Sunday, September 13, 2015

'Take Up Your Cross' (Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost) Mark 8:27-38

Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8:27-38

9.13.15 (Sunday of a Baptism)
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to "take up our cross?"

Over the millennia, this phrase has been interpreted in a variety of ways. Mostly in good, helpful ways, but, on occasion, it’s been used to for ill.

I’m going to begin with two popular misinterpretations of this phrase, before taking a stab at what Jesus is really getting at.

So, two things he doesn't mean.

First, when he says ‘take up your cross’, Jesus does not mean: submit to oppression. Women and people of color, in particular, who have suffered abuse, have often had Jesus’s words used to keep them suffering... Does your husband mistreat you? Does your slaveowner beat you? Put up with it, so the false interpretation goes, for this is your cross to bear…

Too often ‘take up your cross’ is taken to mean, tell those who are suffering injustice to suffer it a little more. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

The second misinterpretation of this phrase is the way we often use it in everyday conversation. Sorry everybody, but ‘my cross to bear' is not a difficult spouse or a nagging in-law... Unfortunately, it isn’t even something as awful as crushing student loans.
So if ‘take up your cross’ doesn’t mean (1) willingly submit to oppression and (2) it doesn’t refer to everyday difficulties, what does it mean?... Well, there are two clues in the text that help us get at an answer.

First, the reading begins by informing us that Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Caesarea Philippi. This thoroughly Hellenized city had been recently renamed after the Roman emperor Philip and was a prominent site for emperor worship. In a place that stood for political rulers and their authority, Jesus tells his disciples to follow him instead. So the first clue in understanding what Jesus is talking about is in the geography.

The second clue comes to us in the wording of the phrase itself. A cross was not some random form of suffering. It was the punishment the powers ruling society reserved for rebels and troublemakers who challenged things as they were. The cross was the political logically-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers that be.

Now, putting these two clues together, we find that when Jesus tells us to 'take up our cross,' he's calling for resistance, for dissent, against these powers. He's telling us to take a stand against the status quo. To speak out on behalf of the marginalized and the oppressed. He's inviting us to be troublemakers like those in the early church who in their earliest creed dared to declare that, in fact, 'Caesar is not Lord' but 'Jesus is Lord.'

So taking up your cross means following in the way of Jesus. It means standing up for the poor and the sick and the voiceless. It means being unashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Risking this particular kind of suffering is anything but a form of accepting an oppressive order. It is a way of challenging it.

Now by narrowing in on what it means to take up your cross, I trust that you see that I'm not trying to downplay Jesus's call. I'm not trying to soften the rough edges of this text. In fact, if anything, Jesus is raising the bar here. To 'take up your cross” is not merely a call to obey the Ten Commandments (as difficult as they are to follow); it also involves resistance and dissent, speaking up and taking action.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I react very strongly against these words of Jesus. I’d rather be comfortable. I’d rather be safe. I’d rather not press any buttons. Jesus’s call to speak up and not be silent goes against my deep-seated desire to be happily mediocre. For doing what is right, helping those in need, and standing up for truth, especially when it is unpopular, is never easy. Sometimes it results in a rock through a window, or an arrest, or crosses burned on lawns. In conflicts for civil rights over the years, many ordinary Christians have been fired from their jobs, ostracized from their communities, or even been killed. The truly scary thing about Jesus’s call is that it’s not possible to know in advance where following him might lead.

So Jesus's call is very difficult. It doesn't demand your time, it doesn't just demand your money, it demands you and it demands me.

Mark, the author of this Gospel, seems to grasp it's difficulty. For if you read the book to it’s end, if you follow Jesus the whole way to the cross, you'll notice that no one sticks around, no one makes it to the end. When Jesus truly does take up his cross, no one is still following him. At the foot of the cross in Mark’s account, the apostles--even beloved St. John--are nowhere to be found. Everyone has abandoned him. Everyone has run away.

But the wonder and the mystery and the beauty of the cross is that Jesus went the whole way, because even the best of us couldn’t do it. Jesus 'took up his cross' to the very end for followers like you and me who keep on dropping ours. And because he suffered and died and was raised on our behalf “there is now, therefore, no condemnation” for those of us who fail at carrying ours.

And this is good news, the best of news, because this means that we have nothing to fear. This truth gives us the freedom to take up our cross again (for the ten-thousandth time) because we know that we’re not on our third strike, because we know that our standing before God is not contingent upon our success, because we know that we are unconditionally loved by the one who went the whole way on our behalf.  

My friends, you are unconditionally loved and accepted, so do no be afraid, begin again.

*William C. Placher's commentary on Mark is pretty great, and was very helpful as I went about creating this sermon

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