not a cross!
A sermon on the Mark 8:27-38 by Nathan Nettleton, 13th September 2009
There are lots of phrases that come from the words of Jesus that have taken on a life of their own in the common speech of people in our society, whether or not they are Christians. You can probably think of lots of them: “turn the other cheek”; “do unto others”; “casting pearls before swine”; “hiding your light under a bushel”; “O ye of little faith”; “render unto Caesar”; “the salt of the earth”; “don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing”; “going the extra mile”; “building on sand”; “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”; “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” When Jesus spoke, he often used vivid images that easily took root in people’s minds and lived on with them. In many cases now, most of the people who use them would have no idea who first said them, and in some cases they 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. When that happens, we need to be particularly careful, because we can easily read the modern meaning back into the words of Jesus and so completely miss the point of what he was saying.
This Sunday’s gospel reading contains a classic case. How often do you hear people talking about “the cross they have to bear”? Jesus said, “Those who want to be my followers must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” But the idea of “bearing your cross” has taken on a life of its own. You’ll hear people using it for everything: sinus trouble, rebellious children, pimples, a harsh work environment, arthritis, marriage breakdowns, unemployment, broken legs, drunken husbands, mortgage repayments. The list is endless. In essence, 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 despite these undesirable but unavoidable trials. The old Greek word “stoicism” captures the idea. 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 was saying in this passage, we’ll completely miss the point. Jesus might have said those things in another context at another time, but it is certainly not what he was saying here. In this context Jesus was talking about what it means to be his follower, and so “take up your cross and follow” was talking quite specifically about our willingness to cop the consequences of following Jesus, of living out the implications of our baptism.
Arthritis is not a consequence of following Jesus. I’m not sure what it is a consequence of — maybe your genetic coding — but if you’ve got it you’ll have to live with it as best you can whether or not you follow 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 you will have to bear the burden of paying the mortgage whether or not you follow 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 impact on the likelihood of you having to live with unemployment. 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 being Christian. This is not meant to in any way downplay the impact that such things have on people. It is simply to say that such difficulties and tragedies affect everybody, not just Christians, and while they are real and important, they are not what Jesus was talking about here.
For Jesus, as he had just explained to his disciples and argued with Peter about, taking up his cross literally meant being willing to be killed for what he was committed to. When he arrived in Jerusalem, the religious and national leaders gave him a simple choice — back down or we’ll have you killed. He either had to walk away from the things he had being saying and doing — to stop rocking the boat — or he had to hold his ground and pay the ultimate price for it. He has just explained that to his disciples when he says, “those who want to be my followers must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” He is saying that if you choose to take your stand with him, you have to be willing to cop 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 don’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 relinquishing the right to determine which issues you’ll stand with Jesus on and which issues you’ll keep quiet about. Denying yourself means that every time the way of Jesus comes into conflict with the ways of the world around you, you will not make the decision on the basis of what is best for you, you will simply follow Jesus, taking up your cross and copping the consequences.
If there was any doubt about what he was meaning, Jesus dispels it at the end of this passage. “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 to you.” The principle is similar to some of those examples we were rejecting before, because some of them are consequences of choices. If you choose not to continue making your mortgage repayments, don’t expect the bank to keep recognising you as the owner of the house. You can’t have the benefits of the arrangement — the house — without the costs. It’s a whole package. You make the choice, you deal with the consequences, all of them.
The consequences of following Jesus will not be the same for everyone. In some times and places it has carried the death penalty. Taking up your cross has literally meant signing your own death warrant. Christianity is not likely to become illegal here in the foreseeable future, but it is also not likely to become the way most people choose to live. If you choose to follow Jesus you will have to accept that that will mean living in ways that will not endear you to many of those you have to deal with. The further you follow Jesus, the more of those consequences you will discover and have to begin living. Each time a new one becomes apparent to you, you will only have two choices — to follow Jesus or to give up following Jesus completely. I guess there is a third option — you could play at being Christian, but it seems that what Jesus is saying here is that that option is really just a disguised version of giving up following completely.
Jesus does include the promise of resurrection in this same discussion. “The New Human will be handed over and killed but will rise to life again.” If you choose to follow Jesus, that’s the destination. That’s what it is all about. That is what Jesus came for and it is why we are here. And that promise of resurrection contains promise for all those other things we have blithely and wrongly referred to as crosses. For those who struggle with sickness and pain, there is the promise of a day when all will be healed and whole. For those struggling with conflict and breakdown, there is the promise of a day of reconciliation and communion. For those who are exploited or discarded, there is the promise of a day of justice when the downtrodden will be lifted up and robed in glory. They are not crosses, but Jesus takes them seriously and longs to bring us freedom. The promise is awesome, but the road between here and there is only traversed by those who are willing to cop the consequences that lie along the way — those who are willing to take up their cross and follow.