Second Sunday of Lent; Mark 8:31-38
I do feel bad for Peter. Peter, who rarely seems to open his mouth without putting his foot in it, finally got the right answer. In last week’s lesson, which occurs in the scripture just before our reading today, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you think that I am?” Peter finally gets the right answer, “You are the Messiah.” He has no time to bask in finally getting it right. Jesus swears the disciples to secrecy on that subject and goes on to describe what that means. As he does so, Peter learns that he did not have it so “right” after all. The Messiah is the savior. For a first century Jew that meant the one who would break the yoke of Roman control on Judaism. The mighty conquerer. The one who would restore Israel to all her former glory. Peter and the other disciples pinned all their hopes on Jesus to be the one who led that charge.
So what was this that their proposed savior was saying? “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” No, wait, that’s not right. That’s not right at all. “Be killed.” is definitely NOT part of the plan. Peter apparently missed the “rise again” part entirely. We tend to gloss over things that we don’t understand, I imagine Peter did the same. Never one to keep his thoughts to himself, he let Jesus know he should cool it with the suffering and death talk.
Peter had it wrong again. Peter was thinking in terms of the here and now, earthly power and earthly reward. Jesus redirects his thinking.
Jesus speaks now to the crowd, not just to a select few. This is an invitation to all who would hear. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is an eminently disagreeable invitation.
The cross has powerful meaning to us as we look back at it from a post Easter perspective. We see it in the post-Easter light of the resurrection. It had powerful meaning to the disciples and the crowd as well. It was one of the predominant tools of public torture and execution utilized by the mighty Roman Empire, and Empire which did not take kindly to upstarts, rebels or threats of any kind to their established order.
Those who would follow Jesus looked to him to overthrow the Empire; he offered them a gruesome death on the cross. Over time the disciples came to set their minds on divine things. They worked and lived and died for the sake of the good news. It could not have seemed like good news that day, as they were forced to dismantle their preconceived, very human notions of what it meant to follow the Son of Man.
In his work, “Whistling in the Dark” theologian Frederick Buechner posits that after he was baptized in the river Jordan, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness asking himself the question of what it meant to be Jesus. During the 40 days of Lent Christians should ask themselves what it means to be Christians. (Feasting on the Word)
Take up your cross.
This must have sounded horrible to 1st century ears. It has been abused since then. This formula was used to quell the restlessness of slaves in pre-civil war America. Slavery was their cross, they were told. Their reward would come in heaven. The poor have at various times been told the same thing. The reward will come. Abused wives were given the same advice, “deny yourself”, this is what Christ would want. This is your cross to bear. (Renee Rico – Midrash discussion, 2012)
Is that really what Jesus meant? Didn’t Jesus speak for the poor, the weak, the ill, the marginalized?
Jesus didn’t mean to submit to being abused, or enslaved, or marginalized for the sake of being abused. He bid us to take up the cross before us, not to carry a meaningless burden thrust upon us. “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” His ministry, his life, his good news was a message of life, of truth, of love, not of suffering for the sake of suffering.
It is unlikely, I hope, that any of us will actually be asked to give up our physical lives to follow Christ. That doesn’t mean we get to sit back and think, “Gosh, sure glad that era’s over”, and remain otherwise unchanged.
Take up your cross
I heard a story this week of a young man in East Germany (before the wall came down) who chose, at the age of 14, to be confirmed in his church, in this officially atheist country. We was the only confirmand in his town. He chose to follow Christ when it was politically, socially, culturally the “wrong” path. (Nancy Price – Midrash discussion, 2012)
I heard a story this week of a 5 year old who agreed to give a transfusion that might save his critically ill sister. Partway through the procedure he asked if he would begin to die soon. He hadn’t understood that the transfusion allowed them both to live, he just knew that his sister needed what he had, and so he gave it.
They denied themselves for the sake of Christ, for the sake of love.
Christ’s cross was a cross of sacrifice, a cross of selfless love. Will we pick up our own crosses and follow Him?
We have daily opportunities to give ourselves in the service of love, compassion, justice, peace. The stories I mention are touching, but not unique. You had a chance last week to serve a wonderful soup supper to benefit the hungry. You had a chance last week to stop some ugly gossip, or to call your congressperson about an unjust practice. You had a chance to pray, when you might have preferred a good mystery novel. You had a chance to lend a listening ear, or to hold an angry tongue. You had a chance to turn off the TV of an evening and call someone who would otherwise be lonely. You will have those chances again. It may mean giving up status, or wealth, or time, or security, or more. Jesus does not promise us easy, he promises us life.
As we ask ourselves during this 40 day Lenten journey what it means to be Christian, may God grant us the strength and courage to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ in our daily lives.
Thanks be to God.