Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Bearing the Cross”
Rev. Art Ritter
September 16, 2018
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
One of the treasures that stands on the bookshelf in my office is my Living Action Figure Jesus. I have showed it off in a children’s sermon or two and I use the Living Action Figure Jesus at the beginning of each session of Confirmation classes. I found the Living Action Figure Jesus in a store in Times Square. Jesus was standing there quietly, between Superman and Spiderman and Iron Man. There was only one Jesus left on the store shelf so I had to buy him!
Wiley Stephens tells of a large department stores that a few years ago tried marketing a doll in the form of the baby Jesus. Perhaps the doll was advertised around Christmas time, thus marking the birth of the baby and also taking advantage of parents who were looking for presents for their children. The ads for the doll said that the baby Jesus was “washable, cuddly, and unbreakable.” Just how we imagine the baby Jesus to be, right? And it was neatly packaged in straw, plastic, satin, and plastic. To complete the packaging and to increase demand, the manufacturer added a biblical text to each box containing the baby Jesus. To the department store executives, it seemed like a sure fire profit and a real winner. But they were wrong. It didn’t sell. In a last ditch-effort to sell the existing inventory, one of the store managers put a huge sign in front of the display. It read: “Baby Jesus, marked down 50%. Get him while you can!” Clearly, such a Jesus, even at a reduced bargain price, proved not to be such a good investment.
In this morning’s Scripture lesson, the writer of Mark describes what can best be called the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Before this event, things were going well. Certainly there were some disputes with the Pharisees and priests, but generally the crowds were fascinated by Jesus’ teaching, compelled by his preaching, and moved by his healings. But after this event, things moved quickly in a different direction – toward Jerusalem, to betrayal and arrest, and to the cross. In the 8th chapter of Mark, as Jesus and his disciples walked near the village of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered, “Elijah, John the Baptist, or even one of the prophets.” Those were pretty good characters with which to be compared! Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am? Peter rose to the bait and answers, “You are the Messiah!” An even better answer perhaps and Jesus must have been quite proud.
But then Jesus began to teach about the reality of what would be coming next. He said, “I will suffer much and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later rise to life.” These words must have stunned Peter and the rest of the disciples. This plan did not seem to fit the path of a Messiah. Peter rebuked Jesus but Jesus’ rebuke of Peter was even stronger, calling his disciple nothing less than the instrument of Satan. And then Jesus filled in the job description of discipleship even more. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Self-denial, sacrifice, and following the example of Jesus would be the marks of the faithful follower.
My friend Robert Baggott from Community Church in Vero Beach FL writes that as followers of Jesus today, we need to consider how literally we interpret this text. “If you want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Do we take Jesus’ words about carrying a cross as an actual invitation? Or are we more likely to understand the cross as a metaphor for the convictions we must hold as a faithful disciple of Christ. Is the cross a piece of art that we place in front of our sanctuaries and building and wear around our necks as a symbol of faith that doesn’t necessarily require a life-changing choice or is the cross a cost that we must bear and suffer for in the face of a world and culture and powers that oppress?
Steve Garmas-Holmes writes that “the cross in Jesus’ day was not a logo or metaphor….The cross was an instrument of pain, shame, absolute loss, and death. It was a real weapon: the only way to, ‘take it up’ was to become its real victim.” When Jesus picked up his cross, it meant he was going to his death. It meant that the choices he was making to introduce the arrival of God’s Kingdom would put him in conflict with the power of the authority of the world.
Here in the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells his disciples that to follow him, they must also bear a cross. In the time of the author of Mark, the same kind of fate that awaited Jesus was clearly possible for those who would choose to profess faith in him. The government in Rome was persecuting Christians. The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were suspicious of this new band of Christ followers, fearful that they might be stirring up the wrath of the Roman legions. Most of the early Christians who read Mark’s gospel were Jewish Christians. Thus the decision to become a Christian set you apart from your family and your friends and your comfortable past associations. Choosing to follow Jesus was a risky and dangerous thing. Disciples were jailed and persecuted and killed. Those who followed the one who carried a cross could find that they too were given a cross to bear.
But what about us, modern Christians who seek to follow Jesus the Christ and are told that in order to do so we must bear a cross. What do we risk by living out our faith? We know that there are places in the world today where Christians are persecuted for their beliefs. We have read stories of faithful disciples in the Middle East or in Asia who have lost their lives for continuing to worship Jesus in a land where it is not a popular thing to do. There has been some talk about Christians in our own country being persecuted for their beliefs, for taking a stand on social issues based on faith. Yet in my 60 plus years of being a Christian and 33 years of ordained ministry I can’t recall a single moment of feeling persecuted for my faith. Perhaps that says something about my lack of courage in my convictions but I believe it is a safe assumption to say that we do not face the actual physical threat of the cross as our ancestors of faith.
As Christians today, I believe we need to see Jesus’ invitation to bear a cross in a different way. Ben Witherington III writes that saying “we all have crosses to bear” is a great perversion of Jesus’ call to “take up our cross.” Taking up a cross does not refer to putting up with arthritis, tolerating your annoying in-laws, or surviving an accident or health scare. All of these things may come into our life and may require great faith to navigate but they have no direct connection with taking up a cross. The hard way for Jesus is not about self-inflicted pain, senseless martyrdom, or even normal human trial.
Theologian Henri Nouwen once spoke about the difficult choices made in bearing the cross of Jesus in life. He said, “Everything in me wants to move upward. Downward mobility with Jesus goes radically against my inclinations, against the advice of the world surrounding me, and against the culture of which I am a part.” That is the cross we bear, a cross that separates us from the ways of the world; a cross that has a cost in the eyes of the world.
I believe that for modern disciples, bearing a cross is nothing less than realigning your life toward God’s perspective. The cost of discipleship for most of us will not include torture, beatings, or execution. But the teachings of Jesus and the faithful examples of others make something of a mockery of the idea that the gospel is about health and wealth and happiness. It means dying to self so that we all can live in harmony with one another. It means letting go of our quest for more security, more power, more possession, and more knowledge. The self that is to be denied, to be hung on the cross is the self that seeks to control and dominate others; to judge others according to our own selfish standards; to use others for our own end; and to advance our own interests at the expense of others. Bearing a cross is not just any kind of suffering. Taking up a cross is suffering for God’s intention in the world, a death of something important in our life that needs to die for something else more gracious and good to live, a commitment of one’s self to something greater than one’s individual needs.
Rudyard Kipling once gave an address to the graduating class of the medical school at McGill University in Montreal. Kipling said, “You will go out from here and very likely you will make a lot of money. One day you will meet someone for whom that means very little, and then you’ll know how poor you are.”
The measure is not only in wealth but in all of the things that normally measure success through self-achievement. Jesus said, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.” Everything about bearing a cross seems so difficult because it carries a cost and separates us from the rest of the world. But that is the point that Jesus wanted to make. He promised that in our frantic desire to save our own lives, to build our own security, to insure our own success- we would lose our lives. And he promised that if we would dare throw away our lives with him, to offer of what we have to others, to take upon ourselves the burdens of others- then we would find the true source of life. Jesus taught the point of following him was not simply to listen and to live comfortably. Bearing a cross is living a life against the grain.