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 him how it was going. And he said, ‘Well, actually it’s been a bit of a chequered week – I sent one of the halls kitchens up in flames and they had to call the fire brigade.’ So I said, ‘What were you doing?’ And he said ‘Cooking pasta.’ So I said, ‘Don’t tell me – you let it boil dry?’ And he said, ‘No, I didn’t even realise you had to put water on it.’ How do you live 18 years without knowing that?
But the biggest question that starting as a student asks is this: In a new place and stage of life, what are you going to do with Jesus?
Now for some here, the answer will be, ‘I want to carry on trusting and living for him as I’ve already begun to.’ That’s what I was saying as a fresher. For others, the answer may be, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with Jesus. I haven’t really made up my mind about Christianity.’ Maybe so far you’ve been like a building surrounded by the scaffolding of Christian family, church youth group, Christian friends, school Christian Union. And now the scaffolding’s been taken away, and you’re in probably the most non-Christian environment of your life. And the question is: who are you without the scaffolding? Is the faith you’ve grown up with your faith as well? And then for others, you’ve had none of that background. First week at university 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?
I’ve talked to lots of freshers over lots of freshers’ weeks – including plenty wavering about their commitment to Jesus. And it’s not usually been over the question, ‘Is Christianity really true?’ That’s a vital question that you mustn’t duck – and if you’ve grown up in a Christian background, you will need to grow more into your own convictions about why you trust the Bible and so on. But, ‘Is it really true?’ isn’t usually the question causing the wavering. It’s usually the question, ‘Is it really worth it?’ And what provokes that question is simply how non-Christian the student world is. So, go into the freshers’ welcome tent and the first thing that greets you is someone giving out free condoms. Try to join a sports team and the chances are you’ll find you’re set a drinking initiation. The pressure is on from every side to live a non-Christian life – to do the wrong thing, and even to feel embarrassed about doing the right thing. Here’s how one Christian writer put it:
The world is that system of values and beliefs, behaviours and expectations in any culture that has its centre fallen human beings, … which relegates any thought about God…. [and that] makes sin look normal… and righteousness seem odd. (God in the Wasteland, David Wells)
Which is why not only does the world hand you free condoms; it laughs at virginity as if it was a form of inadequacy. And not only does it ply you with alcohol; it laughs at your self-control as inability to ‘take your drink’.
The pressure is on from every side, and with the world becoming more and more non-Christian, the person living for Jesus feels more and more of a lemon. So is it worth it? Or would it just be easier to leave Jesus behind – like that embarrassing One Direction poster in your bedroom which you wisely left at home? That was the question facing the Christians that Mark’s Gospel was originally written for. Only, for them, the stakes were far higher. Because they lived in Rome when the emperor Nero was persecuting them. And they weren’t just being laughed at for their faith. They were being killed for it. And we’re going to look at maybe the most important passage in Mark, which basically says: following Jesus is worth it, whatever the cost.
So would you turn in to Mark chapter 8 and v27. And in this passage, Mark says we need three things to stop us wavering when the pressure is on:
Firstly, UNDERSTAND THAT THE WORLD IS FUNDAMENTALLY CHRIST-REJECTING (vv27-31)
Look down to Mark 8, v27:
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."
"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"
Peter answered, "You are the Christ." (vv27-29)
Now ‘Christ’ is one of those Bible words that needs some background. And the background is the first bit of the Bible, the Old Testament (OT) – which says that God made us to live in relationship with him, accepting his rightful rule over our lives; but that we’ve all rejected him, in favour of living how we want. I.e., there’s been a rebellion against God – which is why the world is the way it is – as that quote I used earlier put it,
that system of values and beliefs, behaviours and expectations… that has its centre fallen human beings, … which relegates any thought about God…. [and that] makes sin look normal… and righteousness seem odd. (God in the Wasteland, David Wells)
But the OT also promised that God wouldn’t let the rebellion go on forever, but would send this person ‘the Christ’ to stop it. And there are basically two ways to stop a rebellion. One is simply to put down the rebels. And the fact we’re still here shows that God didn’t choose that one. The other way to stop a rebellion is to offer the rebels forgiveness and call on them to change sides. And the reason this passage calls the Christian message ‘gospel’ (see v35) – good news – is that that’s the way God chose. He sent Jesus into the world to offer us forgiveness and call us to change sides.
