A sermon based on Mark 8:27-28.
“Oh that’s just my cross to bear”. Or even “Oh that’s just YOUR cross to bear.” It’s a common phrase. People use it all of the time. They use it to talk about health issues or troublesome family members or even simply inconveniences. It’s a casual turn of phrase that gets used for all manner and severity of hard time. It’s a phrase that’s used so often that we sometimes don’t even think about what it means anymore.
And it’s tied back in to the reading of our Gospel passage for today. A reading that, when you know the context, doesn’t hold up.
The thing with reading the Bible is that if you’ve read it or heard it often you know the end of the story. So it can be easy to read into the text what you already know, even if it hasn’t happened yet. This passage is kind of notorious for getting that reading. When Jesus says “everyone who follows me must take up their cross” we immediately think about Jesus’ death by crucifixion. But at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet! He doesn’t yet know that that’s what his death will entail. Maybe he has suspicions, but it’s not a certainty. Not yet, anyway.
So we have to dig a little deeper to get at his meaning. Clearly if he is using this phrasing then crosses were part of the culture. They were something that common people, his main audience, would understand and recognize.
Indeed crosses were all over the place. They were used by the Romans as a tool of oppression. As a warning. People who were hung on crosses were a threat to the social order: they were insurrectionists, they were rabble rousers, they were protestors. They were the ones who were calling attention to the occupation of Rome and saying that it wasn’t right.
Death by crucifixion was a horrible and brutal way to die. And people were often left on crosses as a warning to others. Imagine crosses stretched along the roadside, each with a body. You would quickly get the message: Stay quiet. Stay in line. Follow the rules. Obey. Or else you could end up like those people.
So when Jesus says “take up your cross” he’s saying it in that context.
He’s not saying that your bad health is something you need to bear up under. He’s not saying that your family issues or abusive spouse or money struggles have been placed on you by God to teach you a lesson. And yet, that is often how people use this phrase of taking up your cross. Or bearing your cross. Something that is placed on you that you have no choice but to suffer with. When used in that way it excuses all manner of abuse. In fact it is the exact opposite of what Jesus is saying! Jesus isn’t saying suffer in silence. Jesus is saying something different, something much more radical: To be a follower of Jesus you must choose the way of the cross. And what is the way of the cross?
Let’s listen to Jesus’ words again:
“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. 35 All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. 36 Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives? 37 What will people give in exchange for their lives?”
Jesus is saying that if you really want to follow him you can’t play it safe. You can’t remain silent about the things that matter. You can’t see injustice and turn away. You can’t continue to participate in systems that oppress and dehumanize people. Instead, following Jesus means choosing the path of risk. Choosing to speak up, to stand up, to fight, to work. And the thing that is at risk in this equation is your very soul. Not in the “do the right thing or God will send you to Hell” kind of way, but in the sense that when we sit back and watch injustice happen and do nothing we lose a piece of our soul. We are impacted by our inaction. When Jesus talks about those who try to save their lives losing them instead, this is what he means. You might have all of the safety and wealth and power in the world but you will lose your soul. Jesus’ equation of success looks different: It looks like choosing the risky thing; speaking up, doing right, not letting oppression and injustice have the final say. And when you do that, when you choose that risk, you are in danger. You might lose your life. You might get hung on a cross, or spend time in jail (like many people have done in the fight for civil rights). You might lose your reputation amongst certain people or lose your job. But what you won’t lose is your soul.
And if you think about it, this is what it means to be a part of bringing about the Kingdom of God here and now. If all of us, all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, stood up and said no to injustice. No to oppression. No to the dehumanization of people who look and love differently than us. If we could realize that unless we all have enough; enough to eat, enough to money to live, enough housing. Unless we are all safe and have clean water and health care. Unless we can all worship freely and without threat. Unless we ALL have these things, then the world isn’t right. And we are at risk of losing our souls. But when we stand up, when we push back, when we raise our voices and our heads, when we join our hearts and our hands and do the work, then we are creating a world where, as it says in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “all things are being reconciled”. That is the way of the cross, doing the hard work of reconciliation.
Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it involves risk and lose of safety and comfort. But there’s something else in this message of the cross: We know that the cross is not the final word. Resurrection is.
So even when it looks like hatred is winning. Even when the people who are working for justice are being jailed and killed. Even when all seems lost, there is hope. God is not done working. More people will rise up and and follow Jesus in choosing the way of risk that makes the world a better place for ALL people. We know that in the end all things will be reconciled. All things will be redeemed. Resurrection is on the other side of the cross so we have nothing to fear except the loss of our soul by inaction. And when we all work together the fear is lessened, the risk is lessened. Let us choose the way of risk, let us do the work of justice, let us save our souls. And when we do, it will be beautiful.