A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (28/02/21): Take Up Your Cross

Take up your Cross
Mark 8:31-38

Jesus has taken his disciples away from Galilee, into gentile territory. He has led them away from the press of the crowds and the busyness of his mission. You might almost call it a retreat, a time to take stock and reflect. He ask his disciples two questions:
First: Who do people say that I am?
And then: Who do you say that I am?
Jesus receives satisfactory answers to both of them. The people have a high opinion of him. They see in his ministry something that calls to mind the great moments of their history. They are moments that give them cause for hope and expectation in the present. And the disciples, they are seeing something more than this. In Jesus they are seeing the one who God is sending to bring about those hopes and expectations. Peter, always first to speak, puts this into words:
“You are the Messiah.”
In a way this is the highpoint of Jesus’ mission. This is the moment when, to the disciples, anything seems possible. They can feel that the movement that they are part of is about to become a mighty wave that will come crashing down on the Romans, and the Chief Priests and on the established order. They will sweep everything away, and establish God’s kingdom over Israel

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.
But already Jesus can see where his mission must lead. He sees what the disciples cannot see. He sees that the outcome of his mission will not be the one that Peter and the other disciples are expecting. It will not be the outcome that all of Israel has been longing for. It is not that this outcome is not possible. It is not that Jesus cannot turn his band of followers into a victorious army that would drive out the Romans and sweep away the corrupt and corrupting politics and religion of the Chief Priests and the scribes. It is not that he can’t but that he won’t. Because to do so would be to reject the mission that God has given him.
Jesus’ announcement that the end of the journey he is on is rejection and death is not a realisation of failure. It is not fatalism about an inevitable defeat. It is the recognition that the path to the victory that he is looking for can only lead through rejection and the cross. At the heart of the temptation which Jesus refuses to succumb to is to meet the world on the world’s terms. He resists the temptation which has existed for God’s people from the start, the temptation to turn God’s reign into just another of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus refuses to overcome the evil that exists in the world by the methods that evil itself uses. Jesus knows that the attempt to bring about the kingdom by the violent destruction and overthrowal of the established order would not lead to the kingdom of God.  Even if Jesus and his followers succeeded it would be the establishment of another human kingdom, which would soon come to resemble the regime it had overthrown and would be just as temporary. We might read about it in a history book. But we wouldn’t be trying to shape our lives around what Jesus had done!

Peter, again, as always is first to speak:
He took Jesus to one side and began to rebuke him.
Peter’s reaction is natural. It is hard to accept that someone you love and admire will suffer. It is hard to accept that what you are giving your life to will not produce the obvious signs of success: like power and prestige. It is hard to abandon long held assumptions about what is right and good and how the world should be. Peter’s error is to think that the kingdom of God can be established in the same way as all the other kingdoms of the world, which in the end means power, and force and violence. Peter succumbs to the temptation which Jesus is resisting. Jesus’ rebuke to Peter seems harsh:
“Get behind me, Satan!”
That is no way to speak to a friend, especially one who is deeply concerned about your well being. Yet Satan is precisely who Peter is at this moment. Peter voices the same temptation which Satan put before Jesus at the very beginning. He offers the temptation; to think that God’s will could be done using anything other than God’s methods. It is the temptation to think that it is possible to resist the world’s violence and sin without becoming a victim to them. Peter’s reaction reveals what and how he is thinking. He is literally setting his mind on human things. He is measuring success and failure on purely human terms, rather than allowing his thinking and speaking and acting to be shaped by divine things. He is not measuring success and failure on the basis of faithfulness to God’s will. 
Following Jesus is about how minds are set. It is the move away from thinking in terms of the world’s measures and values, and the world’s methods, and the move towards setting them instead on God’s vision of the world and on faithfulness to God’s way of bringing that vision to reality. Which is why when Jesus makes his invitation to be his disciples he says:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”

Jesus draws our attention to the contrast between following him, setting our minds on divine things, and acting for ourselves, setting our minds on human things.
For those who want to save their life will lose it
It is natural to want to save our own lives. A desire and instinct to protect ourselves is completely normal. We want to control our circumstances and determine our outcomes. We want to make the world the way we want it to be. But that attempt to gain and maintain that control is ultimately self defeating. There is the song: If I ruled the world: “If I ruled the world, everyday would be the first day of spring.” Well I’m not sure about that as a choice. Personally if I was going to have that much control I’d go for: “everyday would be the best day of summer.” And there we already begin to see the problem. Each of us have conflicting visions of how the world should be. The result of both trying to rule the world would be a war between the advocates of springtime and the supporters of summer. And the wars which humans do fight are for causes that are hardly less vain.
But it is easy for us to think that things would be better if we had a little more control, if we could force the world to be a bit more to our liking Except that is futile. Firstly: we almost certainly couldn’t achieve it. And secondly even if we could it is self-defeating. It would take brutal violence to bring it about. It certainly wouldn’t be lasting. And in the midst of it all we would lose ourselves. Actually none of us I think are trying to rule the world. But most of us are trying to control the little bit of the world that is around us, with often the same sort of consequences, just on a smaller scale. Jesus leaves us with a proverb:
For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life.
As much as we might gain in this life, and it won’t be the whole world, it won’t be worth the cost of our true selves. That gain would always be temporary, like everything human, limited by our finiteness and our mortality. And there is nothing that we could gain that we could buy back our lives and our true selves with!

Jesus’ offer always seems like a difficult sell. “Take up your cross and follow me.” Effectively he says, “Come and die with me!” The cross at one level is the symbol of the world’s power. At the time it symbolised and demonstrated the Empire’s ability to dominate, by wielding the power of death. Jesus’ willingness to take up the cross is his demonstration of God’s grace, the grace which identifies with the victims of the power of this world. Jesus accepts the cross to show not only that God reigns, but also how God reigns. Jesus sets his mind on divine things, accepting that the world will reject and destroy him for it. The cross is the consequence of setting your mind on divine things. It is a consequence of choosing to shape your life around the will of God. The contrast between the divine and the human is the difference between the attempt to control and dominate the world (or our tiny part of it) and the acceptance of the cross. The acceptance of the cross as an expression of God’s grace, his desire to love us and have us love him, without destroying us in the process Taking up our cross is to accept Jesus’ call to reject the world’s methods, and to seek the kingdom by following him in deeds of compassion, hospitality alongside truth telling. Taking up your cross is following Jesus into an identification with the victims of the power of this world, to stand alongside the poor, the marginalised and the outcast. Those who do that may suffer loss. They may even suffer the loss of life that Jesus himself suffered. But Jesus reminds us:
“Those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”
The answer which we can give to the question: What can you give in exchange for your life is: The cross!

In a word of judgement Jesus says:
“Those who are ashamed of me 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.” 
“Ashamed” seems to be a curious way of putting the rejection of Jesus and his mission that some have demonstrated. The contrast is between “shame” and “honour.” Jesus’ word of judgement calls us to “honour” him. To honour Jesus is to accept that both his claim: as Son of Man/Messiah, and his method: the cross, are true. To honour Jesus is to live in the way he lived. It is accepting what looks to the world like “loss” and “defeat” as part of the price that comes with accepting God’s kingdom rather than trying to build another human one.
Amen.

Take Up Your Cross by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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