Now just look at the last line of v29 again:
Peter answered, "You are the Christ." (v29)
And strangely, instead of saying, ‘Yes, you’ve got it’, v30,
Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. (v30)
And that’s because they’d only half got it. They’d got that he was the Christ. But they hadn’t got that he was going to have to die in order to offer us forgiveness and call us to change sides. So look what happens next, 31:
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man [which is just another OT title he used for himself. ‘The Son of Man’ – i.e. Jesus 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)
So that’s saying that the most important thing Jesus came to do was 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 be good – which his parents and teachers were doing anyway, and he didn’t want to be told again. 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, ‘It was a complete shock: all those years I’d assumed they were just telling me what I had to do to be good enough for God to accept me. When in fact they were telling me what Jesus had done to make me acceptable – because I’m not good enough and never could be.’ And what Jesus had to do to make us acceptable was: die on the cross.
Now right now, you may be thinking you are acceptable to God as you are – or can be, if you try. But the Bible says none of us is, or can be. It says that this rebellion we’re all part of is so offensive to God that we all deserve to be put down by his judgement. But the gospel – good news – is that on the cross, Jesus took that judgement instead of us so that we could be forgiven, without God for a moment compromising his justice.
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 keep in the hope that God will accept you. I remember seeing it like that at first – which made it seem just a complete guilt-trip, because I knew I wasn’t good enough and never could be. And maybe you’ve felt like that under the Christian scaffolding of your life so far – and maybe you feel it would just be a relief to walk away from it. In which case, can I say: 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 – about a God whose Son came to die for you, so that he could offer you forgiveness and a new start in relationship with him. So that’s why there’s that ‘must’ in v31:
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man 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)
So Jesus went to the cross voluntarily for us. But the way he got there was through being rejected by the very people who should have accepted him. Because these people in v31 – the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law – knew their Bibles backwards. They knew what it said about rebellion against God and how the Christ would come to stop it. What they didn’t realise – like so many religious people – is that they were just as much rebels at heart as anyone else, and that they were just as much in need of forgiveness and a new start in relationship with God. And when Jesus said that to them, they hated it – and ultimately rejected him.
And Mark is saying: the first thing we need is to understand that the world is fundamentally Christ-rejecting. No-one out there is neutral towards God. There’s a rebellion on. And if you stand for Jesus and remind people of the God they’re rebelling against, they won’t like it. And we’ve got to learn to be unsurprised by that.
Which brings us to the second thing Mark says we need to stop us wavering:
Second, ACCEPT THAT IF YOU FOLLOW JESUS, YOU WILL BE REJECTED (vv32-34)
I don’t mean rejected all the time, by everyone. But the Bible’s clear that anyone following Jesus will be rejected some of the time. So look on to v32:
[Jesus] spoke plainly about this [i.e., his rejection and death], and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But 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 hadn’t got his mind round how much he needed forgiveness, and that it had to be paid for at the cross. But it was mainly that he had got his mind around the implication of what Jesus had just said. Because the implication of following a Master who’s rejected, is that you also are likely to be rejected. Which isn’t what Peter wants. It’s like those sports lessons at school when the teacher would pick two captains and the captains would then pick teams. And sometimes the teacher would pick a captain you knew was a guaranteed loser. And you could sense everyone thinking, ‘Please don’t pick me,’ and avoiding eye-contact and trying to become invisible. And that’s what Peter’s thinking here: ‘I don’t want to be on Jesus’ side if it means being a loser.’
And we can identify with that, can’t we? Because we don’t want to lose out. And yet the world is saying, ‘If you’re a Christian, you will.’ So in the rest of this passage, Jesus says, ‘There is a cost to following me, but it’s infinitely worth it. There are things you have to lose, but you won’t ultimately be the loser.’ So look on to v34:
Then 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 think of a moment when the pressure is on. E.g., when you get back tonight and someone asks you where you’ve been – and you don’t know what they’ll think if you tell them. Or when refusing to drink after a pint or two will make you stick out like a sore thumb. Or for Mark’s original readers, when Nero’s police knock on the door and say, ‘Are you a Christian?’ In moments like that, the pressure is always on to protect ‘self’ and keep ‘self’ comfortable. And Jesus is saying, ‘But if you want to follow me, you’ve got to deny ‘self’. I.e., you’ve got to say ‘No’ to those desires just to fit in and be liked and be accepted. And, back to v34 again, he says you’ve got to
“take up [your] cross.” (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 for rejection of some degree (which for some may be up to and including the ultimate rejection of martyrdom that Mark’s original readers faced) for siding with him. So I remember interviewing a medical student like we interviewed Harry earlier. And he’d come to faith after a pretty alcohol- and women- filled first three years. And he very memorably said in that interview, ‘Living without Christ is like eating vegetarian food – however much of it you have, it never really fills you up.’ And then he looked horrified at the thought of how many vegetarians he’d just upset. But with all respect to vegetarians, we knew what he meant. And his first few months of following Christ were very hard indeed, as his old drinking partners turned on him for packing in getting drunk. And he did lose mates to gain Christ. And that’s the kind of thing that taking up your cross means.
