Take up the cross

Good morning, Friends! I hope you’re all well today. I appreciate every one of you that made the effort to come to church this morning.

Today we’ve got a Bible reading that’s part of getting ready for Easter. It’s not about one of the miracles Jesus did. It’s not about feeding thousands of people, or casting out demons, or calming a storm.

This is Jesus, talking about why he came here. It’s about what he wants us all to do.

It’s not an easy Scripture. But it’s an important one, and it’s why we look up to Jesus, and call him our Savior.

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi [way out in the country in the northernmost part of Israel.]. On the way Jesus asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“What about you?” Jesus asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this.

Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Then Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Mark 8:27-9:1

That’s a pretty tight prediction of actually what happened to Jesus. He said he was going to suffer, get rejected, get killed, and then rise again on Easter morning. That’s what happened.

People didn’t want to hear that. They wanted a king, like David, to kick the Romans out and fix the country up. They wanted a prophet, like Elijah, to break the drought and make it rain. They wanted the earthquake, wind and fire of Elijah. Or they wanted to have John the Baptist back again. They wanted that old-time preaching, that hell and brimstone for the sinners, and a chance to wash their sins away.

Jesus said, “That’s not me. I came to suffer, not to rule the world. More people are going to reject me, than accept me. They won’t stop till they’ve killed me.”

But Jesus said, “I know that I will rise again. I will live, because my Father will raise me up. I will die, but I will live forever. And because I live, I will come and take you to my Father’s house. And you will live with me.”

And then, Jesus talked about the cross. The cross is not a pretty thing. The cross is terrible. It’s all the suffering of the whole world, brought to Jesus, and laid on his shoulders. Anyone who follows Jesus, gets to know about the cross, and find it for themselves.

The cross is not a guaranteed pathway to success. For Jesus, it meant being misunderstood, and getting hurt. It meant many nights in prayer. It meant all kinds of temptation, and being strong enough to walk away from temptation.

For Jesus, the cross meant turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile, and not hitting back. These are things we’re all called to do, every day, as part of our daily witness.
Jesus said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. . .

“Denying yourself” is a phrase that probably needs some fresh interpretation. Because our culture puts a lot of value on affirming ourselves. Self-denial is something we associate with masochism, or with destroying ourselves, or with letting other people treat us like dirt.

And somehow we’re supposed to get some kind of a sick spiritual pleasure out of all this. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.

God affirms us. God loves us. God calls each of us individually by name. God knows us, in our deepest and innermost self. God gives us gifts, that are a part of our very being. We spend our whole lives, discovering and accepting God’s gifts in us.

And now we’re supposed to deny all that? We’re supposed to say that we’re worthless, that the love and giftedness and blessings and life that God has planted and woven and built into us are nothing? We’re supposed to turn around suddenly and act like we’re toenail dirt?
I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying.

“To deny”, in the Bible, has many different meanings. It can simply mean “to say no”. It can also mean to refuse to acknowledge that we are related to someone – to deny our brothers and sisters means to pretend that they’re not our brothers and sisters, to pretend that we’re not all God’s children together.

“To deny” can also mean that we say that we don’t know another person, that we’re not associated with them, or that we’re not their friend. When Jesus was arrested, Peter denied Jesus in this way.

“Aren’t you one of his friends?” they asked him. And Peter chickened out. He said, “Nope. Not me. I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t even know the guy.” Three times.

To deny someone is to say, when they really need a friend, that you don’t even know who they are. Jesus once said, “If you are ashamed of me, then I will be ashamed of you, when I come back in all my glory. . .”

Actually, I think Jesus knows us all pretty well. And Jesus loves us anyway. Even when Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus still gave Peter a chance to be friends again. I think that Jesus loves us all a lot.

What does it mean, “to deny ourselves”, then? It doesn’t mean despising ourselves. It doesn’t mean destroying ourselves or degrading ourselves.

