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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mark 8:31-38 What Crosses Will YOU Take Up?

Mark 8:31-38
“What Crosses Will YOU Take Up?”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
Sunday, March 12, 2006

The five Sundays of Lent give us some tough scripture to reckon with. Today, the second Sunday of preparation for Easter deals with some hard topics. Suffering, Satan, rebuke. Crosses. Shame. I’ve always had a suspicion that God invented sermons to teach the righteous how to suffer. And this Lenten season of tough scriptures seems to confirm the point.

Even the apostle Peter, the first Pope (for goodness’ sake), suffers at the pointed end of a sermon preached on the way to the cross. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Jesus will have nothing to do with even the idea of a happy Easter. Jesus sees the goal of resurrection, sure. But he also sees the fifteen-foot-high wall called the cross – and the six-feet-deep pit called the grave – that are impossible obstacles between him and his goal.

Unlike a lot of people who were watching “American Idol” and “Dancing With The Stars,” we chose to watch the excitement of the Winter Olympics. The sheer drama of Curling, the thrill of watching those squeegee brooms warm the ice molecules a fraction of a degree – well, it’s no wonder I had to have a heart procedure. You watch these Olympic athletes who train not just years, but decades, for two weeks of competition – that alone, to me, makes it worth watching. That snow-boarder, the “Flying Tomato” guy, might get a few endorsements, but most of them, like the Curlers, are going to get 7.5 minutes of fame, and then go back to working at Home Depot. Olympians, except for the handful who get fame and fortune, are fascinating because of their single-minded devotion to overcoming obstacles – both huge barriers that threaten to stop them cold (no pun intended), and miniscule hurdles that give them a hundredth of a second’s advantage. They have to be so driven that nothing, and nobody can get in their way.

Is that the way we see Jesus, on the way to the cross? Do we see him as if he’s a fanatically devoted athlete, who has spent his life training for the culmination of a few short days? Do we take his rebuke of Peter as if Jesus is a mogul-skier telling his doctor, “Doc, I don’t care if my knees are the size of basketballs. I don’t care if you’ve removed my Achilles tendons. I don’t mind that I’m in a body cast from my nose to my toes and pigeons are nesting on top of my head. I’m going out there. And I’m going to WIN!” In other words, do we see Jesus as a man defying the odds, willing to look death square in the eye, in order to achieve victory?

There are Christian comic books that portray Jesus as a superhero. Super Jesus, slaying evil and doing good. I’m pretty sure most of us would say that’s a rather extreme caricature of the carpenter from Nazareth. But is there something of that caricature that lingers in our minds when it comes to seeing Jesus on the way to Easter? Recently, Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” portrays Jesus as a man punished to obscene lengths, who pushes through the pain to reach his goal. Jesus is the passionately defiant winner, with infinite focus and super-human resolve. Is that how we see Jesus on the way to the cross? A winner who can’t be stopped.

It’s interesting how often the word, “victory” is used in popular American Christianity. There are churches with Victory in their names. There are TV preachers with Victory in their show titles. Hymnbooks have lots of songs about victory. “Victory In Jesus” is one a lot of us grew up singing.

Soldiers of King Jesus, raise the shout again,Victory in Jesus, victory!Marching to the music of the glad refrain,Victory in Jesus evermore.

And there are countless books on the victory of Jesus and how we can achieve our own victory through him. The victory language comes from the Apostle Paul, mainly in his first letter to the Corinthians. That’s it. One book. About eight occurrences. If you look in the gospels, in the words and message of Christ, you don’t even see the word “victory” at all. Jesus never once uses that word in describing his purpose. If Jesus says anything about his future, instead of talking about winning, he talks about “suffering” and “dying” and in three days “rising”. But “victory” isn’t a word Jesus knows, at least not about himself.

Looking closely at today’s scripture, I think Jesus is very firmly, unequivocally speaking against a Christian theology based in “victory.” I think the last thing Jesus wants to be seen as is some “winner” in some sort of competition. In this scripture, the advocate for victory, or at least for a path away from suffering, is the Apostle Peter. And what does Jesus call him? Satan. He tells Peter to get out of his sight. And then, he begins his sermon…

“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?”

Unlike those followers of his who preach that Jesus is the eternal way to victory, wealth, prosperity and fame – the kind of things you get when you win an Olympic-sized competition – unlike those who preach success, Jesus preaches the cross.  Saving, losing, gaining, forfeiting – it’s all mixed up in Jesus’ language. He may achieve victory, but he preaches the cross. He may forfeit his life, but he preaches the cross. He may suffer great loss, he may be given great glory – but he preaches the cross. Jesus never preaches a gospel of prosperity, a gospel of winning. Neither does he preach a gospel of suffering for suffering’s sake, losing, so God will feel sorry for you. Jesus preaches the cross.

The gospel of the cross is SO hard for people like you and me. I don’t know if it’s our culture. I don’t know if it’s just the way human beings think. We’re so accustomed to thinking of winners and losers. It’s as if nothing can happen without a winner and a loser. The whole philosophy is engrained in us, so that we can’t look at anyone – especially Jesus – without thinking of what is won and what’s lost. But Jesus thinks differently than we do – which is no big surprise, but doesn’t make it easier. Jesus sees beyond winning and losing. Jesus sees… the cross.

And he tells us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” That is so foreign to our thinking. It’s so different from either-or, win-win, lose-lose, win-lose, lose-win geometric thinking. Or, from the profit-loss thinking of our American economy. And yet, this is how Jesus tells us we have to be if we want to be his followers. Take up your cross.

Obviously, he’s talking metaphorically. So what IS a cross to you and me? Is a cross a loss? A losing proposition? A cause that no one else seems to care about? Is that a cross? You’ll hear someone talking about somebody else and they’ll describe them as, “Just the cross I have to bear.” It’s usually their husband. A person you hate to love, but just can’t quit? A burden, an obligation, a crazy, ostracizing dream? Is that a cross? A loss that you suffer now, silently or not, in order to win sometime later? Maybe. But again, the idea of winning and losing comes into play. Losing for its own sake isn’t righteous. It’s masochism.

I was so moved during Youth Sunday a few weeks ago, when our graduating seniors talked about the impact the church’s annual mission trip to Isom, Kentucky has had on them. I don’t think they’d call their experience a burden. As they move on in their lives, and as they start making decisions about how they’re going to spend their waking (working) hours, as they choose what’s important to them and what’s not – maybe the cross-shaped imprint of that mission trip will help them open their eyes, and focus.

I talk to the men and women who teach Sunday School and Youth Groups. OK, some days it is pure burden. You spend your week preparing to build Noah’s Ark out of popsicle sticks and pretzels, and nobody shows up. Or one kid gorges on the pretzels and then tries to see how far he can put a popsicle stick down this throat. Days like that are why churches use volunteers as teachers: you could never pay someone enough. I talk to these teachers and they all say the same thing – the kids teach them far more than they could ever teach the kids. They send the kids birthday cards, or take them soup when they get braces. It’s no burden. It’s a cross.

A cross doesn’t necessarily mean suffering. But it does almost always mean sacrifice. A cross doesn’t always imply future victory. But it does imply presence of mind. A cross is a symbol of the death of selfishness, a living sense of purpose, and an awareness of hope. Crosses are easier to describe than to define. But when you’ve found one, you know it. You don’t have to be an Olympian to carry one. You just have to be willing.

As you prepare for Easter. As you get ready to walk the path of Jesus Christ – at least in spirit. As you honor the traditions of Lent… what crosses will YOU take up?