What Cross Are We Picking Up?

For First Presbyterian Church, Apopka      Primary Scripture: Mark 8:27-37

Our passage this morning includes Jesus asking two questions we’ll wrestle with more deeply in the coming weeks. He asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  and  “Who do you say that I am”?

The answers are telling – the people are saying that he might be John the Baptist or Elijah, meaning that Jesus has been identified with the Messiah, but not as the Messiah. Peter speaks for the disciples proclaiming that Jesus IS the messiah.

Jesus first says they shouldn’t tell anyone and then begins teaching again. This exchange marks the first of three passion predictions in this middle section of March.  These predictions set up a sort of bookend in Mark. If the wilderness provided a backdrop of suffering and questions at the start of Jesus’ ministry, the end of his life and ministry will bring suffering and questions of a different sort.  He predicts rejection by the elders, priests and scribes as his teaching is refuted and discredited.  He will be separated from those he loves – his family and his closest followers.  He tells them he will be killed and that he will rise again.

After this prediction Peter speaks up, taking Jesus aside to rebuke him.  Can you imagine that conversation?  I suspect Peter mostly put words to what was on the hearts of the others. And it must have gotten pretty heated, since Jesus ends it by rebuking Peter in no uncertain terms. But how encouraging that these men loved each other enough to speak to each other so directly and so passionately and then put the anger away, walk together and break bread together.

Thing is, if we back up just a few verses, Mark gives us a hint that the disciples – as represented by Peter – have a vision problem.  You see, immediately before describing this exchange, Mark tells us about the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. Jesus took the man from the village, spit and put his hands on the man’s eyes. When asked if he could see, the man looked up and said he could see, but not clearly. The people looked like trees walking.  Then Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes again.  His sight was completely restored, and he saw everything clearly.

Jesus knows that the disciples have been watching and listening, but they aren’t quite getting what he needs them to know about him. It’s as though they see Jesus – but only as clearly as the walking trees the blind man described.

Up to this point, Mark’s gospel has been filled with the sort of signs and wonders that his readers expect from the Messiah. Displays of power that connect Jesus – the Christ – to the God of Abraham and Jacob, of Isaiah and Elijah. But right here in chapter 8 the narrative begins to shift. Unless the disciples see all those the parables and deeds through the lens Christ’s sufferings, they  – and we  – cannot truly understand Jesus, his ultimate victory over death, or the work to which we are called.

The disciples cannot quite see that the Kingdom of God that Jesus sees will not be ushered in by a great and powerful figure – the warrior messiah they were waiting for.  The Kingdom of God is one in which the Messiah suffers.  As will… as must… the disciples who would continue his work once the Messiah is gone.

Jesus challenges Peter and the others following him to consider the cost of discipleship, the cost of continuing in the way of Jesus.  Anyone who wants to become a follower must do two things first: deny yourself and take up your cross.

During Lent, denying oneself is often tied to fasting, denying ourselves the pleasure of a particular food or drink or activity. Denying oneself may also be seen in traditions that require adherents to give up gambling, smoking, drinking, dancing and the like. All of those can be positive disciplines, but I don’t think that is the sort of denial being described here.

The Greek verb read here as denied is also used in one of the most striking scenes of the gospels -when Peter denied Jesus three times.  Peter is asked directly whether he is among Jesus’ followers and he denies that connection, as if he never knew the person they were talking about.

Imagine what it might mean to deny ourselves in that way, disconnecting from who we are or were.  As if I am saying about myself “I don’t know her.” All the space that my sin, my self-direction, my self-reliance take up…  All that space would be empty and ready to be refilled by God to create a God-aware, God-dependent, God-centered me.

Of course, I can deny myself only because of the power of the Holy Spirit to direct and guide me. Day by day… moment by moment.  And when I choose to do so, I become a temple, a sanctuary in which Christ can dwell.  By that same power, I can pick up a cross and live with the integrity and focus required to follow Christ.

But it is a choice.  Just as Jesus had the choice to take up his cross.

