Cheeseburgers loaded with pickles, lettuce, tomato, mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, and … hold the onions … are one of my favorite sandwiches. Add a strawberry milkshake and some onion rings and I’m in heaven. I think that’s the way it was for Mark as he wrote the good news he understood from his experience with Jesus.
Mark has an unusual way of making sandwiches of his stories about Jesus and the disciples. He starts telling one story and then he moves to another story that seems to have no connection. Then he finishes up telling the first story. It’s a literary tool that can help give greater and broader impact to what he is trying to say.
The death of John the Baptizer is the cheeseburger in a biblical literary sandwich. It’s placed in-between two pieces of bread that give it additional substance. The slice of bread before this one is the story of how Jesus sent his disciples, two by two, into the towns and villages where he gave them authority over unclean spirits. They were to take nothing with them – just go and stay wherever people will have you and listen to you. If they don’t accept you, shake the dust off your feet and go on. They went out, calling people to turn to God in repentance, and healing people. That’s the work of Jesus’ disciples.
The slice of bread on the other side of this gospel lesson has the disciples coming back to Jesus. They are very excited about what they’ve been able to do. And what they could do depended in large part on the cheeseburger – dying to themselves. Of course, don’t take that literally.
The cheeseburger contains the meat of the lesson: Called to be the forerunner of the promised messiah, John did that with passion. He ends up being murdered for stepping on the toes of the most powerful family in the territory. God’s chosen people are not always going to be treated well when they speak the truth.
The gospel story is not telling us we are going to die gruesome deaths if we are true disciples of Christ. If that’s what it means, you can understand why there wouldn’t be very many disciples around. That’s not good news that brings the quality of life God wants for us today (i.e., eternal life).
Putting the story of John’s death inside stories of disciples actively doing God’s work might be a skillful writer’s way – an inspired writer’s way – of saying what Jesus said in Matt. 10:39, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will find it.”
The deeper meaning is less about physical death than it is death to the worldview of the good life. Yes, some disciples have lost their lives literally. But most disciples today are simply asked to give up happiness as defined by society as they serve their Lord. The reality of discipleship is about giving up what the world paints as the perfect life for us in favor of doing what God says will give us joy and peace beyond all understanding.
As I get ready to attend the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans next week, I remember the gathering I went to in San Antonio. One of the speakers encouraged, invited, and challenged the 18,000 people in the Alamodome to start changing the world. He said the poor, the rejected, the hungry, the oppressed in our world have been waiting for you to arrive on the scene and get started changing the world. He asked us, how are you going to change the world?
We aren’t going to change the world just by trying not to sin. That’s not all Jesus called us to do. Jesus didn’t say, “If you will simply not sin, then I’ll be happy.” That’s not discipleship. Following Jesus is not about ‘not sinning.’
We heard a speaker who had given up the chance for a lucrative medical practice in order to treat the poor in Nicaragua. We heard from another who was studying to be a lawyer to help defend the poor and abused immigrants wanting to find freedom and opportunity in the United States. Each of these people was doing his or her part to change the world.
We aren’t going to change the world by finding the perfect theology and proclaiming which doctrine is most accurate. Jesus didn’t call us to win debates about what every Bible verse does or doesn’t mean or which denomination is closest to the will of God. These things aren’t going to change the world.
We will begin to change the world when we do what Jesus did and start finding ways to feed everyone in this world who is hungry, to shelter all the homeless, to care for the sick and the mentally ill – the orphan and those who cannot care for themselves, to reform the prisoners and proclaim God’s grace in the world.
At the close of life, the questions will not be, “Did you work hard to provide for yourself? Did you believe the right theology? Did you refrain from being a burden on society? Did you follow the rules?”
Jesus said, when the king assembles the sheep and the goats before him, the questions will be, “Did you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned?” Did you give up some of your own food, clothing, money, time to help others? Did you die to your wants to meet the needs of another?
Martin Luther said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.” Discipleship is not just about what you think about God – discipleship is about following the actions of Jesus – feeding, healing, comforting, casting out unclean spirits, telling of the goodness of God, and teaching others to do the same.
To some people, cheeseburgers give them indigestion. To others, they lead to eternal life.