There is a whole lot going on in our Gospel Reading today. That said, I invite you to buckle up as I try to sort through some of it without preaching two or three separate sermons in one… Because if I’m to try and do any justice to this reading, I need to hit a few points—and hopefully draw them together nicely at the end. We’ll see what happens.
First off, a little context for the reading, just to give us some perspective on everything going on.
Up to this point Jesus has been travelling around healing and teaching and doing all sorts of miraculous things. Most recently Jesus fed a whole multitude of people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. He healed a blind man with some spit, and put some Pharisees in their place when they demanded signs from heaven. All pretty common Jesus-type stuff, and certainly interesting enough to start to cultivate some faith from his disciples.
The culmination of this section comes right before today’s reading, when Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is… After some discussion, it’s Peter who finally confesses that Jesus is the Messiah.
However, in a moment of terrific irony, everything gets turned upon its head in today’s Reading.
Jesus, the affirmed Messiah begins telling the crowd of people around him that the Messiah must undergo suffering and be killed. Admittedly, he does say that he will rise again in three days—but, that’s not something you usually bank on.
And honestly, if a religious leader ever told you he was planning on dying and coming back, I’d recommend rescinding your pledge and finding a another place of worship… Because, after all, no matter how much you might love and respect the leader, what Jesus is saying sounds like crazy talk.
So it’s fair to say that Peter’s response to Jesus is a completely rational one—if Jesus wants his reformation or realignment or revolution to happen, he can’t go around telling everyone he’s going to be killed. It’s just bad business.
But for those of us who know how the story ends, we know that there is much more happening. There is much more about the true Messiah than these people—even his disciples—could ever imagine. Namely, that Jesus had more than just the restoration of Israel in mind. His work was the redemption of Creation.
The problem with Peter’s response was not that he was wrong in a rational sense—the problem was that Peter forgot his role as disciple. It’s as if in the moment Peter went from being a student to a P.R. Specialist. It’s like he decided that Jesus needed a campaign manager because what Jesus was saying was bad publicity. In other words, Peter thought that he understood all that Jesus was doing better than Jesus himself, and had somehow worked out the bigger picture (which was a mistake). Worse still, Peter thought he had to save Jesus from himself.
I think when we consider these particular points, it’s no wonder Jesus put Peter in his place. In defense of Jesus’ response, I’d imagine having someone intercede to save his life could have been a temptation. Then again, from the rebuke he gives Peter, I’d say it reminded Jesus a lot of being in the desert after his baptism…
What happens next, of course, only makes things more awkward. If it wasn’t enough that he says that he will suffer and be killed; Jesus explains that the requirement for discipleship is to take up one’s own cross and follow him.
Not only this, but he goes so far as to say that the secret of truly receiving life is to lose one’s life. Probably not a great pitch for Stewardship Sunday, but it does call the bluff of anyone who assumes that discipleship is an easy thing. And of course, it’s not only a matter of following Jesus’ teaching, but even giving our lives fully in witness to the redemption given in Jesus Christ.
What is interesting about this statement about taking up the cross is that Jesus doesn’t say to take ‘a’ cross and follow after him. He says to “take up your cross.” It’s as if there is this understanding that each of us already has a cross that we bear—perhaps crosses made from all that we’ve experienced in life: the pain, the trials, even the joys I suppose.
But unlike anything else in our relationship with Jesus, this is about us. Because this cross of ours is made from the stuff of our lives. Yet, no matter what it is that forms it—it’s still a cross, just like everyone else’s.
And if the fact that all of us share in the experience of having crosses weren’t a powerful enough sign to us; Jesus goes so far as to ask us to take up our crosses. He bids us not dwell over our crosses, or be overwhelmed by them. Instead, he tells us to shoulder our pain, our sorrow, our joys—and carry them right behind him. He invites us to bear our crosses as a sign of victory.
The thing about carrying a cross is the fact that in bearing it up—even if it is to one’s own crucifixion, it’s a sign of dignity, and victory. Because by lifting one’s cross, it shows that no matter how overwhelming the situation may appear, we won’t be crushed or defeated by it.
Jesus calls us, then, to not be crushed by the weight of our cross. He instead calls us to join him in making a sign of death into a sign of victorious life by showing the world that we will not be outdone by the pain of this life.
Taking up our own cross means that we refuse to be martyrs to ourselves for ourselves—but instead will bear it on as a standard. And even if that pain means our death—just like the one who leads us, we will one day lift up our cross as a reminder to ourselves and others the hope and victory that is promised us in Jesus Christ—the one who would never be defeated by his cross or death.
I suppose the misleading part about bearing our crosses is that we might think it will be an easy task—especially since our own cross is so familiar to us. But the truth is that we need to practice. We need to daily take up our crosses (daily die to ourselves as St. Paul says), and always ask Christ to help us bear it. This dying thing actually takes practice, as it turns out…And what better time than the season of Lent to get that practice?
Because the mystery of the cross—even our own cross, is that when we are able to see beyond it; understand it as something victorious; we rob death of its victory, and claim it for our own.
That is our message to proclaim, and our promise to hope for…