Skip to site content

Choosing the Cross

Sermon delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Mar. 8 2009.

Mark 8:31-38

 
          Christians have long believed confession is good for the soul, especially during the season of Lent. So let me offer this confession—something deep within my soul reacts negatively to our selected scripture passage of the day. Part of me wishes the Church had not prescribed this scripture as a must for Lenten preaching. Part of me wishes it were not even in the Bible.
          If you asked me, “Can you find yourself portrayed in Mark 8?” I would readily answer, “Yes I can—in Simon Peter.” 
          For some time now, Peter and the other disciples have been on the “Jesus Tour” through Galilee and surrounding parts. They’ve watched Jesus wow people everywhere they go through his teaching with unrivaled authority, his healing hundreds of sick people, feeding thousands of hungry people, and walking on water to boot. It’s been an exhilarating time, and Peter and friends are beginning to believe they’ve hitched their wagons to a star that will retake Israel from the Romans and save the day. 
          When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and more to the point, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replies, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). Jesus commends Peter for the correct answer, and Peter is beaming on the inside (which is how I always felt when I got the right answer in class!).
          (Jesus) then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and this was more than Peter could handle. 
          Okay, here’s another confession. I’m a big fan of the television program “24” that features a deeply flawed tough-as-nails hero named Jack Baur. If you’re watching “24” this season, you know the White House has just been overtaken by African terrorists. And if you’ve seen the previews for tomorrow night’s show, you know the leader of the terrorists smacks our American president—a woman by the way—hard across the face. And you cannot help but flinch as you watch this happen to the President of the United States.
          That’s the way Peter flinches when he hears Jesus say that he must suffer and eventually be killed. This just can’t happen to the Messiah of Israel. It’s unthinkable! It’s insane! 
          So…Peter took (Jesus) aside and began to rebuke him. By the way, the Greek word for “rebuke” here is the same used to describe Jesus rebuking the demons before he commands them to come out of people. This is no minor confrontation. Peter has pulled Jesus aside, and he is chewing out the Messiah like nobody’s business. 
          Again, I find myself identifying with Peter. I don’t know that I would have had the nerve to publicly rebuke Jesus. But I would have wanted to because my default mode is the same as Peter’s—I want a life that’s safe, comfortable, and successful. I want to be a winner, and want to be associated with winners. I don’t like suffering. I don’t want to be seen as a failure. And I certainly don’t want to think that I might have to sacrifice or even die because of my association with anybody, including Jesus. 
          And privately, in my prayers, I tell Jesus what to do all the time. I want this problem fixed and that ailment healed. I want a church that succeeds and a life that is safe and secure from all alarms. Yep, Peter and I are bonded at the hip in so many ways, which explains, I guess, why I flinch when I read Jesus’ words about suffering. 
          And I flinch again when I review how Jesus responds to Peter. When Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Here’s what I notice about Jesus. He responds more like macho Jack Baur than the mild-mannered Jesus we think we know. He lets Peter know in no uncertain terms that he has stepped way over the line. Just to make the point plain, Jesus turns the tables and calls Peter “Satan” because Peter is beginning to sound like that Devil in the wilderness who tried to persuade Jesus to save the world without suffering, without a cross. 
          Jesus is no dummy. He knows people expect the Messiah to be like Superman, not Clark Kent. But unlike Peter, and to be honest, unlike me, Jesus is not interested in gaining the approval and fulfilling the expectations of others. A long time ago Jesus agreed to give up his false self that was self-centered and self-seeking and self-protective. Now he lives out of a true self devoted to the concerns of God rather than merely human concerns. 
          And Jesus tells Peter where to go—behind him! Why’s that important? Because for just a moment, Peter tries to get in front of Jesus and lead him, manage him, control him. But Jesus won’t allow that because Jesus doesn’t follow us. We’re called to follow him.  
          After giving Peter a piece of his God-focused mind, Jesus calls the crowd over to hear what he says next. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
          Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher, once said, “If we mean by Christian what the New Testament means by Christian, then in any given generation there may be five or six true Christians.” Kierkegaard had evidently read Mark 8, and knew what a radical life Jesus calls us to live.
          Kierkegaard struggled with the church of his day because he thought it was so compromised by the world’s values of wealth, power, and prestige. Kierkegaard told how he once went to a magnificent cathedral in Copenhagen and took his place in a pew to share in Sunday worship. He recalled how the sun shone through the stained-glass windows and glistened off the brilliantly colored tapestries that hung on the cathedral’s walls. He watched as the velvet-robed minister took his place behind the golden pulpit, opened the gilded Bible, marked it with a satin marker, and read, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
          “And,” said Kierkegaard, “nobody even laughed.”
          Anybody here laughing? Anybody here uncomfortable yet? If we’re not we should be because in truth we all stand with Peter in desiring a Christianity without a cross, in wanting a faith without suffering, in wanting Easter Sunday without Lent and Good Friday. 
          Two thousand years after Jesus first taught his disciples and the surrounding crowd the plain facts about the nature of his ministry and our lives if we truly follow him, we need to hear this hard word one more time, really hear it. This is a word we resist, and avoid if we can. And that’s tragic because within this word lies the key to life as God created it be—abundant and eternal. 
