Preached at Christ the King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Ralston, AB, 4 March, 2012
2 Lent, Lectionary 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)
Do you have a cross to bear? Do you know anyone who uses that expression, say, someone with a chronic condition, or a problem child or relative, or a boss from hell? People talk about “the cross I have to bear” as an involuntary and unwelcome condition of suffering, and I am sure that the expression is routed 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 recall attending a Catholic Mass with friends and hearing the priest, in a thick Polish accent, saying (as best I could understand it) “Jesus suffered, so we must suffer”.
“So we must suffer.” Yikes. Not the sort of message that a church would want to plant on its front lawn: “Welcome to St. Bloggins. Come suffer with us”. No thank you. We’ll go down the street to Crestview Bible Church, where we can get a free latte and bagel before the service, and where the praise band totally rocks.
Perhaps churches have retreated from the idea and message of costly and self-sacrficing discipleship because we fear that it is so unattractive and so contrary to the spirit of the age that we will never be able to sell it. There is certainly a lot of baggage in our talk of carrying crosses that doesn’t help. Christianity has long promoted an idea of the separation of body and spirit, called dualism, which says that the body must suffer for the spirit to be blessed. Or, simply, body bad, spirit good. Some austere Christian devotional practices, such fasting and self-imposed abstinences during the season of Lent, seem to reinforce this idea. So it’s not surprising that mainline Protestant churches often seem more comfortable talking about liberation and social justice, or that evangelical churches seem to promote a gospel of personal prosperity and self-realization. I’m speaking in near caricatures, of course, but I think it’s true that Christians today struggle with the idea that God wants us to suffer.
What if this idea, that God wants us to suffer, isn’t grounded? What if it’s a misreading of today’s text and of similar language elsewhere in scripture?
I heard a commentator from Luther Seminary, suggest that up to this point in Mark’s gospel, Jesus isn’t that interested in suffering. If we review what has happened so far in Mark’s account, Jesus has being going around teaching, healing people, freeing them from demons, and feeding hungry crowds. Jesus is certainly not interested in adding 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.
In fact, the conversation with Peter and the disciples about taking up crosses begins at the start of Mark 8 with a discussion about Jesus as the Messiah. For the first time Jesus is letting his friends know something he has previously been reluctant to talk about, that he is indeed the Messiah, the Saviour of God’s people, but he also tells them that he is a Saviour that has to die for his people. This unwelcome news explains Peter getting upset, because Peter, quite reasonably, expects that a Saviour is going to be a conquering king, a heroic rescuer. What good is a rescuer who just gets killed? The future that Jesus is predicting simply doesn’t track with anyone’s idea of what a Messiah is all about.
I read somewhere that 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.
No where in the gospels is there the suggestion that things have to be the way of the cross. The very next story in Mark, the Transfiguration (Mk 9:2-13), links Jesus with the God of glory and power who could arrange the world anyway he might like. But the story and character of that God, starting in Genesis with the coveant to Noah, is that God will set aside his power of coercion and will instead be the God of patience and faithfulness who will keep covenant with Israel. What Jesus is now beginning to show his disciples is how that covenant will unfold next, through an action of self sacrificing love and forgivness which, after the resurrectrion, will show the power of God’s love and life over sin and death. If we don’t understand the cross in these terms, we miss the picture and just see it as a burden.
What if we as Christians were to see our role in this as something exciting? What if it was the chance to step into our own space, into God’s space, in a way that is different from the world’s priorities about self importance, winners and losers, wealth and power, and say to the world that we are standing with God because it’s the right place to be? Taking that stand might not be comfortable or easy, because it is self sacrificing to go against the grain, to refuse some of the world’s priorities and values, but isn’t that what we were called to do in our baptism, when we were given our own little cross on our forehead?
This week I’ve been thinking about self-imposed sacrifice, and I have been wondering if maybe the world gets this idea more than the church thinks. I’ve been thinking about athletes who embrace gruelling training regimes, or soldiers who embrace the suck of long training and hardship, or artists who labour long and hard at their craft. All of these people accept a burden because they feel a sense of reward in their achievements, and often they make this burden look attractive to others who are not athletes or soldiers or artists.
Perhaps we as Christians need to reexamine our attitudes around what God is calling us to do and be. If we were to see the life of faith as more than the occasional hour spent in church, but rather as a vocation to live and grow in a way that cuts against the grain of the culture, so that we lived more for God and for each other rather than for ourselves, perhaps our crosses would look less like burdens and more like blessings?