a sermon on Mark 8:31-38 for the Second Sunday of Lent
preached on March 4, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The cross is an incredible mark of the faith of the church. In our worship, we see it all around us – on the wall here at the front of the sanctuary, on the table here in the chancel, on the pulpit and lectern, on the bulletin cover, and even normally on top of our steeple! Today’s children’s bulletin even has an activity for counting crosses – in its four pages, there are forty crosses, one for each day of the season of Lent!
When we see a cross in our world today, I suspect that most of us immediately think of Jesus and the Christian faith. But this simple symbol is not quite as universal as we might think. In some parts of the world, the cross is exclusively a Roman Catholic symbol. When I visited the Czech Republic and Hungary several years ago while in seminary, we learned that most Protestant churches there do not use the cross at all because they do not want to be confused with Catholics. This was quite strange for many of us Americans – one member of our group had cross jewelry of every sort and wore it often, and I can only wonder what the locals thought of this Presbyterian seminary student from America who was so Catholic in her attire!
Even so, in our context at least, the cross has become a clear symbol of Christians and Christianity. However, I suspect that most people of Jesus’ time would be quite surprised by the prevalence of this symbol in these days. In Jesus’ own time, the cross was much more a sign of death than new life. Crucifixion was the most severe and cruel form of capital punishment imaginable. To anyone under Roman rule, then, the cross was a symbol of torture and death, something to be avoided as much as possible, and certainly not something you’d wear around your neck every day!
And yet in the eight verses of our reading from the gospel of Mark this morning, Jesus suggests not only that he will face a cross, but that we should, too. These eight verses mark a major shift in Jesus’ emphasis with the disciples over the course of the whole gospel of Mark. This moment comes immediately after Jesus asked the disciples what other people were saying about him and who they said that he was. While Peter responded that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus ordered them all to keep quiet about it.
But right after this, Jesus began to teach them a little more about what is required of the Messiah. Jesus said that he would need to “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” The disciples were not happy with what Jesus said. Just as Peter had enthusiastically affirmed the emerging picture of Jesus as Messiah, he enthusiastically denied that he could face such things, so he pulled Jesus aside and gave him a stern talking-to.
While Peter thought that Jesus, with the stature and presence of a respected teacher and prophet and the one he believed to be the Messiah, could never suffer and die, Jesus insisted that this was the path ahead for him. He made sure that all the disciples could hear his own rebuke of Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
But this was not enough for Jesus. He wanted everyone who was listening to him to be aware of what he was facing. So he went to the crowd and spoke again to them, insisting that those who wanted to follow him had to deny themselves and take up a cross instead. He made it clear that no one should follow him for personal gain or with expectations of an immediate transformation of this world or a speedy coming of the next. Instead, everyone who follows him should be ready to give up everything they have and get nothing tangible in return. While this may seem to be a difficult, strange, and paradoxical word coming from one named as the Messiah, Jesus insisted that this was nothing to be ashamed of – those who were not happy with these things would find themselves struggling all the more in the days to come.
Taking up the cross is a difficult challenge. We can’t just put on a piece of jewelry or place a beautiful adornment in our sanctuary to receive its benefits, and we want to avoid the suffering and pain that we know, deep down, that it brings. We don’t want to give up the things of this world, and we want to stay in control at all costs. But taking up the cross requires letting go of all those things. We also have some good theological justifications developed over the centuries that give us pause, too, as we consider taking up the cross for ourselves. We say that Christ’s suffering was enough for all of us and that no one should have to endure that kind of suffering anymore. We Protestants intentionally have an empty cross rather than a crucifix to remind us that Jesus’ suffering there was not the end of the story. And we say that there is no reason to keep crucifying Christ over and over again in our actions or practices of faith.
So I think we’re incredibly good at avoiding this command to “take up our cross” for practical, personal, and theological reasons, yet Jesus’ words still ring in our ears: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus challenges us to somehow balance our conviction that he suffered enough for all of us with his command to take up our cross and follow him, to walk the way of uncertainty, pain, and death, to give up the things of this world for the sake of something beyond ourselves, and to trust that God will not only make something greater of our pain but has already walked that way before us and walks that way alongside us too.
This suffering is quite likely something more than giving up chocolate or cigarettes or Facebook for forty days. It is quite different from the awful things we have seen in the aftermath of tornadoes in our nation in recent days, for these things are not suffering sent by God to test us or punishment doled out for some sin we have committed. And the suffering Jesus calls us to face as we take up our cross is far less than putting ourselves out there to be killed as he did.
Instead, I think this suffering is much more like reorienting our lives toward the way God wants things to be, shifting everything we say and do into a mode of self-giving love, adjusting our hearts to give up everything we have to make room for all that we can still receive, walking our own road to the cross not for the benefits we will find there but because we and all the world will be better for taking that journey.
All this is the challenge of Lent – to somehow find our way through this difficult path, to remember and respond to Jesus’ challenge to deny ourselves and take up the cross and follow him, to sort out what we must give up so that we can take up this new way, and to always keep in mind that the sufferings of these days are not the end of the journey, for there is even greater glory ahead.
May God give us the strength we need to walk this journey together and with Jesus, so that the suffering we share along the way of the cross with one another and with Jesus will bear joyous fruit with the dawn of Easter Day.
Thanks be to God.