick.
And that’s what Peter’s thinking here: ‘I don’t want to be on Jesus’ side if it means suffering and rejection. I don’t want to be a loser.’ And we can identify with that, can’t we? We don’t want to be losers. And yet the world is saying, ‘If you’re a Christian, you are. You’re missing out.’ And maybe that’s your biggest issue when it comes to what you’re going to do with Jesus. Maybe the big issue for you isn’t whether Christianity is true – you know there’s plenty of evidence for the claims the Bible makes – but whether following Christ is really worth it.
Well, in the rest of this passage, Jesus says there is a cost, but it’s infinitely worth it – there are things you have to lose, but you won’t ultimately be the loser Look on to v34, where he spells out what it means to have him as King:
34Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (v34)
So for one thing, it means accepting the cost of repentance. That’s what he means when he says we must ‘deny self’. By nature we each want to rule our own lives – I want my self to be on the throne. And that’s how the world is telling us to live: ‘If you want something, have it. If you have a desire, act on it. Because life’s all about expressing yourself.’ But in fact, that’s a recipe for damaging yourself, not to mention others. Whereas Jesus says, paradoxically, the key to life is actually to deny yourself – i.e., to say to self, ‘You are no longer going to be on the throne; Jesus is.’ And that’s what repentance means – changing from living how I want, to living how Jesus wants.
Now the world hears that and says, ‘That’s too big a cost.’ But think about it: if Jesus has the wisdom of being God, and he’s showed his commitment to your good by dying for you, could you really be losing out by having him as King, by putting your life in his hands?
The other thing we have to accept is the cost of rejection. Look back at v34 again. Jesus says
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (v34)
Now in Jesus’ day if you saw someone take up his cross, it meant they were on their way to be crucified – which was the Roman Empire’s way of getting rid of its worst criminals and enemies. It was the ultimate form of rejection. And when Jesus says we must take up our cross, he means we must be prepared to suffer rejection for siding with him.
So, e.g., I remember interviewing one of our medical students just like we interviewed Ali earlier. And this guy had come to faith after a pretty alcohol-and woman-filled first few years at uni. And he very memorably said in that interview, ‘Living without Christ is like eating vegetarian food – however much you have, it never really fills you up.’ That was unscripted and he suddenly looked horrified as it dawned on him how many veggies he’d just offended. But with all due respect vegetarians, it was a brilliant image: what the world is offering us is really just a dry, nut rissole of a life. Now that student’s first few months of living for Jesus as King were very hard, as his drinking partners turned on him for packing in getting drunk. And he really did lose some ‘friends’ in order to gain Jesus. And that’s what Jesus means by taking up your cross. It means being prepared for rejection for having him as King.
And we’ll only accept that cost – and keep accepting it – if we see the third thing Jesus says here, which is:
Third, WHY IT’S ULTIMATELY WORTH IT (vv35-38)
Look on to v35. Jesus has just laid the cost clearly on the line. Which begs the question, ‘Is it really worth it?’ And he answers that unspoken question with the reason why it is. Look at v35:
35For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, [i.e., whoever holds onto his life, to avoid the cost of following Jesus, will ultimately be the loser]but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it[i.e., whoever gives over his life to living and speaking for Jesus will ultimately be the winner].36For what good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? 37 Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?[I.e., you could keep Jesus out of your life, and in theory gain everything the world has to offer – and yet you’d ultimately forfeit something infinitely more important. And that something is made clear in v38, where Jesus says to each one of us:] 38If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man[that is, Jesus]will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."? (vv35-38)
So Jesus is saying: there will come a day when he will wrap up history and we will meet him. Which would be a ridiculous claim to make about any other figure of the dead past. But Jesus is the only one of them who didn’t stay dead. He rose again from the dead and is alive. And if in this life, we’ve been ashamed of him, on that day, he’ll be ashamed of us. That’s to say, if in this life we’ve said, ‘No’ to him, ‘I won’t have you as my King,’ then on that day (with no pleasure at all) he’ll say, ‘No’ to us – ‘I won’t have you in my kingdom’ – because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
So we each have to decide what we ultimately want: the approval and acceptance of people around us now – or the approval and acceptance of the Lord Jesus on that day?
There’s a church yard I know with a grave-stone that reads like this:
In memory of
Captain James Harvey
Died 23rd April 1786
Tragically, shot and killed by the
accidental discharge of his pistol
while in the hands of his valet
And the Bible text underneath? ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’! How nobody saw the inappropriateness of that , I don’t know. But in one of his parables, those are the words Jesus uses to welcome those who’ve lived for him as King at the end of their lives. And we need to decide whether we want people around us to say, ‘He’s a good bloke / She’s a good lass’ – because we do what they expect, and please them and conform to them – or whether we want Jesus to say to us, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’, which, from the eternal perspective of v38, must be worth it, whatever the cost.
But Jesus isn’t saying it’s all cost now and only gain beyond this life – because with him as King, you do also gain in the present things that really matter. E.g., I remember one student at our church – I’ll call him Dave. He shared a house with four other blokes who weren’t Christians. And he was often discouraged by their reaction to his faith. They gave him a lot of stick, and he often said to me it would easier not to be a Christian and just to go along with what they were up to. And then one Sunday, one of them came along here under his own steam, and I talked with him at student supper while Dave was on another table. And I said, ‘So what do you think about Dave and him being a Christian?’ Do you know what he said? He said, ‘I respect him more than anyone else I know. We give him a hard time for it, but he has integrity, and the rest of us don’t.’ So you won’t gain things like an easy ride or everyone liking you (for what that’s worth) in the present. But you will gain much more precious things – like integrity.
So, in a new place and a new stage of life, what are you going to do with Jesus? In my last church, a girl came to talk at the end of her first term. She said, ‘I come from a Christian home. I always thought of myself as a Christian. But I’ve done a whole lot of things this term that I shouldn’t have done. I’ve been one person at home and another person at university. And now I’m trying to work out who I really am.’ And, thankfully, in the space of that first university holiday, she worked out that she really did believe the claims of Jesus, did believe he died for her, did want to live for him – and that her first term had been a complete and utter false start.
And I just want to say: don’t leave it a term. Or even a month. Or even a week. Work it out now.