If existentialism is that philosophical theory which emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free and responsible agent acting in accordance with their own determination, then my existentialist act during my first visit to the Minnesota State Fair was to freely eat fried cheese curds, a corn dog, caramel popcorn, Tom’s Tiny Donuts, Sweet Sarah’s Chocolate Chip Cookies and then chase it all down with a high dose of hot sauce on a Jamaican jerk chicken pastry—on a stick. Had I been a younger man all of this would have been followed by a trip to the midway for a ride on the vertigo-inducing, gastro-upheaving Zipper. Instead I rode the Ferris Wheel.
My mention of existentialism is due to this morning’s sermon matter: the life and thought of Søren Kierkegaard, the ascribed father of Christian existentialism. My foray into Kierkegaardian thought represents the latest installment of a thirteen-year sermon series on the church fathers, those influential personalities of Christian history who by faith and practice have shaped what we have come to embrace as orthodox Christianity. While many back in Boston are pleased that this long-running series still has legs, I didn’t want to wear out my welcome here in Minneapolis too soon. So rather than my usual month of church fathers sermons, I’m only doing two, with this second on a Sunday when none of you are supposed to be here anyway.
My labeling this a “church fathers” series is something of a misnomer since I’ve included both mothers as well as others who lived after the fifth century AD, the customary cut-off mark for the church father designation. There are so many important and influential people in Christian history, and I’ve chosen to tackle them a letter at a time, this year starting with the letter K. If I calculate correctly, I should get to Z just in time to retire. Three weeks ago we looked at the life and writing of Thomas a Kempis—specifically his classic work The Imitation of Christ. Coincidentally, this morning’s look at Søren Kierkegaard is also about the imitating Christ—specifically its challenges. After detecting how too many fellow philosophers tried to make the Christian life easier, Kierkegaard subsequently dedicated himself to making it harder (which he did in part by publishing only in Danish). Focusing as he can on the despair of failure, I pull out Kierkegaard out whenever I’m having a bad day—just to make sure I milk it for everything it’s worth.
Kierkegaard was born in 1813 into a strict Lutheran home—which may explain a lot. He studied ten years to become a minister, but never made it into the pulpit due to an intense and nagging sense of uncertainty and melancholy that drove his entire career. “Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And If I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him.” Kierkegaard’s uncertainty did not prevent him from falling in love, but it did keep him from tying the knot. He fell head over heels for a woman named Regine Olsen, but soon broke off their engagement once his doubts got the better of him. This decision haunted him for the rest of his life—thankfully—since so much of his output derived from the despair he experienced over abandoning true love. His first book was a justification of the break-up, entitled Either/Or which set forth the basic tenet of his philosophy: everybody has to make choices among the options present before them. “I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations — one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it — you will regret both.” “Our life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”
In contrast to the reigning emphasis on “idealism” in his day, Kierkegaard stressed existence which he argued to be real, painful and more important than any idea. “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth,” he wrote, “look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended” as ideal. Though disposed toward despair, Kierkegaard nevertheless saw the hard reality of life as an invitation to faith. Faith for Kierkegaard was based on neither doctrinal conviction nor positive feelings, but on a passionate commitment to Christ in the face of uncertainty; a risk of belief that demands denial of self.
Such self-denial brings us to this morning’s climactic verses from Mark’s gospel—a baseline for Kierkegaardian faith. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Your answer invites a commitment but to commit demands that you do something about it. “It is so hard to believe,” Kierkegaard said, “because it is so hard to obey.”
In Mark 8, the ever-impulsive apostle Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, which in Matthew’s gospel made the crowd go wild. Delighted, Jesus renamed Simon “the Rock” and gave him the keys to heaven. But here in Mark, Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet, concerned on the one hand, that people’s Messianic ideals will derail the necessary realities of his mission. On the other hand, tradition holds that Mark was Peter’s right hand man. Maybe Peter insisted that Mark leave out Jesus’ congratulatory remarks given how bad Peter’s own idealizations were going to mess things up in the next few verses.
Peter finally realizes Jesus as Christ the King, only to have Jesus specify how being king meant being crowned with thorns and strung up to die. Such news did not sit well. It would be like a franchise quarterback announcing that he let the opposing team run up the score. Or like the candidate you supported pushing the opposing party’s legislation instead. Or like the acclaimed war hero giving up without a fight. How can Israel be saved if its Savior surrenders? Peter pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. He tells him to knock off the death talk. He’s scaring the other disciples—this despite Jesus saying that he would “rise again in three days.” Not that it mattered. Real messiahs don’t rise from the dead—real messiahs don’t die in the first place.
Jesus covers his ears and tells Peter to get out of his face. Worse, he calls Peter Satan! Satan? Here you were thinking yourself to be Jesus’ BFF. Just trying to help. And this is how Jesus thanks you? But for Jesus, Peter’s words swept him back to the desert where the devil first tried to divert him from the cross and onto the path of power, celebrity and fame. “Isn’t this how any normal superstar Messiah would do it? C’mon, you can control the weather, walk on water and make dinner appear out of thin air! The armies of heaven are at your beckon call! Why limit your power, especially with all that’s wrong in the world?” Satan had a point and Jesus was tempted by it—and he was tempted by Peter here. Speaking as much to himself as to Peter, Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Bad enough that Jesus would have to take up a cross to save the world. Worse, he says that to follow him means you have to take up a cross too. “For 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.” Devoted to make the Christian life easier, many will interpret “bearing a cross” as putting up with life’s troubles: not yelling at obnoxious drivers in traffic, being polite to rude relatives, or ignoring others’ annoying habits. But if these are the crosses I have to bear, none of them seem to be so much about denying myself as about fixing other people, which has nothing to do with crosses.
