Sermon: Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Proverbs 1.20-33; Psalm 19; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38
Today’s reading from the gospel of Mark changes our focus. Up to this point, Mark has reported on numerous aspects of Jesus ministry – the miraculous feeding of the 5000, the casting out of demons, the healing of the lame, the deaf, and the mute. Jesus and his disciples are now traveling toward he villages of Caesarea Philippi. Following the death of Herod the Great shortly after Jesus’ birth, the Romans divided his kingdom among his three sons (Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip II) and his daughter (Salome I)( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herod_the_Great). Philip II built his capital (Caesarea Philippi) at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon near the springs which feed the River Jordan. Thus, Jesus was on his way to the regional center of power. This may have caused him to reflect on what lie ahead. As they were walking along, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They replied, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” Jesus then asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly replied, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8.27b-29; NRSV). One cannot help but wonder how Peter had come to this conclusion.
Mark further tells us Jesus began to teach the disciples that the “Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected . . . killed . . . and after three days rise again” (Mark 8.31; NRSV). Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Jesus turned, looked at his disciples, and rebuked Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8. 33; NRSV). That must have stung a bit! Peter was so right, but oh, so wrong! Peter possessed the common Jewish understanding of a conquering, liberating Messiah, one who would overthrow the foreign oppressor and establish a reign of peace and harmony – one who would usher in the “shalom” community. Jesus saw Peter’s rebuke as a continuation of the temptations he had experienced in the desert. Jesus could have taken a different road, for in Matthew we read how, at the time of his arrest, he ordered the sword be put back in its scabbard, and then said, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way” (Matthew 26.52-54; NRSV)?
Jesus then called the crowd to join his disciples and said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life” (Mark 8.34-37; NRSV)? I wonder how many trickled away after hearing those words! Let’s face it – this was not, and it is not a popular message. I think most Christians would rather simply focus on a narrow interpretation of Romans 10.9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NRSV). This also has the advantage of treating one’s Christian belief as a personal issue – salvation is personal. We don’t need, we don’t want, this social gospel stuff. “Jesus, you can keep your cross – I’ll just believe.” Such thinking is delusional!
This passage from Mark’s gospel confronts us with some tough questions. First, imagine that you are one of Jesus disciples, one of the twelve, and Jesus were to ask you, “Who do you say that I am?” – how would you respond? Our response to this question says more about who we are than who Jesus is – our response reveals the very nature of our relationship with Jesus. It is one thing to state, “You are the ground of ultimate being” and another thing to state, “My Lord, God, lover of my soul.” Do we know Jesus primarily through the head, thereby keeping him at a safe distance, or through the heart? How personal is our relationship with Jesus?
Second, what expectations do we place upon Jesus? Have we set our minds on divine things or on human things? “Yes, Jesus, I believe in you, now bless me. Give me happiness, success, and wealth.” The prosperity gospel sets its mind on human things; the tendency is to worship Jesus for what we might get. The focus largely remains on “My will be done.”
Third, what is involved in “denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus?” James Martin, in Jesus, A Pilgrimage, points to six interconnected things (Rolheiser: http://liturgy.slu.edu/24OrdB091618/reflections_rolheiser.html):
First, it means we must be willing to accept the suffering that is a natural part of every life. We experience trials, temptations, misfortunes, illnesses, losses, etc., which bring us pain. We may have to set aside certain hopes and dreams, to live differently than we would have desired. We need to remember that Jesus also experienced such suffering, for in Gethsemane he prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26.39; NRSV). He prayed a second time, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26.42; NRSV). Matthew further tells us Jesus prayed this prayer a third time. When we set our minds on divine things, we pray with all sincerity, “Thy will be done.”
Second, it means that we must not transmit our bitterness and suffering to others. It is one thing to share our pain and anguish with another; it is something very different to demand they suffer with us or to create the conditions which also make them suffer.
Third, it means that we will recognize the place of death. We will die more and more to self that Christ might live in us, that we might live more and more in and with Christ. We will suffer the consequences that come from committing our life to Christ, and that might mean the death of certain relationships, dreams, and hopes.
Fourth, it means that we must patiently and hopefully await the resurrection to new life. As Rolheiser says, “So much of life and discipleship is about waiting, waiting in frustration, inside injustice, inside pain, in longing, battling bitterness, as we wait for something or someone to come and change our situation. We spend about 98% of our lives waiting for fulfillment, in small and big ways.” We join with the rest of creation as we await the day when all things shall be made new.
Fifth, denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following Jesus means we must accept the fact that God’s gifts to us often do not meet our expectations. God is more likely to give us what we need rather than what we want. We must expect to encounter surprises – pleasant or unpleasant – but we can trust that God is leading us into new life.
Last, it means living in “faith that nothing is impossible for God” (Ibid). God is larger than our “limited imagination.”
I suspect it is the rare person who fully takes up his cross and follows Jesus in an instant – most of us grow into the cross. We may pick it up, and lay it down, a few times. As a living sacrifice, we are prone to crawl off the cross. As our faith matures we learn that Christ lovingly helps us carry our cross. As we live more deeply into Christ, the cross becomes less burdensome. As we lose our own selfish life for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the gospel, we come to discover that we have been given true and everlasting life.