A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost. Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 12 September, 2021.
Texts for Proper 24 (B): Pr 1:20-33; Wis 7.26-8:1; Jas 3.1-12; Mk 8.27-38.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8: 34)
“Such and such is my cross to bear”. I’m sure you’ve heard people use this to describe a chronic condition, or a problem child or relative, or a boss from hell. Even in our secular world, the phrase “the cross I have to bear” still carries meaning an involuntary and unwelcome condition of suffering, and I am sure that the expression is rooted in today’s gospel reading and its parallel texts in Matthew (16:24) and Luke (9:23).
How many people, yourself included, hear or read those words of Jesus and conclude that Christianity is about suffering? It certainly seems as if this text is the call to a self-inflicted, seriously bad time. I try to ensure that our sign on Keele Street has upbeat, inspiring messages such as “God is nearer than you think”. I doubt I would choose “Suffering is next to godliness” for the next sign slogan, because I don’t think an emphasis suffering is the best possible marketing strategy for our church!
Certainly there is a strain within the history of Christianity which seems to see suffering as a path to closeness with God. One things of stories of medieval saints with their hairshirts and fasts. A favourite of mine is the Celtic Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, who stood by the cold North Sea to pray, though he may have cheated a bit, as there are legends of God sending otters to keep his feet warm! We have these stories because Christianity first flourished in a worldview called dualism, which saw the physical realm as being inferior to the spiritual realms, and which thus held that the body needed to be punished or denied for the soul to flourish. Some austere Christian devotional practices, such fasting and self-imposed abstinences during the season of Lent, are survivals of this idea.
I think we can let go of the idea that good Christians must somehow suffer without ignoring or downplaying Jesus’ words about how his followers must take up a cross. We don’t want to be like Peter and tell Jesus what he should or shouldn’t say. We need to listen carefully to Jesus, and to understand this gospel reading, we need to better understand what the cross means.
What if we heard today’s gospel, not as a call to suffering, but as a call to obedience? What if it’s not about how our life ends, but about how it is organized? C. CliftonBlack, a Methodist and blbilcal scholar, offers another translation of a keytext in today’s gospel.
“For whoever would save her life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a person, to gain the whole world and forfeit one’s life? For what can a person give in return for one’s life?” (Mark 8:35-37 my translation). “Life” is an imperfect translation of the Greek term hē psychē: “the creature’s center; one’s inmost self.”
If we truly want to reorganize and reorient our selves in way that would make us actually listen to and follow Jesus, then we would have to accept that we won’t be winners, masters, or enjoy security as the world understands it. Peter was rebuked because he wanted a victorious Messiah who could put him at the top, but Jesus never tells his followers to “take up your sword and follow me”. That would be a call that people could get behind. It’s relatively easy to call people to arms and to battle, especially if they believe that they might win. Following a triumphant king is a feel good proposition, especially if you will be at the king’s right hand when the spoils of the post-triumph world are being divvied up.
A call to reorient our selves by way of the cross, as a Jesus follower, is much harder than merely wanting to come out on top. Again to quite Black,
: “A thought experiment for this Sunday: in what ways do we pretend that Jesus didn’t mean this, or try to be our own messiahs and save ourselves? On what do we stake our lives? In what do we ultimately place our trust? Our bank accounts? (Luke 12:16–20.) Achievements? (See Matthew 7:21–23.) Prestige? (Mark 12:38–40.) Politicians? (Mark 12:13–17) Run down the entire list of familiar evasions and remember how Jesus locks every escape hatch. Doctrinal confusion is not the Christian’s fundamental problem. Instead, it is disobedience: our refusal to accept Christ’s authority over our lives.
Lay your ear upon Mark’s page and listen for the wail of lament: the steep price paid for following Jesus. What you won’t hear is the yammering of prosperity televangelists who prostitute the Bible with bogus assurances of health and wealth if you’ll mail them a check every week.
As relatively comfortable, safe and prosperous Christians in King Township, taking up our crosses will mean different things to us in our own contexts. It may well mean asking ourselves how we are aligned. Do we share the world’s priorities about self importance, winners and losers, wealth and power, or do we share the values of the Kingdom of God? Are we committed just to our own flourishing, or are we committed to the flourishing of all who bear the image of God, and of the creation that God gave to us? You may not have consciously decided to take up a cross, but you were given one at your baptism, signed on your forehead. How are you going to take up that cross? And what would All Saints be like if all of us cheerfully embraced the cross call to truly orient ourselves on Jesus?
Gracious God, give us the courage to understand what your son is calling us to do and be. Help us see our faith as a vocation to live and grow in. Give us the conviction to live for your kingdom and not for ourselves, so that the cross we bear will feel like a blessing and not a burden.