          What are the requirements of being a disciple of Jesus? The first, Jesus says, is to deny ourselves. During the season of Lent many Christians traditionally give up something. And that’s fine as long as we realize that what we are called upon to give up is not just sweets or caffeine or even television programs like “24”. 
          What we’re called to give up is ourselves, or to be more precise, our “false selves.” Our false selves are those selves that make us the center of our own little universes. They’re the selves that insist on being safe and comfortable and successful above all else. These distorted selves are not the product of God’s creation but the result of the Fall of humanity. And the truth is, we can’t really make any headway serving Christ if we stay rooted in these false selves that insist on their own way. Only when we deny our false selves and live more and more out of our true selves that live out of complete trust in God will we be able to journey to a deeper place with Jesus. If we think we can follow Jesus without denying our false selves, says Jesus, then we’re the ones living in denial.
          The second requirement of discipleship is even more radical than the first. We are to take up our crosses. To any first-century Jew who has watched Roman soldiers force common criminals to carry their assigned crosses to their designated sites of crucifixion, this is a bloodcurdling command. And yet, it is the very challenge that Jesus issues, knowing the day is coming soon when he will be carrying his own cross to Golgotha.
          Recently, I’ve run across a different interpretation of taking up our crosses in a wonderful book written by David Benner entitled, Desiring God’s Will. Benner notes that in our usual attention to the old rugged cross Jesus physically carries to Calvary we ignore the “inner crosses” Jesus learned to bear earlier in his life.
          We’re never allowed in scripture to probe Jesus’ psyche like a therapist, but scripture gives us clues about these inner crosses. For example, the seeming inability of Jesus’ disciples—his inner circle of closest friends—to fully grasp his ministry must have been a source of great frustration to Jesus. How painful was it to be publicly berated by Peter, and later publicly denied by Peter, but not before being blatantly betrayed by Judas Iscariot? Perhaps most painful, even more than the rejection of his own family was the hostile treatment of Jesus at the hands of Jewish leaders. For the Son of God to be spit upon, beaten, and finally killed by the chosen children of God had to be more devastating than we can ever know. Imagine how hard it was to pray for and love the very people who were intent on nailing you to a cross.
          But here’s the key to it all—Jesus didn’t just passively bear these inner crosses. He willingly chose to take up his cross, not because he was a glutton for punishment but because he was willing to put God’s way above his own. And consequently, he changed this world. 
          What separates Jesus from all other world leaders is that his power is rooted not in macho posturing or political maneuvering or military might. His power is rooted in suffering and death, as well as the power of God himself. And in ways that turn all conventional wisdom upside down, he transformed history through his death on a cross.
          Taking up our crosses, says David Benner, means understanding we too will suffer as we walk through life.  It means resisting our urge to run from our suffering. It means accepting our suffering, whatever it is, and inviting Christ to walk before us and alongside us as we carry our inner crosses.
          David Benner uses himself as an illustration, relating how he was once publicly and unfairly accused of doing something wrong by a colleague at work. Despite Benner’s attempts to clear things up, the colleague refused to be reconciled, offered even more insults, and walked away. 
          Not surprisingly, David Benner had smoke pouring out of his ears. He wanted to retaliate against this colleague, and set the record straight so other colleagues would not think badly of him.  Then he saw this situation for what it was—a cross that he could either angrily cast aside or willingly take up and carry. He realized this relatively minor experience of suffering could help him better understand Jesus’ suffering, while Jesus’ suffering put his own suffering in perspective. Most importantly, he saw his suffering as an opportunity to grow in his faith. 
          So David Benner voluntarily chose the way of the cross rather than retaliations. He sent an email to his hostile colleague, again apologizing for anything wrong he had said or done, and offering to talk about the matter further. Then he decided to move on, content that he had not sacrificed his soul in order to save his precious pride. He died to his wounded pride, and got something even more important in return−a more Christ-like soul.
          Yes, it’s time. If we follow Jesus we must die to prideful selves. The irony is that when we die to our need to come out on top, we rise to a new level of life. The truth of the gospel is this—through death comes new life, and through crucifixion comes resurrection. There is no life apart from death, no authentic joy apart from suffering. You, and I, and Peter all want to do an end run around suffering and death, and it won’t work…not if we want to have the transformed soul of a mature disciple of Jesus.
          Recently I was given a cross that is unlike any other I’ve ever owned. Pictured in the body of the cross is a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, the prototypical symbol of transformation. Here lies a truth we don’t want to hear, but must hear.
          We’re not transformed by Christ so much by soft experiences on sunny days. Christ transforms us more on those dark difficult days of suffering when we carry our crosses and learn first hand that the only power that can save us is the power of God. I don’t know what inner crosses of suffering, and abuse, and rejection you bear. But God does. And if you will invite God into those hard places and trust him with your very life, your soul will be transformed, and one day the darkness of crucifixion will make way for the dawn of resurrection in your soul.
          And all will be well. And all will be well with you soul.