Great Expectations: Jesus on High Demand Religion (Mark 8)

When our son Michael was 11, we had a difficult decision to make. Which secondary school would we choose? We didn’t have a lot of choice. There was Magna Carta in Egham or… Magna Carta.  And at the time it didn’t have the excellent reputation it has now. Our daughter Louise was leaving Charters school in Sunningdale that Summer so we could not benefit from the sibling rule. We decided to apply for Magna Carta, Charters and Ranelagh in Bracknell. Not surprisingly we were turned down for Charters and Ranelagh as we lived outside their normal catchment area. Moving house was not an option. So we appealed – we had nothing to loose.

We went to the appeals hearing at Ranelagh and discovered there were about 20-25 other families present also appealing. Having never done it before I didn’t know what to expect. Quite soon after the hearing began, the lady chairman asked the appeals panel, made up of several clergy, to retire to another room. I tried not to look at the other parents. I felt bad that we were competing with other families for a handful of places that might be granted on appeal. All would have good reasons for wanting to send their child to the school. After what seemed an age, the panel returned. The chairman made an announcement. The appeals had been upheld – all of them. The chairman closed the meeting. We were stunned. What had happened?

We found out later that as a Church of England school, Ranelagh’s governors had set a number of faith criteria for admissions. Living in the Deanery was one. Attending an Anglican church was another. Being on the electoral roll was another. Attending church weekly, as opposed to monthly, participating in a weekly Bible study group, or serving in some capacity, gave you additional points. Like any Deanery, there were Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic and Liberal parishes. In some, membership is nominal and church attendance occasional. Over the years, the Evangelical churches, which had a higher expectation of members, were gaining more places at the school. Parents in some of the other parishes were moaning to the clergy, who in turn complained to the governors. So, the admissions panel agreed to share out the places more equitably to keep everyone happy. But they did not follow their own admissions criteria, which is why, that year, all 20+ appeals were upheld. Ranelagh had to create an extra class to accommodate Michael and the other children who had gained places on appeal. And they promptly revised their admissions criteria.

Since Dean Kelly wrote the book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing[1] in 1972, numerous studies have shown that ‘high-demand’ churches which expect members to adhere to orthodox doctrine (like belief in the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture), where membership means something and traditional Christian morality is practiced, are typically growing. On the other hand, those with low expectations of belief and behavior are declining. Rodney Stark, a sociologist from Baylor University in Texas, says, “People value religion on the basis of cost, and they don’t value the cheapest ones the most. Religions that ask nothing get nothing.”[2] 

Whether the same principle applies equally to golf club membership fees I don’t know. We will have to wait and see.  Stark does say, “You’ve got a choice, you can be a church or a country club. If you are going to be a church, you’d better offer religion on Sunday. If you’re not, you’d better build a golf course, because you’re not going to get away with being a country club without a golf course.”

In 50 years of ministry we have always taken an orthodox, conservative, biblical position on matters of theology, faith and ethics. In our last parish of Virginia Water, we were committed to evangelism, discipleship and mission. We affirmed the Anglican membership scheme. We expected members to have a daily devotional life of bible reading and prayer, to attend Sunday services every week, to serve on one or more of our ministry teams, to participate in a mid-week bible study small group, to give willingly and sacrificially, to share their faith with family and friends and support our community based events and mission partners. In an increasingly pluralistic, secular and hedonistic culture, Christ Church could be classified as a ‘high-demand’ church. But if we are honest, we would have to admit that we were demanding only up to a point. In his book, Jesus, Mean and Wild, Mark Galli points out, “Our Lord is not the least bit interested in founding a country-club religion. 

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

Galli admits, “I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather tithe, pray daily, serve on a couple of church committees, lead a men’s Bible study, serve on the church board, and attend weekly worship. As exhausting as it is to be a good churchman, its infinitely easier that the demands Jesus would make on our life.”[3]  Today I want us to consider why Jesus set what appears on the surface to be impossibly ‘high-demands’ of those who would follow him. Please turn with me to Mark 8. Our passage today comprises three paragraphs. I’ve turned each into a question to help us understand why Jesus set the bar so high. Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus come? What does Jesus expect of us? 

1. Who is Jesus?

 “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.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.” (Mark 8:27-30)

If you were to go around asking your friends, “What do people say about me?” Or “Who do you say I am?” they might take it as an evidence of pride or dementia. But what we believe and say about Jesus Christ will determine our destiny.  

Your answer is a matter of life or death. The citizens of Caesarea Philippi might affirm, “Caesar is lord!” Such a confession might identify them as loyal Roman citizens.  But it would never save them from their sins, or deal with their eternal separation from God.  Some thought Jesus was John the Baptist.  Some said he was one of the prophets, like Jeremiah. That is how Muslims typically view Jesus today. In His teaching, in the way he fulfilled prophecy and through his miracles, Jesus gave ample proof that He was the Son of God. Peter’s confession appears bold and uncompromising, just as ours should be: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!” (Matt. 16:16) So why does Jesus warn them to keep quiet about this? As we see in the very next few verses the disciples themselves still had much to learn about Jesus.

