Sunday, September 13, 2009

Take up your Cross: What an odd thing to say

Today’s sermon is taken from Mark 8: 27-38

“Take up your cross and follow me.”

What an odd thing to say. Being nailed to a cross is not an invitation that I, for one, am particularly inclined to accept, thank you very much.

Whatever is Jesus talking about?

Last week we hear about healing, this week we hear about death and the Cross.

There is an unavoidable edge to the gospel today. This business of bringing healing and hope, paradoxically, does not always lead to immediate tranquility for the healed or the healer.

For Jesus, his mission of healing and hope is bringing him to a place of pain and death. And his follower Peter sees where this is going and objects strenuously.

And that brings us squarely in front of a difficult subject: sacrifice. I do not want to avoid it today, but try to sort this out with you because it is at the heart of the gospel, indeed, at the heart of Christian faith itself.

One conventional way of understanding this is to see Jesus on the Cross as a ransom to bail us out of jail. The idea is that a blood-thirsty, vengeful God needs payment for all of the bad things God’s created beings – humans – have done.

And that is certainly how Peter is hearing this, and he can’t stand the concept. Why should he?

But instead of offering Peter comfort, Jesus tells him to “Get behind me Satan.”

Jesus is saying, Peter, you don’t understand this yet – hold on. Conventional ideas of blood ransom miss the mark, the idea comes from a wrong-headed – dare we say Satanic – concept of God as needing blood sacrifice. Jesus tries over and over to get us to see God differently, and still Peter doesn’t see it.

Jesus is not offering a blood sacrifice to satisfy a blood-thirsty deity, but is presenting an offer of love to go with us into whatever pit we may dwell, experience whatever pain we experience, and go with us even into the to free us from what hurts and wounds us. This is about healing at the deepest core of our being.

But before we can go there, Jesus issues a challenge to us to participate, and not half-heartedly, but fully. And so he declares this challenge in the strongest words imaginable:

“Take up your Cross” and follow. Those words are at least as sharp as the rebuke to Peter about Satan. Let me explain why:

The Cross is the Roman Empire’s favorite tool for execution. By telling us to take up the Cross, Jesus is co-opting the very symbol of evil.

Jesus is saying take up the cross as a sign of defiance against the power of evil, as a sign of defiance against death itself. He is stealing the Roman’s favorite symbol.

And that is where hope enters our story, where we can look for the courage to push aside whatever hurt and pain plagues us, whatever personal demons get in our way, and become being fully the people God would have us be.

Finding strength from outside ourselves will allow us to be servants to each other, to build the beloved community bringing light and hope into our world.

Our task here is to do precisely that: build the beloved community, right here, in our own time and in our own world, right here in this church on this corner.

I want to close by reading something from Oscar Romero, who was the Archbishop of El Salvador. He took up his Cross, giving up his life for his people. His words are a reminder, I think, of Christ’s call to all of us:
This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
We plant the seeds for the future and we are the builders in bringing forth this abundant, extravagant love God gives to all of us free of charge.

The question for each of us is: How will we share this love lavishly with the rest of our world? How will we take up our Cross not to die, but to live?

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