A sermon on Mark 8:31-38
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 28, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul? Indeed, what can they give in return for their soul? Mark 8:36-37

The Encyclopedia Britannica calls him “the hero of one of the most durable legends in Western folklore and literature.”1 His first mention was in an anonymous book published in Germany in 1587. But his story was a powerful one that was speedily translated and distributed throughout Eastern Europe. It captivated its readers and became immensely popular. By the beginning of the 17th Century, his story had been translated into English, so that his legend had travelled even as far as the British Isles in a short amount of time.
For the last five hundred years, the story has served as an inspiration for hundreds of writers, artists, playwrights, film makers and musicians. The list of those using the story for inspiration is impressive. Here are just a few of the notable names that you might recognize: Christopher Marlowe, Johann Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Washington Irving, Oscar-winning movie maker Brian de Palma, and classical composers like Mozart, Charles Gounod, Hector Berlioz, Igor Stravinsky, and Richard Wagner. More recently, the story has been told in more modern music works by the British progressive rock band Muse and the Grammy award winning singer/songwriter Randy Newman.
Some of these works portray the subject of the tale as a sympathetic character—a person who is actually admirable. They paint the picture of a man who was on an unending quest for wisdom and truth. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. (Who doesn’t want more wisdom and truth?)…But most versions treat his story as a tragic cautionary tale—an example of one who was consumed by a lust for secret knowledge, riches and power. When his story is told in this fashion, it is a tale full of witchcraft and sorcery. The character to which I am referring? You have probably heard of him before. He is variously known as Faust…or Faustus…or Doctor Faustus.
At the center of the story is what has come to be known as the “Faustian bargain.” Here is the Encyclopedia Britannica once again defining the Faustian bargain: “A pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches.” In most versions of the story, the story of Faust begins with a meeting with an evil spirit. The spirit is often named Mephistopheles or Mephisto. Sometimes Faust meets with the Devil himself. And together they strike a deal. In exchange
1 www.britannica.com/topic/Faust-literary-character (Accessed February 26, 2021)
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for some combination of magical powers, money, prestige, unattainable wisdom and the pleasures of the flesh, Faust agrees to give up his soul. And after making the deal, he lives his life for a while with newly gained enhanced powers, possessions, and abilities. So for a while, he is “living large.” No doubt about it. But the good times do not last forever.
Eventually, the day arrives when Faust is required to complete his end of the deal. The Devil comes to collect what is owed to him. In that moment, Faust inevitably comes to recognize that what he has given up is far more precious than what he has obtained in the bargain that he made. But by then, it is too late. In some of the stories, Faust attempts to renegotiate his bargain. He tries to wiggle out of his agreement. And occasionally in some versions of the story, he manages to succeed in doing just that. But…more often than not, it is to no avail. He has already signed on the dotted line. The deal has been done. The bargain has been made and now, much to his horror and dismay, it is time for Faust to “pay up.” His soul is required of him. Consequently there is no Disney-like “and they lived happily ever after” to conclude the story…
The questions that Jesus poses to his disciples in today’s text are not dissimilar to the ones that confronted the legendary Faust. Jesus pointedly asks the disciples, “What good is it if you gain the whole world…but lose your own soul? Or how much is your soul worth? What would you give in exchange for your soul?”
The gospels record a lot of Jesus’ teachings that are both profound and provocative. You can no doubt recall many of them: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”… “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”… “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”…”When your enemy strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other one also…” This passage also contains some of our Lord’s most thoughtful and memorable teachings…
Early in the passage, Jesus gathers the disciples around him to tell them what is going to happen once they arrive in Jerusalem, their destination. He tells them that he will undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders and the Roman government, be killed, and then he would rise again on the third day. The disciples—especially Peter—push back and try to convince Jesus otherwise. That his was NOT why they were on the way to Jerusalem…or so they thought.
[Side bar here: The gospels tell us that Peter was one of the first disciples that Jesus called. He was originally known as “Simon,” but you all remember how Jesus decided to rename him as “Peter.” The name Peter means “rock.” But in this passage (along with a number of others that could be mentioned), it seems to me that perhaps a better interpretation of Peter’s name might be “dumb as a box of rocks.” Peter was often speaking up when he probably should have kept his mouth shut. And when he decided to talk, he often showed that he was a bit slow on the uptake and of getting with the
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program. Not always for sure, but more times than not, Peter usually wound up embarrassing himself when he started talking in the gospels.2 Just sayin’…]
Back to the text…After Peter’s outburst, Jesus makes a startling declaration. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus’ point is that the life of the follower of Jesus is no longer to be self-centered. Instead, the kingdom of God is to take precedence in the life of the believer. The kingdom of God is to be his or her main concern.
