[A sermon preached on Mark 8: 31-38 at Bush Hill Presbyterian.]
“Follow me,” Jesus tells them. It’s not the first time that the disciples have heard these words. Just a few weeks ago we read the story of four Galilean fisherman, regular Joes just putting in an honest day’s work, when an itinerant rabbi caught their attention. Simon and his brother Andrew were casting their net out to sea, James and his brother John were on their boat mending their nets, and Jesus called to them, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”
And immediately – immediately – they left their nets, stepped out of their boats, and followed him. For these first followers, the life of discipleship meant leaving behind everything that made them who they were – their families, their livelihoods, the tools of their trade – as they responded in faith to Jesus’ summons. From that first encounter they knew that faith goes beyond things they believe or ideas they hold true; faith demands action, commitment, and sacrifice.
I don’t know about you, but when I read that story, I think, “No way, José!” Yet, Jesus’ words in our Scripture reading today makes this earlier commitment to discipleship sound pretty tame in comparison. After all, it’s a whole lot easier to say “yes” on a sunny seashore than it is in the shadow of the cross. After all this time, the disciples are just beginning to realize that Jesus isn’t just a charismatic teacher or miraculous healer, he’s a suffering servant who will ultimately be rejected and killed by his very own.
Peter, for one, can barely stand this revelation. The one to whom Jesus had entrusted the keys to the kingdom just five verses earlier, the rock on which Jesus would built the Church, has suddenly become a stumbling stone on the journey to the cross. And let me tell you, Jesus doesn’t mince his words in his response! This is something he knows he has to do, yet truth be told, it’s something that we disciples still can barely fathom.
So, Jesus sighs and calls for the disciples and the crowds to gather round, and he begins to elaborate a little more. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Powerful words. Disturbing words, really.
I think Christians today forget how horrifying the cross really was for a first century audience. As it’s become a ubiquitous part of our culture – incorporated into things as varied as jewelry, home décor, bumper stickers, and even tattoos, it’s also become sanitized as it’s lost much of its power to shock us. To really understand what the cross meant for first century Christians, imagine walking into our sanctuary and instead of this cross, seeing a large, illuminated outline of a guillotine or an electric chair or a lynch man’s noose.
Like these instruments of death and torture, the cross is a symbol for the abuse of power. Crucifixion was an instrument of state terrorism that the Roman Empire used to force their colonies into submission. As theologian Rowan Williams writes, in his book The Sign and the Sacrifice, “When Jesus was a small boy there was a revolt in Galilee that was brutally suppressed by the Romans. We’re told that there were thousands of crosses by the roads of Galilee” (Williams, 4). So, from his earliest days, crucifixion would have been, for Jesus, a symbol for any exercise of power that dominates, deforms, or defaces human life or God’s good creation.
Theologians use many different metaphors to describe this. Reformed theologian Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace describes the cross as a mirror that “reflects the story of our suffering back to us” (Jones, 82). In his book Theology from the Trenches, Presbyterian pastor, Roger Gench writes about the cross as an exposé that “enables us to see other crosses, large and small that litter both our external and internal landscapes” (Gench, 6).
Drawing upon the work of Ted Jennings, Gench explains that the cross is “a collision between the way of Jesus and the politics of domination. This collision is unavoidable, and God wills that the roots of suffering and abuse be exposed and brought to an end. At its most basic level, the cross ‘strips the powers of domination and violence of their pretended legitimacy’ and reveals God’s solidarity with the ‘oppressed and humiliated.’ So the cross both unmasks and reveals – it unmasks domination’s pretension to power and reveals God’s sovereign and cruciform covenant love. [Even as the] cross exposes sin, it also discloses the God who is always and already bringing life out of the death-tending ways of our world.” (Gench 6-7).
Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it a different way. In her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint, she writes that “God keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions. And God keeps loving us back to life over and over” (Bolz-Weber, 174).
This week in particular it makes me shudder to think about “the graves we dig ourselves through our violence.” In Parkland, Florida, the bereaved families of the 17 people gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are digging literal graves and lamenting the crucifying role of gun violence in our country. It’s unimaginable, and yet here we are, almost 20 years since Columbine, over 10 years since Virginia Tech, and five years since Sandy Hook, and still we wait for legislation that will keep our schools and communities safe. “How long, O Lord? How long?”
Yet, the God we proclaim, our crucified God, is particularly present wherever there is suffering in our world. The cross displays God’s solidarity with the suffering and oppressed and calls us to stand with God alongside them as we work together for justice.
And we need not look beyond the mere shape of the cross itself to remind us of the importance of this task. Gench describes the horizontal bar of the cross as the “ways in which fear, violence, and death preoccupy and oppress our lives” and the vertical bar as the “ways in which God is intersecting our death preoccupied lives in order to bring resurrection and life” (Gench, 7). If we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be his disciples, our calling is to stand at those intersections.
As our Scripture reading reminds us this morning, the way of Christ is to stand with those whom the world crucifies, to take up our cross and follow. And I think that begins with telling the truth about those things that keep us up at two in the morning, fearful for the world we live in, the world God calls good. It means bearing witness to suffering, and instead of looking away in shame or helplessness or apathy, looking a little deeper so that we can roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The decision to take up one’s cross and follow is risky, it’s uncomfortable. It calls us to open ourselves to the truth of the brokenness and brutality of our world in order to shine God’s light in the darkest places.
When I see the students across this country advocating for safer schools, staging protests against gun violence, and demanding reform, I see people taking up their cross and following. When I see elite gymnasts courageously standing up in open court and testifying against a serial abuser, I see people taking up their cross and following. When I see the faithful of First Presbyterian Church of Spokane holding a candlelight vigil, despite icy, below-freezing temperatures, to pray for the DACA Dreamers, I see people taking up their cross and following.
But I don’t have to look very far beyond these pews to see people who are willing to take up their cross and follow. Whenever we head over to Miriam’s Kitchen to prepare and serve a hot meal for DC’s homeless men and women, we’re standing at the cruciform intersection of abject poverty and boundless love. Whenever we pick up a hammer for RJP Housing’s Rebuild Together work project, we find ourselves at the cross-shaped intersection of human need and helping hands. Whenever we work for justice, healing, and peace in the midst of all that threatens to dominate, deform, or deface, we’re taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of our suffering savior.
As we walk alongside Jesus as he journeys to the cross, Lent is a time in our church year where we’re called to confess, grieve, and amend our brokenness and the brokenness of our world. Our news cycle reminds us that this sort of truth-telling is often comingled with tears and this sort of justice-seeking is fraught with righteous indignation, and both are deeply sacred tasks. Tears water the seeds of justice that will one day take root. Anger fertilizes the first sprouts of transformation that will one day shoot up from the manure of our sin-sick world.
And on that day, the day when justice and peace, redemption and reconciliation finally come into full blossom, there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more violence, and no more fear. On that day God’s kingdom will be made manifest, and with the Apostle Paul, we will finally see that “the message about the cross is foolishness to [some], but to us . . . it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
May we be so foolish, so faithful as to take up our cross and follow. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life, for [Christ’s] sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Amen.