So Mark says: you need to understand that the world is fundamentally Christ-rejecting; you need to accept that if you follow Jesus, you will be rejected, too. And finally he says:
Third, BE CONVINCED THAT FOLLOWING JESUS IS ULTIMATELY WORTH IT (vv35-38)
So Jesus has laid the cost on the line. That begs the question, ‘Is it really worth it?’ And the answer is in vv35-38:
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man [again, that’s just one of Jesus’ titles’ for himself] will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (vv35-38)
So let’s start from v38 in getting our heads round that. Jesus is saying: there will come a day when he’ll 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 from the dead and is alive, according to the witnesses of the New Testament. And if in this life, we’ve been ashamed of him, on that day, he’ll be ashamed of us. I.e., if in this life we’ve said, ‘No’ to him, ‘I don’t want you as my King because of the cost,’ then on that day, with no pleasure at all, he’ll say, ‘No’ to us – ‘I can’t have you in my kingdom.’ Because you can’t be part of a kingdom if you won’t accept the King.
So Jesus is saying, ‘Don’t kid yourself that there’s only a cost one way. Because there’s a cost both ways – in fact, there’s an infinitely bigger cost of not following me.’ So now look back to v35 and you can see how Jesus is saying you’ve got to weigh up not just costs in this life, but beyond this life, as well:
For whoever wants to save his life [that is, save it now from the cost of following Jesus by not following Jesus] will lose it [that is, ultimately be the loser, eternally], but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel [that is, gives over his life now to living and speaking for Jesus] will save it [that is, will ultimately be the winner, eternally]. (v35)
I remember doing this passage with a Christianity Explored group. And at the end I said to them, ‘So where does this leave your thinking about accepting Jesus or not?’ And one guy – who was the atheist of the group – said, ‘Well, accepting him is a no-brainer, isn’t it?’ And then he added, ‘If it’s true.’ And that’s right, isn’t it? If it’s true that Jesus really is the Son of God and that he died for your forgiveness and that he rose again and that you’re going to meet him and that your acceptance or rejection of him now will determine his acceptance or rejection of you eternally… then it is a no-brainer. That’s why Jesus says, v36:
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (v36-37)
I.e., what good is it to gain the acceptance of everyone around you now – ‘the whole world’ – and yet forfeit the acceptance of Jesus eternally? That would be a crazy exchange. You may remember Skoda jokes from when they were laughing stock cars. You know, ‘Why do Skodas have heated rear windows?’ – ‘To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing.’ ‘What do you call a Skoda with twin exhausts?’ – ‘A wheelbarrow.’ ‘What do you call a Skoda convertible?’ – ‘A skip.’ My favourite was about the man who goes into a garage and says, ‘Can I have a new petrol cap for my Skoda?’ And the guy thinks for a moment and says, ‘All right – that sounds like a fair exchange.’ But it would be a crazy exchange to choose the acceptance of people around us now – and lose the acceptance of Jesus eternally.
So, in a new place and stage of life, what are you going to do with Jesus? You may be someone who needs to be more sure on whether it’s true. Because when you waver on the ‘Is it worth it?’ question, it’s only being sure on the ‘Is it true?’ question that gives you confidence to stand out and speak out for Jesus. And even from a Christian background you may have lots of questions and doubts, and need time and space to grow into your own convictions. And we aim to be a church where you can do that. And if that’s you I’d especially recommend Christianity Explored.
But as well as needing to be sure in ourselves, every follower of Jesus needs to be stuck into a church – so that while the world is discouraging you 24/7 from living for Jesus, your fellow-followers of Jesus can encourage you regularly. And I hope that for many of you who are new this church will become your spiritual home from home, as it has done for many generations of students.
Let me finish by saying: I remember talking to one girl 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. I’ve been one person at home and another person here. And now I’m trying to work out who I really am.’ And, thankfully, in that first Christmas 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 that first term had been just an utterly regrettable false start.
And I just want to say: don’t leave it a term. Or even a month. Or even a week. Get stuck into Christian fellowship and work it out now.