9/16/2018 Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Mark 8:27-38.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson is one of the most powerful in the New Testament. For in it, for the first time, a disciple has the insight and courage to say out loud that Jesus is the Messiah. Sure, people who knew about Jesus might have had their suspicions about his true identity, but only Peter, bold, impetuous Peter, has the guts to say out loud, “You are the Messiah; you are the Christ.”
Of course, the story doesn’t end here. If it did, all we would have is a nice history lesson about Jesus and Peter, and not much else. But the story doesn’t end here. The story, in a sense, begins here and goes on, and what follows says something important to all of us. For, what follows Peter’s confession is a grace prediction as Jesus goes on to tell the disciples that he is going to have to go to Jerusalem and die on a cross. He will suffer, not as a powerful king, but as an ordinary criminal. He will be put on public display and will be beaten and ridiculed and spat upon. He will die without ever fulfilling Peter’s expectations.
On hearing this prediction, Peter’s messianic expectations of Jesus are shattered. The Peter, whose lips had just confessed the true identity of Jesus, now sees red. He is really ticked off for Peter had always thought that the messiah was going to be a great king – a king who would come in power to kick out the Romans and rule over all Israel with justice and might. Instead there is Jesus standing before him and proclaiming that his seat of power will be on a cross.
I am sure that this left Peter wondering if he had spoken in haste when he said those words, “You are the Messiah.” Why? Because Jesus was not fulfilling his and everyone else’s expectations for a messiah. And those expectations were getting in the way of Jesus’ mission to a fallen world.
Letting go of our false expectations of God, or of ourselves, or of our place of employment, or of the medical community and what it can do to improve and prolong our life, is not an easy process for any of us. Why? Because we buy into what the world around us tells about these things – so our expectations are that there is cure for everything, that we are owed a good income, that we are the best thing since sliced bread, and that God is there to meet our bidding. All of this, of course, means that we are often sorely disappointed for these expectations fly in the face of reality. And that is certainly true for Peter who has no idea what the messiahship of Jesus means for the world.
Peter, although he is able to correctly identify Jesus through the grace of God, is still hampered by the worldly vision which defines power in ways which are radically different from self-sacrifice and service. For, from the height of the cross, not the steps of a human throne, Jesus will display his greatest power – a power which is found in the love and willingness of God to give all for the sake of a world of people who will neither understand nor appreciate what is being done at the time. It is upon a cross, which is known only as the instrument of suffering and death, that the extent of Jesus’ kingship will be revealed. And with this the cross will be transformed into a symbol of life.
The cross is a symbol of life to come, secured by a messiah who rules with compassion and grace. And that same cross is a symbol of living for us, living as part of the messianic kingdom in this world today. For, “If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Often when we think of cross-bearing we think of suffering – like bearing the cross of blindness or chronic illness, or of unrequited love, or of living with an abusive spouse, or of dealing with addiction of one sort or another. All of these are burdens, and no one escapes life without some burden or another. Yet, the cross that Jesus is telling his disciples to pick up is more than a burden of normal living. Jesus tells us, as he did the disciples of old, that if we want to be his followers we need to leave the thoughts of self behind, along with the problems of the day, and think of the needs of others first.
The cross that we are to bear as a follower of Jesus, our own cross, is a cross of self-denial and of giving. It is a cross fashioned after the cross of Christ. That cross, although it is full of pain, is a cross with a purpose, a cross which gives life to others. It is a cross of love and sacrifice.
In this world there is a field of crosses fashioned after the one which bore the body of our Lord. And each cross bears a name. My cross, the one marked for me to bear, is different from yours. Yours may involve caring for elderly parents, or aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends and providing for them as they reach the end of their lives on earth. Your cross may involve being patient with a grumpy or demanding housemate who is struggling with physical or emotional pain. Your cross may be providing a loving and safe environment for children who have had more than their share of pain. Your cross may be standing up in front of us and reminding us again and again of our responsibility to our neighbors, knowing that some will murmur and turn their ear against those words. Your cross may be to take a stand for what is right, even if it means that you may lose your job or be publicly discredited. Whatever your cross is, it is out there, waiting for you to pick it up. Whatever your cross is, it is yours to carry. It is different from mine, but all crosses are fashioned in the same way, in the shadow of the cross of Christ. The cross is a labor of love. It is not a thorn in the flesh or a submissive instrument of abuse. It is a powerful instrument of service to the world.
“If any want to become my followers,” Jesus says, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This may not sound like good news. It is a way of servanthood and of self-denial that runs contrary to the world around us. But, then, the news that Jesus tells Peter about his impending death, is anything but good news to Peter. And yet, it is indeed the best news of all. For, in Jesus’ willingness to pick up his cross and lay his crown upon it, we are saved.
Jesus is the messiah, the Christ, whose power is found in humble service to a world expecting something different. As followers of Christ, may we live by his example and pick up and carry our crosses, expecting nothing in return. And may we find that the burden of those crosses is lightened by the joy of serving in God’s name.
As followers of Christ, may the words we proclaim with our lips become the way of life, and may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.