I’m guessing here, but I think that it means when there’s a choice, between sitting still, and following Jesus, we’re supposed to follow.

I think that when there’s a choice, between being right, or thinking right, and going out on a limb with Jesus over a swamp full of alligators, we’re supposed to go out on the limb sometimes.

I think that it means that when there’s a choice between playing safe, and following Jesus, that we sometimes need to set our own best judgment aside, and play it his way – even if we think we know better. That’s all that “deny yourself” means. It’s not masochism. It’s friendship.

We don’t always understand what it means to “take up the cross”. We all get the basic idea that it’s uncomfortable, and that’s right. If we are never uncomfortable, if our whole lives are devoted to never, ever being uncomfortable, there’s probably something wrong with our understanding of the gospel. It’s not all about comfort.

But the cross isn’t about pain for its own sake. Suffering isn’t good. It’s bad. Disease, war, famine, injustice – suffering destroys life. Those pictures we see on the news all the time, the pictures that tear at our hearts, show people whose lives have been destroyed.

There’s nothing glorious about suffering, all by itself.

What the cross is about is being faithful. Don’t deny Jesus, or what Jesus said, or what Jesus did, or what Jesus worked for. Don’t deny Jesus, by using ways and means to get things done that Jesus himself would never have used.

That’s where the cross really is.The cross is about going into danger, or finding ourselves in places of suffering, or confusion, and not denying the love and friendship and connection and experience which make us who we are.

The cross is Jesus, two thousand years ago. Jesus refused to take the easy way out. Jesus refused to take up the sword, or to call down fire from heaven, or even to curse his enemies. The only weapons in the arsenal of Jesus were truth, and healing, and faith, and prayer.

The cross is the early Christians, refusing to burn a pinch of incense to honor Caesar, because they knew that Caesar wasn’t God – even though they also knew what not burning that pinch of incense would cost them.

The cross is the emergency workers in the twin towers on 9/11, going into the second tower when they knew that the first one had already come down, to try to save lives and help complete strangers get out safely.

I remember one story from that day – a fireman who made his way up 20 or 30 flights of stairs, because the elevators were all out. He had no tools, no fire hose, no equipment, nothing really he could do. The people were so completely terrified by the smoke and the darkness that they were disoriented.

This fireman kept saying to people, “Down is good! Down is good!”, pointing them down the stairs headed to the street. All he could do was provide them with a sense of direction. I don’t know if he ever made it out himself or not. That was the cross.

That’s what the cross is. All those places, and many more.

The cross is giving blood, for people we may never meet. It’s giving food, for children who might be going hungry at home. It’s a thousand things, a million things, that ordinary people do, to be faithful to Jesus.

Most of us spend our whole lives working at it. It isn’t easy, and we need to encourage and support and listen to each other.

I could talk about the cross all day, and not improve on Jesus words, or explain the cross any better than that.

The cross is not good. Suffering, all by itself, is not good. But it happens.

Jesus says that if we lose our lives for his sake, that we will find our lives again. What we lose for his sake will be restored, a hundred times over. That’s his promise.

At the end of today’s Scripture, Jesus said something very special. He said, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

“You’re going to see this, yourselves, with your own eyes,” he said. You will see your Lord suffering. But you will live to see the day when God’s kingdom, and God’s power, are arriving.”

By this, Jesus meant Easter. He meant the resurrection. But I think he also meant, that we will see it happening every day.

We suffer, but God helps us through it. It feels like we die, but we rise again. We give, but we get so much back, many times over. We forgive for the 490th time, because God has forgiven us.

When Luke tells this same story that we read this morning, Luke has Jesus tell it a little different. In Luke, Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my follower, let them take up their cross EVERY DAY and follow me. . .” (Luke 9:23)

So, sometimes the cross is a once in a lifetime thing. For other people, it’s an everyday thing. It’s all the things that we do, to follow Jesus.

Let’s take all this into worship together.

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