Second Sunday in the Midst of Lent
TEXT: Mark 8:31-38
[Jesus said:] “… if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell … And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell …” (Mark 9:43-47).
No, that wasn’t from this morning’s gospel lesson. But it is a quotation from the next chapter of Mark. What do you think? Should we take these words literally?
Or consider this quotation from chapter 19 of Matthew’s gospel, verse 12, where Jesus says:
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt. 19:12).
The third-century theologian Origen of Alexandria took this saying of Jesus literally … and castrated himself! Later in life, though, he seems to have had second thoughts, because in his exposition of Matthew 19:12, he counsels against any literal interpretation of the verse.
Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20 … Misunderstanding our Lord’s fondness for hyperbole … Well, it can be hazardous to your health!
So what about this morning’s text? Here, we find Jesus saying: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
How should we interpret this? Literally? Metaphorically?
In Jesus’ day, the cross was anything but a metaphor. As an instrument of torture, shame, absolute loss and death, it was all too real. “Taking up your cross” meant becoming its victim.
When Jesus took up his cross, it was—as the apostle Paul put it—“to be delivered up for our trespasses” (Romans 4:25). He picked up the cross to go—quite literally—to his death.
When Mark penned the words we heard this morning, a novel idea was being introduced. Here, something new is slipping into the meaning and implication of cross-bearing. According to Jesus, every one of his followers must bear a cross!
Gulp. Does this mean that every one of Jesus’ followers has to die this same cruel and tragic death?
For Mark’s audience, this was a very real possibility. The threat of crucifixion was still present. As this Gospel was being written some 40 years or so after Jesus’ death, the world was embroiled in conflict. Social, political and religious instability were rampant. Romans were squabbling about who should become emperor after the death of Nero. The temple in Jerusalem was under siege and soon to be destroyed, while Jews were divided over supporting Rome or rising up against it.
And the followers of Jesus were caught in the middle. Their beliefs neither allowed them to fight Rome nor encouraged them to support it. Neighbourhoods were divided; families were divided—“son against father and daughter against mother,” as Jesus said. “A person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt. 10:35-36). It was a difficult, desperate, and dangerous era.
When Mark wrote about “carrying the cross,” his readers and hearers in the early church were painfully aware of the threat they were under. They fully understood the terrible power of the cross to inflict great suffering and death. However, Mark’s words would have reminded them of another, very different, aspect of the cross—namely, its power to help them gain everything.
Does that sound odd? Well, look: if I should ask you whether the cross still has a purpose today—in your life and in mine—how would you respond? The cross is no longer commonly employed the way the Romans used it—thank God—and yet, the symbol of the cross is essential to Christian identity. Its power is alive and well.
The cross is the venue of our ultimate transformation. It is a place upon which to hang our arrogance, our rage, our bitterness, our prejudice, our greed—even our guilt—and then to let those vices die, so that something more eternally good and grace-filled and Christ-like may be resurrected.
I ask you this: “What do you need to hang upon the cross?” Is there something within you—or around you—that should be hung there? Does something in your life need to die in order for something else to live? Something more gracious? Something more hopeful? Something infinitely better?
Okay. What about this? Consider the thousands upon thousands of Christians who have trusted in the power of the cross to change things. To change our own personal hearts and souls. To change a social condition, or remedy a political injustice. Be not deceived; such cross-bearers often carry a staggeringly heavy load, as they take up their crosses to follow Jesus.
It’s not easy. And yet they have done it time and again, convinced that the potential and the power of the cross is available to every Christian. Through the cross, we may embrace that transformative power which makes God’s kingdom real for us.
Historically, one of the most stirring examples of cross-bearing comes from the story of William Wilberforce. Probably very few of us know his name—but we all see the result of his walk with Jesus. It all began in London, England in 1787. London was a prosperous city back then—but a cruel one, also. The Industrial Revolution was powering up, and exhausted children worked 18-hour days. And a significant portion of the British economy was fueled by slave-ship captains servicing plantations in the West Indies.
In those tumultuous times, very few people gave a second thought to the atrocity of the slave trade. Slavery was an institution. It was taken for granted. William Wilberforce, however, felt the weight of his Christian convictions, and could not push them aside. In 1788, the young politician—then only 29 years old—introduced into Parliament the first bill proposing to abolish the slave trade.
It was soundly defeated.
So Wilberforce began a campaign with other Christian abolitionists. They produced and distributed tracts. They spoke at public meetings. They circulated petitions. They wrote songs. They even organized product boycotts! (Sound familiar?)
Unfortunately, public opinion was not easily changed. Wilberforce was ridiculed in the press. He was humiliated in Parliament—and condemned for mixing his religion into his politics. He was even challenged to a duel by an irate plantation owner!
Even so, this man was undaunted. Year after year bills to abolish slavery were put forward. Year after year, those bills were defeated. Then, finally—after many years of struggle—Wilberforce saw the change he had longed for. An abolition bill was once again introduced to Parliament in both the House of Lords and in House of Commons.
Just before the vote was called, one member rose to give a stirring tribute to Wilberforce and his unwavering determination to end this tremendous evil. Afterward, when the vote was taken, the motion carried—overwhelmingly—and Wilberforce sat quietly, his head bowed, tears flowing down his wrinkled face.
What an inspiring story! One man—one man who breathed like us, walked like us, thought and spoke and wrote like us—accomplished the extraordinary. How? By labouring in the company of Jesus. Wilberforce metaphorically shouldered his cross, hanging upon it the shame of slavery—crucifying it until it died there.
And what happened then? As Eric Metaxas says in his recent biography of Wilberforce:
“… the world changed. Slavery and the slave trade would soon be largely abolished, but many lesser social evils would be abolished too. For the first time in history, groups sprang up for every possible social cause. Wilberforce’s first ‘great object’ was the abolition of the slave trade, but his second ‘great object,” one might say, was the abolition of every lesser social ill. The issues of child labor and factory conditions, the problems of orphans and widows, of prisoners and the sick—all suddenly had champions in people who wanted to help those less fortunate than themselves.” *
Crosses. Jesus carried one, literally. And his followers have been called to shoulder them ever since. I wonder: does the cross play a leading role in your life? I don’t imagine that many of us bear its crushing weight or feel its splinters in our hands. But if we are Christ’s people, the cross has to be something more to us than a vague memory or an empty metaphor. The cross—all it means, all its power, all the transformation it enables—ought to stand in the centre of our lives.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus says. What higher calling could we ever accept?
* Metaxas, Eric. Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), pp. xvi-xvii.