The crowds were looking for a political Messiah. The last thing Jesus was going to do is lead an armed revolution against the hated Roman authorities. The disciples needed to know who Jesus claimed to be but they could not proclaim it until they understood why Jesus had come. So, first question is: Who is Jesus? If you are not sure, then come on our CE course starting Thursday 7:30pm. Sign up on one of the forms, tell me afterwards or email me. First question: Who is Jesus?

2. Why did Jesus come?

“He 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. He spoke plainly about this, 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.” (Mark 8:31-33)

Only when they had recognized Jesus as the Saviour could he explain what kind of savior – explain how he would accomplish salvation. He was going to Jerusalem where He would die on a cross as the Passover lamb. This announcement stunned the disciples. If He is indeed the Son of God, as they had confessed, why would He be rejected by the religious leaders? Why would they crucify Him? Didn’t the Hebrew Scriptures promise that Messiah would defeat all their enemies and establish a glorious kingdom for Israel? True to character, it was Peter who voiced their concern. One-minute Peter was led by God to confess his faith in Jesus Christ, and the next minute he was expressing the thoughts of Satan. This is a warning to us that when we argue with God’s Word, we open the door for Satan’s deceptions. Peter began rebuking Jesus. Mark uses the same word that describes how Jesus rebuked the demons. 

Peter’s protest was born out of his love for his Lord but also his ignorance of God’s word. One minute Peter was a “rock,” and the next minute he was a stumbling block. Peter did not yet understand the relationship between suffering and glory. When Jesus rebuked Peter, He looked at His disciples for they too needed to hear. “The Son of Man must suffer” said Jesus. Jesus came to die in our place. To reconcile us to God. 

3. What does Jesus expect of us?

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”’ (Mark 8:34-38) 

How does this compare with our understanding of church membership? Mark Galli says: 

“The point is simply this: if we’ve given ourselves to a contemporary, high-demand expression of faith, we should recognize that it doesn’t even approach the demands Jesus makes of us… And when this reality hits us from time to time as well it should… the only reasonable reaction is fear and trembling. What else would a sane person do after realizing that Jesus wants nothing less than all of us – every molecule, every breath, ever ounce of energy, every interest, every passion, every thought, every action, every love?”[4]  

What does Jesus expect of us? Everything. Jesus expects our all for him, because he gave his all for us, and wants us to share his life with us.  Jesus asks two rhetorical questions to drive this home. 

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36).  The first question asks us what we value most? Most people gain none of the world, a few gain some of the world, but no one has ever gained the whole world. Shakespeare portrays Wolsey, the great Cardinal, as serving Henry the Eighth, with all the ingenuity and wit he possessed, “Had I but served my God with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked to mine enemies.”  The real question, the question that everyone in the end will have to face is not, “What did people think of me?”, but “what does God think of me?” 

The second rhetorical question Jesus asks: “Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Mark 8:37).  Answer: Absolutely Nothing. One translation puts it “what can a person give to buy back their life?” The fact is, if we live for ourselves, we will lose ourselves, but if we invest ourselves for Jesus sake we will find ourselves, with Jesus now and in eternity. 

When we live for Christ, we become more like Him, and increasingly the person God intended us to be. Yes – Jesus has set an impossibly high-demand expectations on all who would follow him. Jesus disciples figured that much. A little later, in Mark 10 we read,

“The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:26-27)

Galli concludes, 

“The same Jesus who makes unreasonable and impossible demands on us is able to sympathize with our weakness and patiently endure our selfishness. If his demands are high and lifted up, his mercy is as wide as the East is from the West. We look to the top of the spiritual Everest that Jesus expects us to climb, and our hearts sink… But Jesus, our gentle, patient Sherpa, doesn’t expect us to get to the top of the mountain in the next couple of hours. He will never let us forget what the impossible goal is, but he is merciful. He will train us up in the way we should go. He will supply all our needs… Because he is with us. So…”no mater how demanding the journey, no matter how weak and unprepared we feel, no matter how frightened we are at times, there is no turning back from the upward call… [for] it is our destiny.”[5]

Who then is Jesus? He is God the Son, in human form.  Why did Jesus come? To die to take away our sin, so that we can know God as our loving, forgiving Father, and enjoy him forever. What does Jesus expect of us? To follow him, wherever God’s Holy Spirit leads us, empowers us and wishes to expend us for his glory. 


[2] Quoted in Mark Galli, Jesus, Mean and Wild, p. 133.

[3] Ibid., p. 135.

[4] Ibid., p. 136.

[5] Ibid., p. 137.