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Picking up the Right Cross

A Homily from Mark 8:31-38

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

March 15, 2003 (Second Sunday in Lent)

The season of Lent is essentially a six-week reflection on what it means to literally “follow” Jesus. Not just to claim his name as part of our religious identity, or to affirm his theological teachings; but to follow him. To set our feet on the same path that he took, and travel alongside him in his journey to the cross.

The shadow of the cross looms large over the Lenten texts and over the season itself. Here I’m not speaking of the ornamental crosses which we use to decorate our sanctuaries and ourselves. I’m talking about the real thing: a rough-hewn, splintery beam of wood on which the worst kinds of criminals were brutally and publicly executed.

It’s easy for us to forget that’s what the most commonly recognized symbol of our faith represents. Even when we try not to, we often fall into the trap of making Christianity something gentle, something socially acceptable. The teachings and life of Jesus, however, are often neither.

And so, as we walk together through this season of reflection, we try to keep the cross foremost in our minds. Jesus encouraged his followers to do the same, apparently with no small amount of difficulty. Some of Jesus’ followers simply came for the show – to hear him debate the religious leaders or perhaps see a miracle. Some came for the free food. Some came because they were wounded or ill and needed healing. Some came because they thought Jesus could lead a revolution that would change the world.

None of them came to suffer, and none of them showed up expecting to see this mighty, miraculous prophet be captured, tortured, and executed. Even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t expect that – or even understand it. Our text today starts with their confusion.

Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected savior of God’s faithful. After that proclamation, Jesus explains to his close friends that there is more to salvation than feeding the hungry or leading a political revolution. He tells them that being the Messiah also means being the “Child of Humanity.” Your translation may have “Son of Man” – but the Greek can just as easily be translated “Child of Humanity”; and I think that translation fits better in this case. Jesus could have been a son or a daughter – his sex was irrelevant; and his sacrifice was not just for men but for women as well.
Jesus tells his followers that the Child of Humanity must suffer, that he must be rejected by the political and religious leaders, that he must be killed, and that he must rise again. Why? Jesus doesn’t get into that, and despite all of our best attempts to understand it I think we have to admit that we don’t know why. The easy answer is that Jesus had to die for our sins; but that doesn’t really explain why an omnipotent God couldn’t come up with a better form of atonement than executing the one perfect person who ever lived.

One of the first steps in our journey to the cross is admitting that we don’t understand it. We can, however, accept that it was necessary, because Jesus taught that it was. Perhaps his use of the title “Child of Humanity” has something to do with it. To be the true Child of Humanity Jesus had to suffer, had to face rejection, and had to die. Only then was he fully God and fully human.

That explanation still leaves a lot to be desired, but again – part of living in the shadow of the cross is accepting the mystery of it’s reality. For some of us, having such a brutal, grisly image tied to our understanding of God is jarring, even unacceptable.

That was certainly the case for Peter – who, in our text for today, takes Jesus aside and “rebukes” him. The word used is a strong one, in fact the same one that is used to describe casting out demons [NIB]. Perhaps Peter thought that Jesus had gone off his rocker or was possessed by a demon. Perhaps he was simply horrified by what Jesus was saying. Perhaps all of the above. Whatever the reason, Peter responds violently to the suggestion that the Son of God should be treated in such a barbaric fashion. “C’mon Jesus. You’re God. You don’t need to suffer. We came to you to escape suffering. We came to you to escape the oppression of the religious leaders. This is crazy talk. We’ve seen what you can do, we know the world won’t beat you.”

Jesus responds equally dramatically. He turns away from Peter, faces his other followers, and proclaims “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking in human terms, not divine ones.”

A strong reply indeed! Some commentators [Malina & Rorbaugh] see Jesus’ response as a continuation of his responses the temptations that Satan offered in the wilderness. Peter’s words may have offered Jesus a greater temptation than we know. Jesus clearly had a keen eye for the suffering of the poor and the disenfranchised. He had divine power and could have, if he wanted, overthrown the Roman Empire and taken over the government. He could have fixed all of the social injustices and cured all of the diseases of the world. To use modern terminology, he could have created a society where the standard of living was unimaginable.

But that would have done nothing for people’s souls. Again, we may not fully understand why, but Jesus had to die if we were to find the kind of divine healing that we truly need. No amount of political freedom or wealth; no quantity of money or level of health can change the fact that we are going to die someday. When we do, it is only the condition of our souls that will matter.

Jesus had to die to the possibility of being the kind of savior that we want as humans, to be the kind of savior we need as eternal creatures shaped by God.

If we are to follow Jesus, we must make a similar sacrifice. Having explained the need for his own torture and death to his inner circle, Jesus then calls the crowd to him and clearly defines what we must do to become his disciples. He tells us simply to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him for, he says, “those who want to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for [Jesus’] sake and the sake of the gospel will save them.”

