Trinitarian Congregational Church Second Sunday in Lent
Anthony S. Kill February 25, 2018
Texts: I Corinthians 1:18-25, Mark 8:31-38
“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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
Peter and his companions were incensed and offended at such masochistic ideas coming from Jesus. But I don’t think Jesus is teaching us to take on some ascetical practice here, some Lenten penance to impose, some exotic form of self-torture to cleanse our spirits and make us Christ-like. Instead, Jesus is telling us how to live faithfully in the real world.
This is a pivotal passage in Mark’s Gospel, and a pivotal passage for understanding Christian salvation, Christian ministry or Christian spirituality. When Jesus says that all his would-be followers have to take up a cross in order to become a follower of his, I suspect that we sometimes hear Jesus’ invitation as an added burden on our already over-burdened lives, just one more moral demand that weighs us down with guilt and inadequacy. God should know that we’re already too busy, too stretched and stressed and struggling just coping with the life that is given us, without having to take up some cross besides.
But I think Jesus is really inviting us to take up the real, daily crosses of our lives. The truth is, we are already carrying the cross — each one of us is carrying a cross, or more likely many crosses, hewn from the cares and sorrows, responsibilities and commitments, demands and defeats that each of us has experienced and will experience in the course of our lives.
The temptation that Peter tried to entice Jesus into, was to say “No, life doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to suffer; you don’t have to shoulder the burden; you don’t have offer up your life or give away your heart for others. “Life should be happy, successful, pleasant, prosperous, pleasurable without all that struggle and agony.” (And if yours is not, then you must be doing something wrong!)
And Jesus is saying, “Not so. If there is to be love, if there is to be compassion, if we are going to take responsibility for our work, for our loved ones and our marriages and our children, our communities and our world, if we are going to open our hearts and pour ourselves out for what matters to us in life, then we are going to suffer. We are going to shoulder a cross. And none of us can control or determine the outcome of any of these commitments and involvements that make up our personal crosses.
And I also think that Jesus’ call goes beyond our personal lives and loves and struggles. To take up a cross as Jesus did is to stand, always, in the hot white center of the world’s pain. Not just to glance in the general direction of suffering and then sidle away, but to dwell there. To identity ourselves wholly with those who are aching, weeping, hurting, and dying. Whether it’s the neighbor diagnosed with cancer, or the victims of the latest mass shooting, or the family dealing with a drug addicted child.Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body that surrounds us, and caring deeply about their struggles, and pouring our energies and our lives into helping to alleviate that pain — no matter what it costs us. And perhaps one of the most burdensome crosses we bear is that often there is nothing – or almost nothing that we can do to change or lift or alleviate that suffering. But still we have to try. Still we have to care. Still we have to bear the world’s pain, and grieve with those who grieve.
We can carry on, day by day and year by year, we can labor faithfully, but in the end, we must turn our lives and our loves and our labors over to one who can truly treasure them, truly embrace them, truly make them crosses of salvation. And that is not us. That is God.
In my mind, this passage commanding us to shoulder the burdens of our crosses is related to another passage, from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus invites us: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Our bearing of the cross is also our sharing of the cross, our finding salvation and hope in the crosses we already bear – or will bear, before our life is through. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
The final thought I want to share is one I got from another preacher. Reflecting on this image of giving up our lives in order to save it, Pastor Fred Craddock once said, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others – to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom. ‘I’ll do it! I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory!’ We think ‘giving our all to the Lord’ is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table –’Here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all to you.’
“But the reality for most of us is that God sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 bill for 4,000 quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, “Get lost.” Go to another committee meeting. Fit in time for a visit to that lonely elder in a nursing home. Grit our teeth and hold on to our love as we deal with yet another tantrum from an unruly child, or yet another breakdown by an unhealthy family member.
Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, two-bits at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”
To cast Craddock’s insight into another image, we may not be asked to carry one big cross.
We may instead be given four thousand little crosses – each custom-crafted to our own lives, our own loves, our own capacities.
But you know what?
All those quarters are part of the thousand dollar bill.
All those crosses are part of the one cross of Christ.
And large or small, we are called as disciples to carry them faithfully along the way.