Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Second Sunday in Lent
Last week we heard a story from the Gospel of Mark about Jesus and his identity. The gospel lesson this morning comes right after that key scene. Jesus asks his disciples who people say that he is. And the disciples report to him the things that they have been hearing. “They say that you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” And Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the answer for all of them: “You are the Christ.” You are the Messiah. You are the Anointed. And Jesus orders them all to secrecy.
Jesus agrees with them, though. He knows who he is. He knows that he is the Christ.
But there is a problem. And the problem is this: Jesus has a very strange idea about what it means to be the Christ. 2000 years later, it all seems obvious to us. But it’s important to remember that no one at the time was looking for a Messiah like Jesus. No one would have guessed that he would do what he was about to do.
There certainly were Jews who were looking for the coming of the Christ. Christ is the Greek word. Messiah is the Hebrew. They both mean “anointed.” And there are two kinds of figures who are known for being anointed: prophets and kings.
At this point in history, the Messiah that people are expecting is a king. They are expecting a warrior. They are expecting someone who will redeem Israel. To redeem literally means to free from slavery. And it’s very clear who Israel is enslaved to. Israel is enslaved to the Romans. If the Messiah is going to redeem Israel, then the Messiah is going to have to free Israel from Roman rule. And how else would someone do that except by leading a military revolution?
So when Jesus starts to talk with his disciples about what his next move is going to be, it is no surprise that they are expecting him to lay out his war plan. They are expecting him to enlist the crowds as soldiers. They are expecting him to toss out the collaborators on the Sanhedrin and install new, righteous priests. They are expecting him to take up his sword and lead.
But Jesus says something very unexpected: “I am going to have to suffer, and I will be rejected by all of the religious authorities. Then, I will be killed, but after three days, I will rise from the dead.”
No doubt, the disciples thought that Jesus had lost his senses. Hadn’t they all just come to an agreement that he is the Christ. Why on earth would he be talking about suffering and rejection and death. It made no sense at all.
So again, Peter takes it upon himself to act on behalf of all of the disciples. He takes Jesus aside, so that he won’t have to shame him in public. And Peter begins to try to explain to Jesus that he must be mistaken. If you are the Christ, then everyone knows what you have to do. Everyone has been waiting for you to act. The crowds are already on your side. You have the momentum. It is time to act. It is time to mobilize. It is time to use the extraordinary power that God has given you and rise up against God’s enemies. It is time to fight.
But Jesus doesn’t respond with the same kind of manners that Peter showed. He turns to the other disciples, and in front of everyone, he angrily shames Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. These aren’t God’s thoughts that you’re speaking. These are human thoughts.”
This is the moment. This is the moment in Mark’s gospel that everything changes. Jesus is at the height of his popularity. Jesus is at the height of his power. And now he is about to throw it all away. Now he is about to make his biggest political gaffe.
It’s not enough for him to make a fool of himself in front of his disciples. Instead, he decides to call the whole crowd together. He decides to make a speech in front of all of his followers and supporters and hangers-on. He is the clear front-runner in Judean politics. But now he is going to do something that he won’t be able to recover from. It’s the Howard Dean scream. It’s John McCain insisting in the midst of a financial meltdown that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.
“If anyone wants to follow me, they have to disown their own self, and pick up their cross, and follow me. Anyone who wants to save their soul will destroy themself, but anyone who destroys their own soul on my account or on account of the good news will save themself. What is the profit in acquiring the entire universe if you lose your soul? What could you possibly give in exchange for your soul?”
It would be as if someone said, “Let’s overthrow Robespierre, but don’t forget to bring a guillotine for yourself. Let’s topple Hitler, but let’s start by going into this gas chamber. Let’s fight back against ISIS, but make sure you bring your own sword for your beheading.” Take up your cross and follow me. That is no way to start a revolution.
Of course, Jesus did inspire some latter day revolutionaries. Not so much the revolutionaries like George Washington, or Napoleon, or Mao, or Che. Jesus inspired revolutionaries like Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. And that is the kind of revolution that Jesus led against empire. He proved his point about empire by allowing himself to be unjustly killed by one.
When we talk about taking up our cross or having a cross to bear, we usually just mean some kind of generic suffering. Illness might be a cross to bear. Grief and loss might be a cross to bear. Sometimes the idea of denying self and bearing our cross is used to keep oppressed people in oppression or to keep abused people in situations of abuse. If he hits you, that’s just your cross to bear. You need to deny your own needs and bear it.
But that is a perversion of Jesus’s words. Denying self and taking up our cross is never about convincing abused people to continue suffering in silence. Taking up a cross is a form of resistance. Taking up a cross is an act of boldness and defiance, not an act of trembling or surrender.
At its most basic, to take up one’s cross means to be prepared to die. It means not being afraid of suffering, or loss, or rejection, or even death. To act as those who are prepared to die means to act fearlessly, to not be afraid of any consequence, to have nothing left to lose.
There are still places in the world where being identified as a Christian might get you killed. It’s not a risk that many of us are likely to face. But when Jesus calls his disciples to take up their cross and follow, he’s not just talking about dying for the name “Christian.”
He is talking about being prepared to die for the values of God’s Kingdom. He is talking about a counter-cultural movement. He is talking about standing up against oppression. He is talking about advocating for the disadvantaged. He is talking about turning the world upside down. He is talking about doing all this—no matter what the cost might be. If you are rejected by the popular, if you are suppressed by the powerful, if you are injured by the authorities, Jesus says to press on. Even if it leads to imprisonment, even if it leads to death, then that death will stand as a witness against the injustice that caused it.
That is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. It is at once far more peaceful and at the same time far more radical than Jesus’s first disciples could understand at the time. And it is just as difficult for us in our own time, probably even more so. It is a power that is found most powerfully in weakness, a wisdom that is found most fully in foolishness.
I’m not trying to say that in order to be a real Christian you have to die as a martyr. That’s not it. I’m just trying to remember that the call to carry one’s cross and follow Jesus is a lot more radical that we usually allow for. It’s not just about enduring suffering. It’s about being brave. It calls us to a courageous faith, a faith that is willing to take a risk for the gospel, even if it means we might get in trouble.
Where is Jesus calling you to be brave right now? Which injustice is Jesus calling you to speak and stand against? Where is Jesus moving right now and asking you to take up your cross and follow?
May God inspire us to walk as Jesus walked, to walk the way of the cross, to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. And may God grant us the boldness to do this without fear, to take up our cross and follow Christ, wherever he might lead.