16th Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Mark 8:27-38
“Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow …” (Matt. 6:28).
“Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).
Many of the sayings of Jesus have taken on a life of their own in the common speech of people in our society, whether they are Christians or not. You can probably think of lots more:
- “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29);
- “do unto others” (Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31);
- “casting pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6);
- “hiding your light under a bushel” (Matt. 5:15; Mark 4:21);
- “O ye of little faith” (Matt. 8:26);
Or, how about:
- “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25);
- “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13);
- “don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3);
- “go the extra mile” (Matt. 5:41);
- “don’t build your house on shifting sand” (Matt. 7:26);
- “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15);
- “those who live by the sword die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).
When Jesus spoke, he used vivid images that easily took root in people’s minds and stuck with them. But today, many who use those images have no idea who used them first. And in some cases, these sayings have taken on such a life of their own—separate from their original context—that they are now used to mean something quite different from what they meant when Jesus said them. And that’s dangerous. Because—by reading our modern understanding back into the words of Jesus—we can easily miss the real point of what he was saying.
Today’s gospel lesson contains one classic example:
[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “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” (Mark 8:34-35).
How often have you heard people speak about “the cross they have to bear”? We hear this said all the time.
However, the idea of “bearing your cross” has taken on a life of its own. You’ll hear people use it to describe any kind of trial: sinus trouble, rebellious children, pimples, a harsh work environment, arthritis, marriage breakdown, unemployment, broken legs, drunken husbands, mortgage payments. The list is endless.
In common parlance, the phrase has come to mean that you have to learn to live with those things that life throws at you that make things harder than they might otherwise be. Keep a stiff upper lip and get on with your life as best you can.
The old Greek word “stoicism” captures the idea quite well. Don’t let these things get you down. Bear up under the load and make the best of things.
Now, there is no question that bad things do happen to good people. And I’m certainly not going to question the wisdom that says you have to learn to live with those things that you can’t change and make the best of life despite them. But if we read that idea into what Jesus is saying in this gospel passage, we will completely miss his point. Jesus might have said those things in another context at another time, but it is certainly not what he’s saying here.
In this context, Jesus is talking about what it means to be his disciple. And so “take up your cross and follow” refers quite specifically to our willingness—or lack thereof—to accept the consequences of following Jesus.
Do you understand what I mean?
Arthritis is not a consequence of following Jesus. I’m not sure what it’s a consequence of—maybe it’s genetics. But, if you’ve got it, you’ll have to live with it as best you can—whether or not you are a follower of Jesus.
Mortgage repayments are not a consequence of following Jesus. They are a consequence of choosing to purchase your own house. If you make that choice, then you will have to bear the burden of paying the mortgage—whether or not you are a follower of Jesus.
Unemployment is not usually a consequence of following Jesus. It is a consequence of living in a society that has more people than jobs. And—unless you live in a society that allows religious discrimination in the workplace—the decision to follow Jesus will not significantly affect your employment future.
These sorts of things are potentially facts of life for everyone—not just for those who choose to follow Jesus. They are the price of being human, not the price of being Christian.
Now, I’m not trying to downplay the impact such things have upon people. I’m merely pointing out that such difficulties and tragedies affect everybody, not just Christians. And—while they are real, and important, and even terrible—they are not what Jesus was talking about here.
As Jesus had just explained to his disciples, taking up his cross literally meant being willing to die for what he believed in. When he arrived in Jerusalem, the religious and national leaders gave him a simple choice: “Back down or we’ll have you killed. Stop rocking the boat!”
Jesus either had to walk away from the things he had being saying and doing, or he had to hold his ground and pay the ultimate price for it. He has just explained all that to his disciples when he says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In other words, if you choose to take your stand with Jesus, you have to be willing to accept the consequences. You can’t choose to follow Jesus and keep your head down. When Jesus walks out into the open to protest about the way things are, you can either look on from a distance … or you can follow him.
And when Jesus says that if you want to be his follower you have to “deny yourself,” he is saying that you have to hand over the keys. You can’t tag along at a distance and pick and choose about when you are going to be associated with Jesus and when you are not.
Denying yourself means giving up the right to decide when you’ll stand with Jesus and when you won’t. Denying yourself means that every time the way of Jesus comes into conflict with the ways of the world around you, you cannot base your decision upon whatever happens to be in your own best interest. No. You must simply follow Jesus, taking up your cross and accepting the consequences.
If there was any doubt about his meaning, Jesus dispels it at the end of this passage. To paraphrase: “If you’re too embarrassed to be associated with me when my ways are despised or ridiculed by those around you, don’t expect me to welcome you with open arms when it’s convenient for you.”
The principle is similar, actually, to some of those examples I rejected earlier, because some of them are consequences of choices. If you choose not to continue making your mortgage payments, don’t expect the bank to keep recognizing you as the owner of the house. You can’t have the benefits of the arrangement without accepting the costs. It’s a whole package. You make the choice, and then you deal with the consequences—all of them.
Of course, the consequences of following Jesus will not be the same for everyone. In some times and places it has indeed carried the death penalty. Taking up your cross has literally meant signing your own death warrant.
Now—in the foreseeable future, at least—Christianity is not likely to be outlawed in North America. But neither is it likely to become the status quo.
If you choose to follow Jesus, you have to accept a way of life that may put you at odds with most of your neighbours and colleagues. The further you follow Jesus, the more of those consequences you will discover. And each time a new one becomes apparent to you, you will have only two choices: to follow Jesus, or to give up following Jesus completely.
Well, I guess there is a third option. You could just play at being a Christian. But I think that option is really just a disguised version of giving up completely.
But, here’s some good news: Jesus does include the promise of resurrection in this same discussion. Did you notice that? Verse 31 says: “… he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering … and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
He will be handed over and killed, but he will rise to life again. If you choose to follow Jesus, that’s the destination. You will rise to life again.
That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Jesus came for. Not only that, but the promise of resurrection contains blessed hope for all those other things which we have blithely—and wrongly—referred to as crosses.
For those who struggle with sickness and pain, there is hope of a day when all will be healed and made whole.
For those struggling with conflict and breakdown and alienation, there is hope of a day of reconciliation and communion.
For those who are exploited or abused or discarded, there is hope of a day of justice when the downtrodden will be lifted up.
These things are not crosses—but Jesus takes them seriously and longs to bring us relief from them. The promise is awesome, for it is nothing less than the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the road between here and there is the path of discipleship, and it is only traversed by those who are willing to accept the consequences that lie along the way; in other words, those who are willing to take up their crosses and follow Jesus.
May we always count ourselves within their happy company. May God grant us strength and courage—and, most importantly, faith—to live out our discipleship. Amen.