“Take Up The Cross and Follow”

February 28, 2021

Mark 8:31–38

Then he began to teach them that 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. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

*****

In the summer before my senior year in college I served a 12-week hospital administration residency at a small Catholic hospital in a suburban metro area. Operated by a religious order based in Pennsylvania, several sisters held key leadership roles in the hospital. Sisters Eugenia and Perpetua, who were siblings, represented the Chaplaincy staff. Daily donned in traditional habit, headdress with coif and veil, everyone knew these two spirited sisters. Walking with them through the hospital, they were greeted by staff and patient families alike.

During my residency, I rotated through all the departments of the hospital. When my week with the Chaplaincy Services staff arrived, Genie and Peppie, as they were affectionately known, took seriously introducing me to their work, which occurred primarily bedside. Many times, to patients struggling with the hardship of their illness, these two sisters would say with utmost earnestness and faithfulness, that the struggle was a “piece of the cross” God had given them to take up and carry.

At the tender age of 21 my theological footing was innocent, barely yet formed. However, what these dear sisters said about the cross did not sound right to me. Today’s Gospel has something to teach us what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

To get at the teaching, first we meet Peter. Thank goodness for this disciple, for he is honest, earnest, bold and often says the things we would say, too.

Here in chapter of 8 of Mark, Jesus predicts his death for the first time. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” And before the last consonant left divine lips, Peter springs into action. He takes Jesus aside and scolds him for being too fatalistic. Too un-Messiah-ish. How dare the “good news” hero speak such gruesome bad news? How dare he choose a path contrary to his followers’ expectations?

Standing on this side of resurrection history, we too easily miss the bombshell effect these words have on Jesus’s disciples. Their great hope has developed over the three years they have followed Jesus, whom they had come to believe would lead them in a military revolution and overthrow their Roman oppressors. These disciples knew his power. They watched him feed the multitudes, heal the sick, clear the temple, and raise the dead. They witnessed his charismatic ability to draw crowds. They listened to him proclaim the arrival of a new and glorious kingdom that will never end and never fail.

Without question, Jesus is the longed-for future and the cherished dream of Peter and the other disciples. So, what can be more disorienting, more ludicrous, than the news that their would-be champion is determined to walk into a death trap? To surrender without a fight to a common criminal’s death?

You know the rest of the story. Jesus, in what might be the sharpest and most stunning rebuke in all of Scripture, puts Peter in his place with one swift stroke: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus turns to the crowds and captures the essence of his message in two sentences: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

To be honest, I feel for Peter. He means well and cares much. He has suffered under the cruelty of the Roman Empire. He has seen Roman crosses of torture and death. It was not uncommon for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses, each one of them bearing a body (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, p. 59). Clearly, the cross-lined road was meant to scare the daylights out of everyone. And after a while, that kind of constant pressure of fear and intimidation took its toll on people’s spirit. The empire’s power over people and how they lived was enormous.

Jesus is predicting a future that upends and upsets the hopes and dreams Peter held for freedom from Roman oppression. Imagine the screeching sound in Peter’s head when Jesus makes this prediction. Why is Jesus preparing his followers for more pain and loss instead of victory and celebration? The weight in Peter’s life is already crushing under the pressures and fears of the empire. Surely that is what spilled out in his response to Jesus’ passion prediction. Yet, Jesus rebukes him anyway.

Maybe, reading Peter’s rebuke feels especially poignant given our own context of COVID-19, being denied so much we desire and need for healthy living. Haven’t we had enough of daily death totals and stories of suffering? Enough of loss and disappointment, fear, grief, and loneliness? A second Lenten season in the shadow of pandemic is grim enough. Why is Jesus still inviting us to die in order to live, and lose in order to save?

Let’s admit that Jesus is upsetting. We do not like his words and would rather not embrace them. Instead, we try to minimize them. Lenten tradition has become a telling example of that effort. In this season some people choose to “give up” something in order to diminish the influence of all that deters us in order to bolster faithfulness and discipleship. “I’ll give up chocolate for Lent,” we say. Or stay off Facebook and Snapchat. “I’ll pray more, read the Bible more.” All good and necessary things, no doubt. But not what Jesus means when he invites the crowds to deny themselves, take up the cross and lose their lives for his sake and the gospel. When Peter tries to replace Jesus’s cross with a shortcut, he draws a stinging rebuke.

So, what then? What does it mean to deny self and take up the cross? How do we save life by losing it for Jesus’s sake? Easy answers are elusive, except to allow this moment to turn us again to the cross of Jesus. Perhaps in these unusual times we can take a moment to reflect on and grieve everything and everyone we have lost this past year. Perhaps we can hold onto one another, even from a distance. Perhaps we can remember that in our time of mourning and loss, there is hope through the cross.

To take up the cross is to see for yourself the empty threat it represents. For God is the one who holds your life, not any empire of this world. God is the one who will walk with you through death, no one else. God is the one who will give you new life, not life through your own efforts of self-denial. God is the one under whose reign and power you live and move and have your being, nothing else reigns — not a pandemic, not the economy, not your addiction, not your wealth, not your poverty, not your security, not your status, and not even your family. God alone is the one to whom you belong. And that means you matter, regardless of powers or voices which tell you otherwise.

Finally, to take up the cross to follow Jesus might slowly burn away illusions of our self-importance or any intimidation that divert us from faithfulness, so that his words we read this day are no longer shocking or troubling. Rather, from his directive, we can summon the courage to take up that cross and follow through any hardship or challenge, one foot in front of another, knowing that in His promises we will slowly find our life, not lose it. A life that begins, ends, and begins again in the light of God’s care and merciful reign.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.