Today, the story line of Mark’s gospel takes a dramatic turn. Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Christ, and in response, Jesus has sternly ordered the disciples to keep that word secret. As today’s lesson opens, Jesus issues this warning to any who would follow him, what profit is there in gaining the whole world and forfeiting life in the process?
There is more to following Jesus than the cheers of the crowd, the euphoria of moving from miracle to miracle, the fantastic assurance of being associated with one who commands and even the demons obey. The road Jesus is walking is about more than success as this world knows and defines it. The path he walks leads to a different world, with a different order of things, where triumph, miracle and victory, are but one side of the story. The Jesus of miracles is also the Christ of the cross.
This is the other dimension to his story—suffering, rejection by the religious leadership, being killed, and three days later rising again. It will not be an accident that occurs through unfortunate circumstances beyond his own control. Nor will it be the confluence of threatened religious and political leaders whose lives will be easier with him out of the way. To be sure, each will play out his own role to make it look so. But more is going on here than a religious and political consortium strategizing to maintain the status quo. Another world is engaging our world of religious, political, commercial, social and familial events—God’s world—the world we call the kingdom of God.
Jesus says, "it is necessary"—his suffering, rejection, death and resurrection are a matter of divine necessity—it is why he has come. This is the first time Jesus’ followers have heard him speak this way or describe such events. They are shocked. His words are so reprehensible, so beyond any notion of what anyone has thought it means to be the Christ of God, that Peter forgets himself entirely. Forcibly drawing Jesus aside, Peter begins to rebuke him. What do you mean, God’s Christ being treated thus? God’s anointed subjected to abuse, let alone death—how can that be?
But Peter’s rebuke triggers an even greater rebuke. Looking beyond Peter to the other disciples, Jesus finds that same voice and force with which he here-to-fore has silenced and cast out other demons, saying, "Get behind me Satan!" Get back in line and follow. You are seeing this from the perspective of your world rather than God’s. "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Having grappled victoriously with Satan in the wilderness and emerged triumphant, now Jesus finds himself grappling with the test in the person of one of his very own followers. Jesus is being tempted to think that his mission as God’s anointed one can be fulfilled without suffering, without rejection, without death. But Jesus knows two worlds are on a collision course. In the confrontation which must emerge in this world because of his presence in it, he knows that someone must die, though death will not be the final word.
Had Jesus stopped there, saying no more, we could all sit here quite comfortably this morning and glory in his cross and resurrection, and the impact his world has made upon our own. But this is not simply about Jesus. This is also about you and me. This is about who we are, or more correctly still, whose we are, and which world we choose for our own, which path we are walking. He warns that we can gain everything this world has to offer, and still come up short.
"Those who want to follow me must deny themselves." This has nothing to do with the denial of certain pleasures or an ascetic form of life. Nor has this anything to do with giving up personal prerogatives or renouncing claims for oneself because of some sense of unimportance much less self-hatred. This is about setting aside all claims for self, disowning all prerogatives, not because we are unimportant or have none, but because of the far greater importance of the one we have decided to follow and serve with our lives. "Those who want to follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me."
Unfortunately, the phrase, "bearing one’s cross" in our culture has come to mean patiently enduring the petty burdens or unavoidable, irritating inconveniences of our personal lives. Bearing our crosses has nothing to do with the burdens that life can impose on us from without, whether conditions of limited health, resource, or other bothersome circumstance or hardship. This is decidedly not what Jesus has in mind for us when he says "take up your cross and follow me." To those for whom this gospel was first written, taking up their cross meant quite literally a cross, whether at the hand of the emperor or another. It meant to die in the painful and shameful manner in which Jesus himself had died. It meant risking such a cross during the first four centuries of the Church’s life in which the word witness became synonymous with the word martyr.
What then does it mean for you and me to take up our cross today as those committed to following Jesus faithfully? The cross is not about some self-imposed form of suffering as a means of expurgation, or a way to demonstrate the validity of our faith, as though God takes pleasure in human suffering. The cross Jesus calls each one of us to take up is both contextual and instrumental. It is contextual in that has to do with the times and circumstances of your own life—it is uniquely yours, uniquely mine by virtue of who we are and what we do. And it is instrumental in that it plays a part in God’s work for the redemption of the world.
Your cross, my cross, is the place, the opportunity for each one of us to become not only a follower of Jesus Christ, but also a partner in his redemptive work in the world. It can have to do with human rights, but it certainly has to do with rights within your family, neighborhood or workplace. It can have to do with peacemaking, but certainly has as much to do with being a peace-maker in each of your own relationships as it does with working for peace in this world. And it has to do with matters of justice and mercy, especially as you go about the business of striving to be both just and merciful in the day to day events of your life. Each of these is a means by which you and I not only live, but proclaim the Christian gospel with our lives. And in this world, more often than not, such living will bring you face to face with a cross.
Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, promising that as we do, God will give us comfort and strength, God will fill us and use us as his redemptive people. We will know the reign of God in this world now, as well as know it in the life of the world to come.