In Philippians 2 we find the beautiful poem that may even have been sung as a hymn in the early church. It describes the choice Jesus made. In humility, he chose to step out of heaven, to take off the mantle of divinity , to empty himself to live as one of us, to live as one of the lowest among us.

While here,  he chose to walk out into the wilderness, and then he chose to return to villages and towns and cities, where he would choose to teach and heal and draw the attention of all kinds of people.  He chose to speak out against those who made religion exclusivist and elitist. He chose to pray for God’s will to be done over his own desires, and thus he chose to go to the cross.

All because he knew that this was his ministry, his contribution to the reconciliation of humanity – of us – you and me – and all of creation to God.  All  – in spite of the pain and suffering that he knew would be his lot.

When we choose to pick up the cross and follow, we, too, know that pain is one consequence. There will be suffering and there will be time spent in the confusion and frustration that can only be described as wilderness. But if we see the way of the cross ONLY as the way of suffering, we can be tempted to think of inconvenience and loss of privilege as persecution. Or we can be tempted to wallow in our difficulties and lose sight of redemptive work that takes place in the process of getting to the other side, of moving toward wholeness

The suffering we endure is real. But we do not endure suffering for the sake of suffering.

We are given opportunities to redeem that suffering by standing with others who are in pain. Even when all we can do is point upward to the one who remains with us in all circumstances.  Or  point forward to the promise of community, and to the promise of the sun rising on a new day.

When Jesus came to earth, he directly experienced temptation, poverty, suffering, rejection and shame.

When he walked among and looked out on other people living through these trials, his response to was empathy and compassion. He healed and restored them; he fed them and set them free.

When our hearts are wounded or broken, and especially during the slow process of healing, we can see a little more clearly  the people walking around us who are also hurting.  And though we don’t have access to the fully divine nature that Jesus did, his heart of compassion does beat within our hearts.  We can share with others the hope of his healing and restoring power, even as we are experiencing it ourselves.

Let me be really clear here – we don’t have to deny our wounds and pains when we deny ourselves. Suffering is real and must be addressed. And those who cause pain and suffering must be held accountable.

But…  we do have to deny the parts of us that would blind us to the pain and suffering of those around us. Only then can we pick up the cross of Christ.

Otherwise we are distracted by all manner of crosses…
The cross of individualism  – that is small enough to carry alone, but just barely.
The cross of exclusion – that limits God’s grace to those with whom we agree or are with whom we are willing to be seen.
The cross of tradition – that keeps hands too busy to embrace new people and minds too preoccupied to entertain fresh ideas
The cross of scarcity  – that weighs us down with worry that God will not or cannot provide what we need in order to pursue God’s will.
The cross of power – that tempts us to use our influence to advance our own agenda, our own interests, over and above the voices of others.

I can’t help but think of the scene in the third Indiana Jones movie, where our hero is finally in the room where the holy grail is kept. He has gone through all manner of challenges to get to the room, risking his life on the way.

Now he must choose the right chalice and fill it with water in order to heal the wounds of his father. There are hundreds of chalices around the room, on shelves and tables, glittering gold and silver, each more beautiful and bejeweled than the last. If he chose the right cup, the water would bring life and healing.  The wrong cup would mean death. Like Indy, we must choose the cross we carry wisely.

But we must also remember that choosing to bear the cross of Christ – the cross of compassion, the cross of justice, will require making some hard choices:
To serve or be served, to love or reject, to welcome or ignore.
To speak words of encouragement or offer words that dishearten or shame
To forgive others or hold a grudge;  to apologize or leave a relationship unmended

So many choices – and if we’re honest, people can make it really hard to choose the way of love. I have definitely been known to make it hard for others to choose the way of love.

But love we must. No matter the cost to our standing or privilege. No matter the cost to our comfort.

Jesus says that anyone who wants to save their life must lose it.  And those who lose their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel, will save their lives. We save our lives by giving them away, by trusting the Lord who calls us to deny ourselves to give us new eyes, new hearts, new lives.

So that we can follow the one who loved the world, loved all the people, loved you and loved me – disobedient goobers that we are – he loved us so much that he took up the cross not for our condemnation, but for our salvation.

Alleluia.  Amen.

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