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Embracing the Cross

March 6, 2012

“Embracing the Cross” Mark 8:31-38 © 3.4.12 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Imagine that in one mind-blowing, heart-pounding, world-destroying moment your dreams are shattered and all you thought you knew or had been taught is called into question. Your hopes for tomorrow are shown to be so much dust to be blown about by the winds of change, sacrificed on the altar of hard reality. The job you thought you had sewn up and indeed that had been promised to you is given at the last minute to someone else. Your loved one who was beating cancer or was soon to come home from war is suddenly sick again or badly wounded, even dead. A friend you trusted completely and told your deepest darkest secrets has posted your troubles on Facebook. Someone said something you took one way and pinned your expectations on, but now they make clear their meaning was totally different.

How would you feel? Betrayed? Sad? Angry? Hurt? Numb? Bitter? Afraid? All of the above? Then you get what was racing through Peter’s mind when Jesus started talking about a suffering Messiah. It was too much for him to take. For him and everybody else in his land, the Messiah, the Christ, was supposed to be a brave conqueror, a consistent winner, a political and military genius, an action figure or superhero that would inspire others to take up arms and drive out the Roman oppressors. But Jesus wasn’t talking like that at all. Instead, he sounded like a total loser. Who was going to follow a guy with a death wish?

But more than the challenge to his populist, nationalist, revolutionary vision of the Messiah, what bothered Peter was the realization that if Jesus were going to die, maybe his followers were in for the same fate. Up till now, life had been exciting, full of miracles and wonders and adoring crowds. They had traveled around to new places, telling about the kingdom of God. What a rush to be with Jesus! The future was so bright, Peter had to wear shades, as the old song put it. Yeah, the best was yet to come. When Jesus was crowned as the new king on David’s throne, he would need and want advisors. Surely as one of the inner circle of three, Peter’s name would be on the A list for chief of staff or prime minister, something important. But now come to find out that all that was just a pipe dream. What awaited Peter and the others was torture and death at the hands of the Romans. That is, unless somebody put a stop to this nonsense and got Jesus back on the right track.

What happened next was basically a struggle for control, for the right to define the word “Messiah.” Peter and the culture thought power came by taking it, by making others suffer, not suffering yourself. Would that view prevail? Or would it be Jesus’ vision of how things would be, must be? For our Lord, there was no victory without vulnerability, no success without necessary suffering (Richard Rohr’s phrase). Who was going to set the agenda, lay out the mission plan?

The answer for believers must be that Jesus sets the tone and writes the agenda. Not as a loser, not as a victim, but as somebody who makes a choice to follow through on a mission he has willingly undertaken. He’ll see it to the end even though it means rejection, suffering, and death. The way to power for Jesus is found not along the usual avenues people take—intimidation, fear, lying, cutthroat competition, manipulation, seduction, violence. Jesus will go the path of vulnerability and hurt, honesty and humiliation. He will be open to pain, even embracing it for the sake of those he came to save.

G.K. Chesterton famously once said that “the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” And that’s right. Being a Christian is not easy. Jesus lays it out for us. Being a disciple means denying self, taking up the cross, and following him. Efforts at self-preservation, bids for control and mastery, grasping to possess are not worthy of our Lord’s disciples. He even said those who try such things will lose their lives. Instead, the way to what we want, which is life abundant, is through the cross.

To whom is this promise veiled in demand addressed? Let’s be clear. The call to deny self does not come to us in our weakness, but in our very great strength. It’s the summons to follow Jesus in giving ourselves willingly. It’s to choose vulnerability when we could hide in our cocoons of safety rather than venture into the world God loves and try to heal the hurt. It’s to speak from our hearts, putting our viewpoints out there in the marketplace of ideas, instead of just preaching to the choir. Self-denial, as someone has said, “nurtures life. Every day, people set aside their own lives to listen to the worries of others. They leave homes for others’ dreams. They provide end-of-life care whose heroism will never be seen. Every day, men and women toil at jobs that yield little satisfaction but do provide for their families…” (Tom Ehrich). However we embody the call, denying self means embracing the cross as the icon of our discipleship, the central focus of our lives.

The call to deny self and take up the cross comes to those who know who they are; have well-defined goals, beliefs, needs, and wants; are confident of their gifts; and engage in relationships with others. In other words, to those with a strong sense of self. Self-denial means that we could go our own way and seek our own good, in utter independence from anybody else, turning our heads away, closing our hearts. But we choose to do otherwise, as Jesus did. This way of sacrificial living is not forced on us by fate or circumstances. Our discipleship doesn’t arise from dependence or codependence or compulsion. We take up the cross intentionally, knowing what we’re getting into. We have no doubt that the way leads to the judgment hall and mocking and Calvary, but we go anyway. Because that way, we know, we believe, we have seen, is life.

The majority opinion, the conventional wisdom, our natural inclination all recommend self-preservation as the basic strategy for success. But Jesus said that the ones who seek to save their lives will lose them. The values-inverting message of the gospel is that giving up control is the way of salvation. The harder we try to assert ourselves, the closer we come to destruction. The path of life lies another way, in following another’s lead, in obeying his way, in listening to his voice.

An old story tells about a battleship caught in a dense fog. Someone on the bridge saw a light up ahead. The captain told the signalman to advise the light to turn twenty degrees to starboard. The reply came back: “Advise you turn twenty degrees to starboard.” The captain insisted, and the message went out: “Tell him I’m a captain; turn twenty degrees to starboard.” The word came back: “I’m a seaman 2nd class, sir; advise you to turn twenty degrees to starboard.” Fed up, the captain roared: “Tell him we’re a battleship; he better turn.” “We’re a lighthouse,” came the reply. “Advise you to turn twenty degrees to starboard.”

Relinquishing control or foundering on the rocks, following another or being destroyed by our own arrogance. The way of the cross is to give up seeking our own way. As the scholar Walter Brueggemann (in Interpretation and Obedience) observes, the cross teaches us we can’t master hurt and loss, only embrace it. He says that the place from which God’s new life comes to us is the “embrace of pathos and the practice of community pain.”

In the end, Brueggemann claims, whether we are whole people or not depends on how we see ourselves and the larger world. Where does our energy come from? Whom do we trust as our authority? What is the lens through which we see things? We can try to control the world around us, we can try to possess and grasp, we can build ourselves up and believe we’re all that, as they say. Or we can yield to God’s way with us, see his call as a gift, and open ourselves to him and to our neighbors.

There’s no doubt that the strange and paradoxical good news of the cross shatters our world, as it did for Peter. But when we embrace the cross as our guide for living, we find in it the grace of God that lifts us up and gives us courage when we choose risk; that fills us with strength when the journey is too much; that wraps us in love and warms our hearts when our zeal is in danger of growing cold. When we take the cross for our guide, then we are truly following Jesus, letting him call the shots, allowing him to teach us the way things are, trusting him to lead us to life.

Historically, there has always been an awakening on the other side of crisis for nations and generations. So too on the other side of the suffering of the cross is there the reality of new life, the experience of resurrection. The promise of Jesus is sure and trustworthy: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”

May God grant us grace to walk with our Lord and embrace the cross.

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