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
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.