You have heard the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from this pulpit on a number of occasions. He was a 20th Century German pastor who was martyred by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler and his policies. He wound up being arrested for being implicated in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944. He wound up in a concentration camp and was executed just days before the camp was liberated by Allied troops. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, a classic of the spiritual life, Bonhoeffer wrote these words commenting on this passage: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Such is the commitment the Lord demands from those who would follow him. The cross was the naturally unavoidable result of Jesus’ opposition to the corruption of religion, the oppression of the poor, and the perversion of justice. It was precisely these evils and his identifying with the outcast, the forgotten and the oppressed that led to the coalition of religious and political powers that put him to death. And he calls us to do the same…and to be the same…to follow his example…and on some level to not be surprised when we experience rejection as well…
Then Jesus expands upon the thought by bringing it on home to the disciples. He asks what it will profit a person if they gain everything this world has to offer—and yet loses his or her own soul.
I find it interesting that the scriptures tell us that Jesus himself faced the very same temptation in his ministry. He knew all about the temptation to give up what is precious for wealth, and power, and influence…
A couple Sundays ago, we considered together the story of Jesus being tempted by Satan in the wilderness desert right after he had been baptized by John. Mark does not tell us much about this time of testing, but both Matthew and Luke fill in the blanks for us.3 In both Matthew and Luke, Satan tempts Jesus by taking him to a very high mountain. There Jesus was shown all the kingdoms of the world with all of their splendor. And the tempter said to him, “I will give you all of this if you will bow down and worship me.” In essence, Jesus was being told, “You can gain all this in exchange for your soul.”
2 Two other examples that easily come to mind—Mark 9:5-6 on the Mount of Transfiguration and Mark 14:29 in the upper room.
3 Matthew 4:8-9 and Luke 4:5-7.
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And you remember how our Lord rebuffed the devil’s suggestion by quoting to him the first of the Ten Commandments: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” Perhaps the devil considered this to be a weak spot in our Lord and so he would try to distract him from his mission and tempt him in that way. But Jesus would have none of it. He would not gain the whole world in exchange for his soul. The scriptures tell us that the devil left him after he had failed to entice Jesus with his Faustian bargain…
It seems to me that there are plenty of people who are not afraid to sell their soul…to trade in their dignity…to exchange something precious for a measure of fame or power or notoriety. The entertainment industry is full of people willing to say out loud what should be kept private, to publicize things about themselves that should not be common knowledge, and to do whatever it takes to get their names in the press and on TV. The great showman P. T. Barnum is famously known for saying, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” Many in the entertainment industry take that saying to heart, taking to social media to blatantly promote themselves with inappropriate ways and images. They are selling their soul for a whole lot less than the world…
And if anything, the political situation in our country may be even worse. We have witnessed lawmaker after lawmaker shamelessly let the good of the nation go by the wayside as they mindlessly spout things that they think may score them points with people in an attempt to remain in office. Truth is an unaffordable luxury these days in the halls of power. And it seems that we have elected politicians who care not so much for our national interests…not so much for common decency…not so much for leadership as they are to feather their own nests and to further their own political ambitions. Virtue is a casualty. Laws are ignored. The common good seems to take a back seat for so many of our self-serving politicians these days. It breaks my heart and I wonder why we cannot do better. These politicians are selling their souls for a whole lot less than the world…
Whatever else that may be, and regardless of how these people frame their decisions, it is not the way of Jesus. We have grown up in the United States learning that winning looks a certain way and that losing looks a certain way. Jesus turns those ideas of winning and losing on their heads. For Jesus, the categories of winning and losing simply do not apply. Or if they do, they look entirely different than what we have always thought them to be.
It would be fair to say that N. T. Wright is one of the most widely read theologians today. He was a longtime professor of New Testament at the University of Saint Andrews and is an Anglican priest. Remarkably, his books sometimes actually make it onto the best-seller lists. (That is no small thing for a theological writer!) In commenting about the Christian life as one of self denial, he writes, “How remarkable it is that the Western church so easily embraces self-discovery, self-fulfillment, and self-realization as though they were the heart of the ‘gospel’—as though Mark 8 didn’t exist! Yes, following
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Jesus will mean disappointment, failure, frustration, muddle, misunderstanding, pain, and sorrow—and those are just the ‘first world problems.’”4
I suspect that most of us spend most of our time focused on the things of the world: money, getting the bills paid, challenges at work, politics, and lots of other things. And those things are important. They are necessary for us to live and serve God.
But Christ also calls us to live on a different plane than that which we can see and know and experience with our five senses. As part of the abundant life that he promises, he calls us to a life of self-denial. But let’s be honest: self-denial is hard, isn’t it? It was hard in Jesus’ day—and it is hard in our day as well. Setting your eyes and heart on the things of the Spirit means that you will be rejecting many of the standards of what the world says is our “rights”—what the world says is prudent and wise. But such thinking is not wisdom that comes from above. It is wisdom that comes from an earthly perspective. Here is a fundamental spiritual truth: Christ calls us to more than that. He calls us to live on a deeper level than that of our eyes and ears. He calls us to live into the Kingdom…
Jesus asked his disciples, along with the crowd that followed after them, “What will it profit [you] to gain the whole world and forfeit [your] life? What can [you] give in return for [your] life?” Those are not rhetorical questions just to stimulate our thinking. They are questions meant to be answered by each and every one of us. What would you give in exchange for your soul? Jesus is asking the question. How will you answer?
To God alone be the glory! Amen.