Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Lent 2, March 4, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Mark 8:31-38

What is your cross? What cross do you bear? What cross have you born, what crosses have you born and do you bear now? Or have you maybe not thought of that very much? We read these words of Jesus, when he says to deny yourselves and take up your cross, it comes up twice in every three year lectionary cycle, the readings that we do on Sundays. There is also a similar reading that comes in out of the Gospel of Matthew once in that three year cycle, so you’ve probably heard Jesus say this a few times if you’ve been in the church, if you’ve been here a while, you’ve probably heard that phrase: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” So what cross do you bear? What cross do you carry?

The Gospel of Mark that we read is the same way that the Gospel of Matthew has it in the retelling of this story, Jesus says the exact same words. Luke has it as well, but he adds a word: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke adds that word ‘daily’. Then there is another spot in Matthew where Jesus is talking to the people and talking about who is worthy of following him, and Jesus said “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me, is not worhty of me. Anyone who loves brother or sister more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t say this anywhere, which is kind of unusual. I would think that in the Gospel of John, his version of Jesus would be one that would say that these words.

But Mark, Luke and Matthew all have this particular story of Jesus with the disciples talking about the suffering, going to be killed, raised, and take up your cross. And in all three Gospels this is part of a longer narrative that is in all three that begins with the feeding of the 4000, when Jesus was teaching a large crowd that needs to be fed. Jesus feeds them all with a couple loaves and fishes and they end up with baskets of leftovers. Then from there is an argument that Jesus has with the Pharisees. Then Jesus and the disciples get in a boat and while they are on the water the disciples talk amongst one another because they have only one loaf of bread. Jesus gets a little testy with them because they’re worried about it, and he says, “Didn’t we just feed four thousand people with a couple of loaves of fishes? And how much did we have left over?” I imagine the disciples maybe a little bit sheepishly kind of going, “Well, we ended up with a lot more than we started with, Jesus.” And Jesus is like, “Duh.” And Jesus says, “You still don’t get it. You just don’t get it.” Then come back to shore and Jesus asks them, “Who do they say I am?” and then Jesus asks the disciples directly, “Who do you say I am?” Peter says, “You are the Messiah, you’re the Christ.”

Then Jesus announces that he must suffer, and be killed, and will rise again. In Matthew and Mark, Peter then rebukes Jesus (Luke doesn’t record this) and Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” Pretty strong words. To call someone a satan. Get behind me, satan. And he says that Peter’s thoughts are not on divine things but on worldly things. [Luke probably doesn’t mention this because his audience were Gentiles—that is, not Jews—] The word “Satan” in Hebrew doesn’t mean a devil figure or personification of evil, or the Devil, the guy with a pitchfork. It really just means adversary. A personal stumbling block that keeps one from focusing on God. Many of the images of a Satan as the devil really comes more from medieval literature and superstition than it does the Bible. But, Jesus calls Peter a satan, a stumbling block, an adversary here. He rebukes Peter, and Peter has just said “You are the Messiah, you are the Christ.” He’s just admitted to that, and as soon as Jesus says something different than what Peter wants, Jesus rebukes him. Then he offers this message of needing to deny yourself and take up a cross to follow him. He promises a life gained to everyone who does it, and a life lost to anyone who does not do that. And then in all three Gospels the end of this narrative is Jesus then taking some of the disciples up the mountain to see the transfiguration when Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.

All three Gospels have this long narrative beginning with the feeding of the 4,000 and ending at the Transfiguration and they all include the story we read in today’s text. That lends it all particular importance, because it’s rare for the Gospels to have any set of lengthy all show up together in the same order and with most of the same words. Luke doesn’t have the story of the arguiing with the Pharisees or the discussion in the boat over the bread, but otherwise they have the same stories lined out in the same way and use almost all the same words. That is so rare. Even the way they tell the story of Holy week, crucifixion and Easter, vary much more than this narrative. That says to us, I think, to pay attention. It says to us, “This is really important.” Because all three gospel writers thought it was all important enough to put all of this in, and so we ought to pay attention to it. And it is really important.

