Take Up Your Cross

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
February 25, 2024

It’s in Mark 8 that a conversation takes place that I think most of us remember. Jesus and his disciples are on a long road trip, and he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

“A prophet,” they answer him. “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, and some say you’re one of the other prophets—but definitely a prophet.”

“Okay then,” Jesus asks, “so who do you say that I am?”

I would imagine that this caught the disciples off guard. But into the silence, one of them spoke. “You are the Anointed,” Peter said, which is to say, “You are the Christ” in Greek or “You are the Messiah” in Hebrew.

Then Jesus says something strange. And though it seems strange, it’s not unusual, because he says it over and over again in Mark: “Don’t tell anybody what we were just talking about.”

Scholars call this the Messianic secret, and I have my own theory of why Jesus does this. After he’s just healed somebody or the disciples have received an important revelation, Jesus doesn’t want people knowing who he is out of context.

Whether it’s a healing in a town or being transfigured on a remote mountaintop, Jesus is amazing. In an amazing way. He can’t not be amazing… at least some of the time. But to follow Jesus because of the miracles—because he’s amazing—is following him out of context. It would be like coming to church only for the snacks at the end. Or experiencing Chardon only during the first week of October. The miraculous Jesus is who Jesus is. But it’s only part of who Jesus is. If you want to belong to Jesus, you’ll find that he’s also the Man on the cross… and the risen Lord. The full truth of who Jesus is really only becomes clear when we can see the big picture.

And so when Jesus says, “Don’t tell anybody about this,” he’s not being mysterious, he’s being honest. Yes, he is the miracle worker and the shining Son of God. But he’s also the One who is rejected and put to death… as well as the One who is risen from the dead. We know this. But before it all came to pass, his followers did not.

But he tried to tell them. He began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead [Mark 8:31]. But none of this made any sense according to the disciples’ understanding of who Messiah was. By their way of thinking, Messiah would be embraced by the elders and the priests and the teachers, not rejected. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to do any of the things they thought Messiah was supposed to do.

And so Peter does what he feels he has to do. It would be presumptuous to correct Jesus in front of everybody. He has too much respect for Jesus for that. And so he takes him aside and tells him that he doesn’t really understand who and what Messiah is. Jesus isn’t going to rejected, he’s going to be honored. And Jesus isn’t going to be lifted up on a cross, he’s going to be enthroned.

And what happens next actually contradicts something I said in last Sunday’s sermon. Jesus said, “Get away from me, satan!” Remember, I said last week that when the word satan is used in the Bible, it’s always preceded by a definite article (the in English). Not here, though. But I’m not really bothered by this, because, as far as I’m concerned, the exception proves the rule. Just because a word lacks an article doesn’t mean that it’s a proper noun or a name.

For example, I’m the pastor of the church. And sometimes people call me pastor. And when they do, it would be silly to say to me, “Hello, the pastor.” No, they’d just say, “Hello, pastor.” And so it is here where Jesus says, “Get away from me, satan.” It only helps us to understand that satan means adversary. Jesus isn’t demonizing Peter here. He’s telling him that he’s saying something that is opposed to the truth. When speaking of his death and resurrection, a devil’s advocate is the last thing that Jesus needs. And that’s what an adversary is: a devil’s advocate.

And that’s the moment Jesus chose to begin teaching that following him isn’t going to be all rainbows and roses. To believe that Jesus is Messiah means letting go of who we think Messiah ought to be and embracing who Jesus actually is: it is to accept that the path of Jesus is the way of the cross. So if anybody wants to be his follower, they must give up their own way, take up their cross, and follow him.

The cross. As Christians, we know the cross. It’s front-and-center in our worship space. It’s the subject of many of our hymns—and may well be mentioned in the majority of them. Many Christians even wear one around their necks (perhaps responding to Jesus’ call to “carry our crosses”). But sometimes, the more familiar we are with something, the less we think about it, and the further away we get from its true meaning.

But there was a reason that what Jesus said about the cross was scandalous to the first people who heard about it. To live in the Roman world in that day and age was to be constantly exposed to the cross, not as a sign of religious devotion and not in the lyrics to hymns, but as one of the ugliest realities that people had to live with. The cross was a symbol of punishment and torture. The roads outside of cities were lined with crosses. And nailed to those crosses were criminals in agony. It is beyond imagining how cruel people could have come up with crucifixion as a way to put people to death. And to the disciples—not just the twelve, but also the multitudes—it was beyond imagining why Jesus would talk about such a thing in the context of faith.

There’s no way we can think of the cross in the same way they thought of it two thousand years ago. But I think we can see what upset Peter and caused him to try to correct Jesus. The cross was nothing but negative, as far as he was concerned, and he thought people should only associate Messiah with positive things.

In the 21st century, we may not be able to relate to the cross in the same way that people could back then. But I think we can relate to Peter’s reaction. We have reduced our faith in Jesus to pleasant sentiments, and many of us believe that to have faith is to avoid unpleasantness. In fact, there are some very popular preachers and very huge churches who teach that very thing.

But there are millions of Christians around the world who live in places where it’s dangerous to identify yourself with Jesus. They risk their lives or their freedom to call themselves Christians. And yet, they take up their cross and follow him. I hope we understand this, even if we cannot relate. And it seems a shame that our prosperity-obsessed TV preachers seem to garner more respect than those who understand what it is to take the path of Jesus seriously.

And so for those of us whose lives aren’t threatened, who won’t be going to jail for believing in Jesus, and who have never seen an actual crucifixion: How can we relate to Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow? Let us think of the cross as our identity. And let us remember that, the more serious we are about carrying our cross, the more difficult it is to carry any other load.

If who Jesus is is an important part of who we are—if we find our identity in him—then anything other than the cross is excess baggage. This is more than just a bunch of religious words. Remember that Jesus taught about love and integrity, about justice and service. To take the name of Christian, to claim to be a follower of Christ, is to make his teachings a part of yourself. And to deny these things or to be ashamed of these teachings is the opposite of discipleship.

So let us take up the cross and walk the same path that Jesus walked. It’s a path of love and humility. It’s a path that does not claim victory until it has dealt with suffering. It will never guarantee us prosperity in material terms. But the more we carry it, the less we’ll need to carry of that which isn’t necessary.
—©2024 Sam Greening