The Way of the Cross

Mark 8: 31-38

Second Sunday in Lent/16th March 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

One of my favorite shows is the British television program, “The Vicar of Dibley,” that airs quite frequently on PBS (usually on Saturday nights here in Baltimore).  A number of my friends here and in the United Kingdom love the show.  It follows the life of a single woman who is the vicar, the pastor of a small struggling church in a rural village in Devon.  Geraldine, the vicar, deals with the eccentric characters of her congregation with humor, compassion, and a considerable degree of irreverence.  At the end of each show Geraldine sits down in the vestry for a mug of tea and a joke with her verger, her assistant, a lovable dimwit called Alice.  Of course, Alice usually doesn’t get the joke which makes it all the funnier.  At the end of one episode Geraldine tells the story about two nuns driving down a dark deserted road in Transylvania when suddenly a bloodthirsty vampire jumps out in front of their car.  One nun says to the other, “Quick, show him your cross.”  So the nun rolls down her window and yells at the vampire in an angry tone, “Get out of our way now you git or you’ll be sorry!”  Geraldine begins to laugh at her own joke and, of course, Alice doesn’t get it.  She says, “You said, ‘Show him your cross,’ I thought you meant show him your crucifix, but you meant to show him that your are really really angry.”  Geraldine just shakes her head and rolls her eyes.

Alice isn’t the only one confused by what we mean by the “cross.”  When Jesus brings up the idea that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed and rise again, Peter had no idea what he was talking about.  In fact, he was so ashamed by what Jesus was saying, out loud, publicly for everyone to hear (not just his disciples), that Peter took him aside and said, “Listen, Jesus.  What are you nuts?  What are you doing?  This wasn’t the plan.  You’re going to ruin everything.  Getting yourself killed is not the way to bring about a revolution.”  Jesus, considerably irate with Peter, calls him Satan.  For Peter was getting in the way, standing in the way of God’s will; he was standing in the way of God’s will for Jesus’ life.  And Jesus knew it.  When he heard Peter utter these words it probably brought to mind an earlier time in Jesus’ life when Satan tried to thwart God’s will for Jesus.  And so Jesus upbraids Peter for his small-mindedness, for his human-mindedness, for his selfishness and says, “Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus’ frustration with Peter comes after a series of incidents where the disciples just don’t get it.  They haven’t a clue as to what Jesus is saying.  He’s relying on these twelve, but at times they’re more hindrance than help.  After Peter’s words, notice Jesus calls out to the entire crowd, as well as to the disciples, and says to everyone, “If any want to become my followers. . . . (Emphasis added.)”  Can you sense Jesus’ frustration?  He’s hoping that someone, anyone will have ears to hear and eyes to see what Jesus is doing, because these twelve certainly don’t!  “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 (like Peter) will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

  He turns to the crowd and says,

How about you?  Will you follow me?
Or will you follow me?
Will you stand behind me and let me take the lead?  Will you
Will you let me show you the Father’s love and the radical justice of God?
Will you come with me, as I open up for you what life is like in the graceful realm of God?
Will you come with me and allow me to show you
what life is really all about?
Will you risk it?
Will you leave the old way behind and take up a new way?
Will you?  Will anyone follow me?  Will anyone be my disciple?

Friends:  Jesus didn’t come into the world to make Christians.  In fact, the word “Christian” is found only three times in the New Testament (and never in Mark).  What he wants are disciples - students, pupils, teachable people of any age who are willing to learn from him.  What Jesus wants are followers - not mindless, passive people without a will of their own, but people who willingly want what Jesus wants and are therefore eager to set their own selfish wants aside.  He wants people who want to follow him, who want to go where he wants to take them; people who have a thirst and hunger for life, for justice, for meaning; people who have an unquenchable desire, a passion to serve the Living God, to love, to heal, to transform. 

Jesus wants people who are willing to see the world the way he sees it (which is the way it really is), who will allow themselves to be claimed by this vision for the world and then to venture forth towards that new horizon of meaning.  This is the way of the cross for Mark and the cross is the way for the disciple: the disciple denies, the disciple takes up, the disciple follows.[1]  Jesus poses the question to us: Will you deny yourself?  Will you take up your cross?  Will you follow me?

Now, before you answer these questions, we need to consider a few things.  First, let’s be clear about self-denial.  What it is and what it isn’t.  This verse has been used and abused by so many Christians, leading to disastrous results, completely distorting what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  It has, first of all, been used to keep people in place.  Christian slaves, battered women, people caught in abusive relationships, persons battling depression, anyone suffering from oppression have been exhorted to accept their reality, to deny their feelings, deny their happiness, deny themselves, remain as they are.  That’s what Jesus expects from you, they’re told.  That’s what many tell themselves - and they stay in abusive situations.

Others have used this verse to manipulate people - especially during the stewardship campaign. Jesus wants you to deny your every material possession and give it all to the church (although we could really use more of your money at the moment).

This verse has even been used by some Christians to prevent other Christians from actually following Christ’s call.  When women felt free enough to acknowledge God’s call in their lives to ordained ministry, they were told by many women and men (especially male clergy), that they needed to deny their sense of call, which was another way of asking them to deny themselves. We’re doing the same thing today when we hear gay and lesbian Christians talk about God’s call in their life to ministry, and some voices say they must deny the call, which is really asking them to deny themselves.

