Preached via Zoom for All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto. Readings for the Second Sunday of Lent (Year B): Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
“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. If you’ve driven up Keele Street lately, you will have noticed that our All Saints sign has the upbeat message, “God is nearer than you think”. I chose that over “Suffering is next to godliness”, because I don’t think an emphasis suffering is the best possible marketing strategy.
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.
In Jesus’ day, and in the days when Mark wrote his gospel, the cross was a symbol of suffering inflicted by human power and tyranny. The Roman Empire and its puppet rulers routinely killed those who opposed them, and displayed their bodies to cow and intimidate conquered populations. Jesus and his disciples knew this all too well because one of those puppet rulers, King Herod, had recently killed John the Baptist (Mark 6.14-29). Matthew’s story of another Herod, the one who ordered the firstborn male infants killed because he was afraid of what the Magi told him, also reminds us of how ruthlessly human kings guarded their power. The deaths of Burmese civilian protestors in the streets of Myanmar this week shows us that human power hasn’t changed significantly.
Peter was rebuked because he wanted a victorious Messiah, 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 feelgood proposition, especially if you will be at the king’s right hand when the post-triumph world is being arranged. But a call to take up a cross is different, much more difficult to understand because it seems so unwelcome.
As we saw last Sunday, Peter gets a glimpse of God’s power on the mountain where Jesus is transfigured with the glory of God, but the dazzling whiteness fades, and Jesus leaves that power on the mountain so he can return to be with and serve his friends. As he journeys to the cross, Jesus shows God’s glory self sacrificing love and forgiveness. If we don’t understand the cross in these terms, then like Peter we miss the picture and just see it as a burden.
By taking up the cross, Jesus shows us his resistance to top-down regimes of human power. Jesus never for a moment wants to add to anyone’s suffering. He entire ministry is committed to human flourishing. As we’ve seen in Mark’s gospel these past few Sundays, Jesus has being going around teaching, healing people, freeing them from demons, and feeding hungry crowds. There is nothing that says he wants to add to people’s burdens or increasing their suffering (an instructive example here is his conversation with the Pharisees in Mark 7 over human and religious laws around ritual handwashing). If anything, Jesus seems firmly opposed to suffering. That’s why he’s the Messiah, the saviour. That’s why, by taking up the cross, Jesus turns it into a symbol of resistance. By embracing the cross, Jesus shows us the depths of the father’s love and commitment to our flourishing.
What Jesus does warn his followers is that the way of the cross can be dangerous. By the time Mark’s gospel was written around 80 AD, most Christians would have known about the deaths of two of Jesus’ disciples, James and Peter. According to legend, ten of the twelve disciples died violent deaths. Countless Christians across the ages have suffered for their faith. The Kingdom of God is not about suffering, but suffering for the Kingdom of God and the flourishing of others is a definite possibility
As relatively comfortable, safe and prosperous Christians in King Township, we are, thankfully, not called to persecution and suffering. Taking up our crosses will mean different things to us in our context. 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?
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.