Not only does being Jesus mean bearing a cross, following Jesus means picking one up as well. No amount of storytelling skill on my part can recreate for you the horror Jesus’ potential followers would have felt at hearing such a proclamation. Some of them would have seen people dying slow, agonizing deaths on crosses erected in public places and along roadsides. Some of them might have even watched convicted criminals struggle to lift and carry their own crossbeams on their beaten, emaciated bodies.

Imagine their horror to learn that Jesus expects just such a struggle of those of us who would truly be Christians. We too must take a cross upon our shoulders, the emblem of our own impending death, and bear it down the road Jesus travels.

This is the sort of thing that keeps people from coming to Church during Lent; but walking to the cross with Jesus is the only way to reach the empty tomb of Easter. This is also the sort of text that people use to turn their faith into a theology of misery.

But, although the Christian life may be one that includes sacrifice, it is not one rooted in misery – so perhaps we should spend a little time looking at exactly what sort of cross we are expected to bear.

One of my favorite passages in Scripture comes from Matthew 11. In it, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

This hardly sounds like “Pick up your cross and come die.” How do we reconcile the two? First, we should place Jesus’ comments in the larger context of his discussion with Peter and his later comments about choosing this life or eternal life.

We face the same choice that Peter offered to Jesus. Where are our priorities. Do we allow ourselves to be limited to human priorities and human needs; or do we focus on seeing the world the way God does? Do we live as citizens of Earth or citizens of Heaven?

Despite our desire to think of ourselves as free agents, the Bible teaches us that we have two options: we can be slaves to our sinful natures, or children of God [Romans 6:16]. We cannot serve both God and ourselves [Luke 16:13/ Matt. 6:24].

Yet is service to God – bearing the cross of discipleship – simply another form of slavery? No. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus talks about giving up the slavery of our sin he talks about freedom [John 8:34-36]. Yet here Jesus tells us that we must take on the burden of the cross? Which is it? Freedom or burden? Perhaps it is both.

To understand that contradiction we need understand that we are actually talking about two different burdens; two different crosses. The burden of sin was Jesus’ to bear, because he was the only one who could bear it properly. His cross is not our cross. When we take up the cross of following Jesus, we take off the much heavier burden of our sins and weakness and place that weight on Jesus because he can bear it.

Oddly enough, that weight of our sins and our broken world includes many of the things that people describe when they use the old phrase, “That’s just my cross to bear.” Are you familiar with the expression? If you grew up in a baptist church in the South you probably heard it a lot. It’s a versatile phrase, and can be used for any number of occasions. It can refer to an illness like depression. It can refer to a weakness like forgetfulness. It can even refer to a troublesome child. I know that last one by personal experience, because when I was a teenager I was the cross that several people bore – with no small amount of deep sighs and eye-rolling.

Using the phrase that way does a real disservice to the gospel. It serves to reinforce a sense of being trapped by our own failings. Remember John 8, though – the burden of Jesus brings freedom. Alcoholism, depression, lust, guilt, lying, pain, sadness, doubt – none of these are our crosses to bear. Jesus carried them with him to Golgotha and there they were crucified.

If that is the cross that you bear, put it down. I’m not promising you a quick fix through faith; but don’t use this text to justify feeling trapped and hopeless. We are not cursed or burdened by God with the realities of a broken world. God wants us to seek healing for them. They are not our crosses to bear.

Instead, we are asked to pick up the cross of faithfulness. The cross of piety. The cross of discipleship. To a world that cannot understand why generosity might be more valuable than wealth, that is a heavy burden. To a world that cannot understand why kindness may bring more warmth than safety, it is a weighty obligation. To a world that thinks that the sum total of our lives occurs before we enter the grave, the cross of Christianity is heavy beyond imagining.

But we are called to leave that world behind when we leave behind our sins. That’s part of the purpose of Lent. When we leave this building, almost everyone we meet will be going about their lives exactly as they did two weeks ago. Nothing will be different for them during these forty days. By taking on the Lenten disciplines we remind ourselves that we are no longer fully a part of that world. Our burdens are different, our obligations are different.

We can bow under those responsibilities, staggering about literally or metaphorically, bemoaning the difficulties of being a Christian. Or we can see them for what they really are, the source of our freedom in Christ. When we take on the burden of charity, we are freed of the weight of greed. When we take on the burden of humility, we are freed from the weight of arrogance. When we take on the burden of mercy, we are freed from the weight of anger and guilt.

It is one of the paradoxes of our faith. The cross is a symbol of death, but for us it is a symbol of eternal life. We know that the things that look like success to the world at large are actually failures, because we know that no amount of earthly success will carry us into eternity. As our text asks, “What does it profit us to gain the world, if we give up our lives? What can we give in return for our lives?” The answer to both questions is: nothing. Only Jesus offers something worth striving for, and only Jesus could give what was necessary for us to find life.

To be the Child of Humanity, Jesus had to face the cross. To be human, we must choose our own cross as well. We can suffer under the weight of our sins – bearing the cross which Jesus already bore. Or we can choose the cross of faith, and bear its burdens lightly knowing that as we carry them, so will they someday carry us into the hope of the resurrection.