“The matter is quite simple,” Kierkegaard wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”
For most of the early church fathers and most Christians, “taking up a cross” meant being strung up on one too. And yet for most Christians in America taking up a cross is more like taking up cross-country skiing. In theory it can kill you, I guess, but you’d have to be a real doofus. Mostly, nobody cares. Now, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I’m relieved most days that being a Christian in America means that I’m generally considered irrelevant and harmless. I mean I could live in Pakistan where police opened fire on a Christian worship service last year. Or in China, where authorities recently overran a mountainside prayer meeting of elderly believers. Or in Indonesia, where three children’s workers were detained for running a Christian camp. Or in Saudi Arabia, where two Indian Christian workers remain imprisoned on charges of sharing their faith. Or in Afghanistan where the 10 Christian aid workers were murdered last month.
Ironically, whenever I read about persecuted Christians, it’s always with a request to pray for their rescue or relief. Ironic since throughout church history, the church grows whenever it gets persecuted. And the church gets persecuted because it gets serious about following Jesus: publicly imitating his countercultural commandments to pursue peace and justice, fight for the poor, love enemies, speak truth and refuse to worship the idols of prosperity. Jesus wasn’t saying that you have to die to follow him; but rather, following him could get you killed.
As bad as that sounds, the alternative is worse. Verse 38: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels.” Most people conclude that Jesus was talking about hell here. Yet notice that Jesus says nothing about anybody going to hell here. He’s not addressing unbelievers but his own disciples; believers who are embarrassed about what they believe. The picture is one of Jesus showing up with the angels and opening wide the door to heaven for you to enter. Overwhelmed by God’s grace, Jesus leans over and whispers, “I am so ashamed of you.” What a lousy way to spend eternity.
A more Biblical picture is that of Peter again, this time talking to the resurrected Jesus on the beach, after all the suffering and dying Jesus said would happen was done. Jesus gets straight to the point: “Simon (reverting to Peter’s pre-Rocky name), do you really love me?” Jesus asks it three times, obviously to match the three times Peter was ashamed of Jesus and denied him when Jesus needed him most. Peter replies, “Lord you know I love you,” the third time with deep despair, no doubt recalling his own shameful behavior. Jesus responds, “feed my lambs.” In other words, “show me.”
You may have heard of author and activist Shane Claibrne, whose own Kierkegaardian encounter with the Bible led him to wonder where the people lived who asked the question: “What if Jesus really meant the stuff he said? Where are the people who really believe?” His search led him to pick up the phone and call Mother Theresa. He describes bugging nuns to get her number, and then dialing it expecting a nice receptionist to answer, only to have Momma T pick up the phone herself. He told her he wanted to come to Calcutta and work with her among the poor. She said come on. So he did. He went on to describe the remarkable experience that was, and how it led to his returning to find his own Calcutta in North Philadelphia where he now lives in simple community with a group of other Christians among the poor, serving them with the best they have, since to serve the least is to serve Jesus himself. Many ask about all that he has given up to do what he does, to which he quickly replies that following Jesus has never been about all that he’s given up, but about all that he’s found. “And I have found so much,” he said.
Framed in this fashion, to “deny yourself” is not to deprive yourself, but to give yourself to God by giving yourself to others with love. Kierkegaard wrote that, “Love… is precisely recognizable by the fact that it finds something lovable in everyone and therefore is able to love everyone …” “We love because God first loved us,” the Bible teaches. “God so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son.” Because God gave everything to us who deserve nothing, he rightly demands that we give our all to him. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Do this and you effectively give all that you have to God. Yet Kierkegaard concluded that because God who demands everything from us needs nothing from us, everything you have freed up for God is now freed up for your neighbor! Loving God (who is easy to love) is what makes loving your neighbor (which was hard) possible because now you have so much love to give.
To love your neighbor is to love actual people in your life, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you believe or might wish these people should be. Such love is not childish infatuation, fond indulgence or doting permissiveness. Instead real love earnestly fights against imperfections and overcomes faults as Christ has done in his love for us. “Christian love is not high, ethereal, heavenly love,” Kierkegaard wrote, “but love descended from heaven to earth. It humbles itself, as did Christ, in order to love the people we see just as we see them.” May we love like that. Amen.
May Kierkegaard’s prayer be our own: “You have loved us first, O God, alas! We speak of it in terms of history as if You have only loved us first but a single time, rather than that without ceasing. You have loved us first every time and every day and our whole life through. When we wake up in the morning and turn our soul toward You - You are the first - You have loved us first; if I rise at dawn and at the same second turn my soul toward You in prayer, You are there ahead of me, You have loved me first. When I withdraw from the distractions of the day and turn my soul toward You, You are the first and thus forever.”