September 16, 2012 – Disciples Carry a Cross, Not a Sword

To listen to the recorded sermon, click here: Disciples Carry a Cross

When Peter answers Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” – that marks the turning point in the gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel is all about the unwrapping of the secret of Jesus’s identity. The first verse in the gospel is: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But from there on, who Jesus is is a mystery that everyone is trying to discover. The disciples, the crowds, the Jewish authorities: up to this point here in chapter 8 no one has really understood who he is. When Jesus cast out a demon the crowds exclaimed, “What is this? A new teaching, and with authority!” When he forgave the sins of the paralytic, the Scribes muttered, “Who does he think he is; only God can forgive sins!” When Jesus rebuked the wind and made the sea calm, the disciples were terrified and asked one another, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” But the synagogue rulers in his hometown looked down on him, saying, “Who does he think he is? We know he’s just that carpenter, Mary’s son.” And when Jesus healed the deaf and mute man, people didn’t know what to think; they were just in awe, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

The story that Mark wants to tell about Jesus is the story of how that mystery was revealed – the mystery of who and what Jesus was. And today we read about the moment when the disciples, the 12, finally “got it.” – or began to get it, at least. Peter, speaking for the whole group, answered Jesus, “You are the Christ.” And by that he meant that Jesus was the One God had promised to send centuries before, to save his people, to heal and to comfort them, and to fulfill all of God’s promises to them. It was huge. Finally, halfway through the story of Mark’s gospel, the disciples have figured out who this man was whom they called “teacher.” The mystery was solved at last, and then Jesus said to them – don’t tell anyone.

And doesn’t that seem a little mysterious? Everything has built up to this point, when Jesus identity would be revealed. The disciples find that their teacher is the one the whole nation has been hoping and praying and longing for, century after century, and Jesus says, “keep a lid on it.” He sternly charged them to tell no one about him. And then Mark goes on, “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly.”

And that’s when Peter took Jesus aside for a little talk, because clearly Jesus had it all wrong. The job profile for the Messiah was not supposed to include suffering and rejection and death; the Messiah was supposed to come in glory and bring victory to Israel. Here, on this side of the cross, what Jesus was saying doesn’t sound so strange, but to the disciples it must have sounded crazy. And that is exactly why Jesus told them, “Don’t tell anyone who I am.” Because he wasn’t there just to make himself known. He was there to raise up disciples. And people were ready to follow a military leader to glory against the Romans. But they weren’t ready – not yet – to follow the Son of God to the cross.

When Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Christ,” it was just the beginning for the disciples. Now they were ready to follow, to learn the way of discipleship, but it wasn’t anything like they had always expected. The rest of the gospel of Mark is the step-by-step journey of Jesus and the disciples towards the cross; here, at the start of that journey, Jesus summons the 12 and the crowds and he says to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

None of us grew up thinking Jesus should have been a military hero, but Jesus’s definition of discipleship is every bit as hard for us as it was for the men and women that were listening to him that day. First of all, he told them, if you are going to follow me you must deny yourselves. There is nothing Jesus calls us to do that he didn’t do first, so we know that Jesus also, Son of God that he is, denied himself. In Philippians, Paul calls us to Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jesus emptied himself of the power and glory of being God so that he could live among the people he loved. Denying himself meant that he gave up what belonged to him by right. So being a disciple means first of all that we give up all those things that we hold onto, that we feel we have a right to.

And that absolutely goes against the grain for us, especially as modern Americans. We are all about rights. Our Constitution spells it out: every person has inalienable rights, and among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To follow Jesus is to let go, willingly, of our grasp on our own life, our own freedom, our own happiness. We know that Jesus promised us that if we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness all that we need will be given to us. But FIRST we have to let go. We don’t deny ourselves because we’re trash, just sinful people who are worth nothing and don’t deserve good things – if we said that we would be speaking evil of the creator who made us and loves us enough to die for us. And we also don’t deny ourselves because punishing ourselves will somehow make us more spiritual – that is just pride and foolishness. We deny our selves, our rights, simply because we are following in the steps of the Christ.

I think it is very important to stress that letting go of our own rights doesn’t mean that we take the rights of the people around us lightly. Jesus gave up everything, even to the point of death, not because life and freedom were unimportant to him, but because by losing his life he brought real life to us all. As disciples, our self-denial is a reflection of his. We deny our right to freedom, to comfort, to life, not because we hate ourselves, and not because those are worthless things, but because we love Jesus, and by following him we can offer those things to the people he loves, those who live without hope, those whose rights are trampled by others. It is because real life, the life that Jesus has to offer us, is so very worth having, that we can give up our hold on life in this world. And in loosing our hold on our life, we disciples can be givers of life just as our teacher is.

Jesus said, “Whoever would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross.” For the disciples hearing him, that would have been incredibly shocking. Not just because the cross meant death, but it meant the most degrading, agonizingly painful death they could have thought of. We need to be reminded what a hard thing that was for Jesus to say. We say it all the time, “It’s just my cross to bear,” and I think generally we just mean that we have something unpleasant that we have to buck up and endure. But to take up our cross isn’t about being stoic, keeping our chin up. Taking up our cross means to take hold of the very worst the world has to throw at us – pain and illness and dysfunctional relationships and depression and fear and death – and to follow Jesus, to his cross. All of our crosses have their end in the cross of Christ, where the worst the world had to offer was destroyed. Because Jesus was obedient all the way to death, the cross became the way of life for us.

And since Jesus is our example, I want you to remember that Jesus didn’t carry his cross alone. It was hard, just as our lives are so often hard, and he stumbled under the weight. And when the soldiers grabbed someone out of the crowd to carry the cross for Jesus, he didn’t say, “No, this is my cross to bear, I’ve got to do it on my own.” Simon of Cyrene shouldered the cross for him, and bore the weight of it for a time. And we are his disciples when we allow others to carry our burdens for us when we are weary, when they are just too heavy for us, when we are stumbling under the weight. Carrying our cross isn’t about being tough; it’s about living with hope and purpose. It’s about not being a victim, it’s about not blaming others for our problems; carrying our cross is living abundantly, with the knowledge that the things of this world are already passing away, and that the Spirit of the One who defeated death lives within and among us.

Knowing that their teacher was the Christ, the Son of God, was just the beginning of learning what it meant to be his disciples, because the way of God was not even remotely like the ways of man. Everything the disciples knew, and everything we know, about power and politics, about might makes right and survival of the fittest, is utter foolishness in the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God the greatest is the servant of all, the meek inherit the earth, and the Holy and perfect Son of God lays his life down for sinners. In the kingdom of God, the cross, an instrument of shameful death, became for us, the disciples of Jesus, the means of eternal life.

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