In all three Gospels, this is the beginning of the end for Jesus. This is the hinge point in all three of those first three Gospels. The disciples have seen Jesus heal, seen him do miracles, they have heard him teach and preach. It was enough for them to finally say, “We believe you are the Messiah, we believe you are the Christ.” Jesus has gotten them to the point of believing. And then as Jesus likes to do, he overturns the tables of their belief. He says, “I am the Messiah, you are correct. But I am one who must suffer, I am one who must be rejected, I am one who must be killed, and I am one who will then rise up after three days.” To which Peter says, “No! You are the messiah! You’re supposed to overthrow Rome! You’re supposed to get them out of our country. You’re supposed to take the throne of Israel and rule all the world. You are to bring honor to Israel.” Those were all the things Jesus was tempted by in the wilderness that we read last week. After his baptism ho goes into the wilderness and is tempted by Satan. Jesus has already dealt with all of that and rejected that vision of a messiah.

Because that kind of messiah would be no different than the Roman Emperor, Caesar, except that it would now instead of a Roman emperor it would be a Jewish version of a military despot and empire builder. That’s not how God works. That’s not what God is about. And Jesus lays out what this kind of Messiah is and what following him looks like. He says, “I am meant to suffer. I am meant to be killed on a cross, Rome’s torture/execution device, and then rise from death. And if you want to follow me, your only option is to take up your cross and follow. No cross, then there’s no following.” Being a disciple has defined within it to be a cross-bearer. We are not followers until we take up our cross. Until we crucify that in ourselves which is not of God. Until then we’re just looking in through the windows, voyeurs of faith. Swimmers poised on the pier, afraid to jump in, or the ones who wade in the very shallow water because we fear the cold touching our bellies. We’re not swimmers until we swim. We’re not singers until we sing. We’re not Christian disciples until we take up our cross and follow Jesus.

What is your cross?

Imagine if these crosses that are in here, and we have many, or the crosses you may have in your jewelry, imagine if those crosses did not just remind us of Jesus’ sacrifice on one of them, which they are symbols of, but what if they also reminded us that we are to take one up as well. And just as these crosses are different: some made from old Christmas trees, a brass one, one of other wood, maybe gold and silver ones as jewelry that people are wearing... just as these crosses are different our crosses will also be distinctly our own, though they will be of the same form and substance. It will be distinctly and uniquely your own.

What is your cross? Do you have one? Have you thought about it?

If Jesus were standing at the doors as you left after worship, and said, “Good morning! So good to have you here today, but don’t forget to pick up your cross on the way out. No leaving it in the name tag bin again this week like you did last week. I’m Jesus, I saw it. Take it out into the world with you.” What does that cross look like? Or what if Jesus greeted you at the door, “Good morning, good to have you here, but I notice you’ve been coming here for a long time and you still don’t have a cross. Today would be a good day to build one.” What do you build? What does it look like? What is your cross?

And that is quite the question. It’s a big question, that I can’t answer for any of you. I’m not sure I can answer it very well for myself. It’s a big and difficult question. Many of the crosses I think I’m bearing are actually pretty trivial. And I don’t want to lead you with a string of examples, so I’m not going to do that, either. But I do want you to think about it. It would be a great conversation to have Wednesday night when you have your soup. Ask one another, “What is your cross? What does your faith journey look like? Tell me about it.” Maybe this is the question we need to ask more often in the church. And also ask what is the cross that Plymouth United Church of Christ bears. I can’t give you any answers, but I will give you a bit of help: Think of it in relation to sacrifice. What is your cross? What is it in your life or the world that now that you have encountered Jesus, you have said, “I need to deny myself, and take up my cross?” So I leave you with that question.

Let us pray: Holy Messiah, Christ, cross-bearer of our lives, we have heard your words to deny ourselves and take up our crosses if we wish to follow you. We want to follow, but aren’t always sure what those words mean; and even when we have a sense that maybe we figured it out, we have such difficulty staying true to it once we leave this place and go back into your world. Help us through this Lenten journey to be more faithful, to be as willing to do the hard and difficult work of discipleship as we are to drink at your fountain of joy and grace. Amen.

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