The Greek word that Mark uses here is used in only one other place in the gospel, when Peter denies that he knows Jesus after his trial.  It can be translated “disown,” or “renounce claim to.”  “It an intentional act of disassociation from a particular relationship: ‘have nothing more to do with.’” What Jesus is calling us to is a shift in relationship.[2]  You see, Jesus came to redeem and fulfill your humanity, not to take it away.  He doesn’t want to take away your identity leaving only an empty shell, as if he was some kind of divine body snatcher.  I know Christians like that - who deny themselves everything, including their personalities and they’re scary.  They’re hollow, zombie-like, they’re eyes are empty.  They’re also very angry and unpleasant to be around (wouldn’t you be?)  Jesus wants to free you to be human, to release a new humanity in you.  He wants to make you a new person, a full person.  He wants you to deny, disassociate yourself from self-centeredness, so that you’re freed from being the center of everything, because it’s not all about you.  It’s about him.  It’s our self-centeredness that’s getting us in trouble.  It’s as if Jesus is saying, “You must rearrange your relationship with your self so that your self does not lord you, but allow me to be your lord.” [3] That was part of Peter’s problem  – and it’s our problem, too.  The disciple denies.

The disciple also takes up.  Jesus tells us that a disciple is a cross-bearer like himself.  For some, bearing one’s cross means little more than facing “whatever ill-fated circumstance or affliction we find ourselves in at the moment.”  It means bearing the weight of some terrible circumstance, disease, or crisis.  Or it means putting up with something, of being passive, resigned to the fact.   All of these references dilute and domesticate the brutality of the crucifixion and the burden of the cross. 

The cross was the Roman Empire’s cruelest form of capital punishment, reserved for enemies of the state.  As Michael Gorman powerfully makes clear in his book on the theology of the cross in Paul’s letters, the crucifixion “was first-century Rome’s most insidious and intimidating instrument of power and political control.   It was Rome’s tortuous, violent method of handling those who were perceived to threaten the empire’s ‘peace and security’; everyone in the empire knew, as Cicero (106 B. C. - 43 B. C.)  put it, of the ‘terror of the cross.’”[4]  Whoever said religion has nothing to do with politics has never really read the New Testament.

Not every disciple of Jesus will end up on a cross (or in an electric chair, perhaps the modern equivalent), but one might.  Jesus ends up on the cross because he was doing the will of his Father.  He was being faithful to his calling, faithful to his identity as the Son, faithful to someone other than himself.  “The cross is what Jesus Christ was forced to bear for doing God’s will.”[5]  Which means that a disciple of Jesus Christ must fully bear the cost of doing God’s will.  There is a cost for being a disciple of Jesus.  It’s not cheap.  For those of us whose Christian faith costs us very little, where we are not persecuted for being a Christ-follower, these are difficult things to hear.  We will pray for God’s will in our lives and say, “Thy will be done,” but are we really ready for the consequences of doing the will of God?  Indeed, are we willing to suffer – or more correctly, are we at least willing to be uncomfortable – in following Christ?  Has being a Christian really cost you anything?  To be honest, it hasn’t cost me very much.  The disciple takes up.

Denial and taking up are conditions for the third step in the way of the cross: the disciple follows.  Here the blessing comes!  We get to go with Jesus.  We are not forced to go.  We get to go!  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) put it, “the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion of Christ.”[6]  When we get out of the way and seek the will of God, even with all of the costs involved, we discover something truly grand and awe-filled (not awful, but awe-filled!).  We are given a life in communion with Christ.  And we discover that discipleship with Christ is worth the cost, you discover life that is more valuable than the cost.  “For those who want to save their life will lose it.  But those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of God's good news, they will save it.”  We are given life, true life, in him.  Jesus leads the way into life and we are asked to follow. 

Sometimes, I think, the church prefers to be an admirer of Jesus instead of a follower.  It was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who once made this distinction between the follower of Jesus and the admirer of him.  “The admirer [of Jesus] never makes any true sacrifices.  He always plays it safe.  Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.  This is not so for the follower- No, no.  The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires.”[7]

The question for us - the perennial question - is whether or not we will follow.  This is not a question we answer once, but every day of our lives, again and again.  The summons to us is eternal.  The invitation is always there.  What matters as a disciple is more than simply believing in Jesus.  Jesus wants more than belief, he wants disciples.  He wants more than faith, he wants action.   Do we really want to go with Jesus?  Will we say, Yes?  And if we say, Yes, then what will this look like?  What will happen to our lives?  What will be expected of us?  As the war drums get louder in so-called Christian America, all of these questions are so pertinent, so relevant, so intimately connected with life.  Are we really following Jesus?  Are we doing the will of God?  Are we admirers or followers?  Which one are you?  Which one do you want to be?

[1]This threefold pattern is identified by Richard I. Deibert, Mark (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1999), pp. 64-65.

[2]Deibert, p. 65.

[3]Deibert, p. 66.

[4]Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 5.  Cicero quote from In Defense of Rabirius (Pro Rabirio) 5.16.

[5]Deibert, p. 67.

[6]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), p. 99.  The full quotation, as printed in the bulletin: “The cross is laid on every Christian.  The first Christ-suffering which every [one] must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world.  It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. . . .  Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.  When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

[7]Søren Kierkegaard, Practice in Christianity (1848), Edited and Translated with Introduction and Notes by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 141ff.