“It’s just my cross to bear.” How many times have you heard someone say that? It’s a commonly used phrase in our culture. When used in conversation, the “cross” typically means something difficult or inconvenient or stressful. The phrase can be found all over the place in our popular culture—in public discourse, in movies, in songs by Billy Joel, the Allman Brothers, and Kylie Minogue. When I was researching for this sermon I stumbled across Dictionary.com’s definition of the phrase “cross to bear.” It is both amusing and troubling: “A burden or trial one must put up with, as in Alzheimer's is a cross to bear for the whole family, or in a lighter vein, mowing that huge lawn once a week is Brad's cross to bear. This phrase alludes to the cross carried by Jesus to his crucifixion. Today it may be used either seriously or lightly.” I have to say—I don’t think this is what Jesus meant when he told us to take up our crosses if we wanted to follow him. And I think that the nature of this cliché in our language colors our understanding of our passage today from Mark’s gospel. When we hear “take up your cross and follow me,” we sometimes can’t help but inject this cultural distortion of Jesus’ words into what we think it means. But if we are to be disciples of Jesus, we have to learn what it truly means to set our minds on divine things. So let us stop censoring Jesus, take up our crosses, and follow him.
This moment we just read is a pivotal point in Mark’s gospel. After his baptism and his time in the wilderness, Jesus called the disciples and launched his ministry. He travelled around Galilee and the surrounding region, teaching about the kingdom of God, healing people, and casting out demons. On the way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and Peter, always bold, always quick to speak, blurted out “You are the Christ—the Messiah!” Mark tells us that Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone this. Then he proceeded to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the religious establishment, be killed, and rise again.
Notice that Jesus does not refer to himself by the title Christ or Messiah, but instead uses the phrase “Son of Man.” If you miss this little detail, a lot of what happens next may be confusing. The Son of Man or the Human One is an image that comes from a vision in the book of Daniel. In the vision, Daniel sees four part-human, part beast creatures, one after another, each different in its detail but equally destructive and violent. These beasts represent the powers and principalities of this world that are opposed to the people and the ways of God, those monsters who disregard the lives of the faithful, those empires that use violence and coercive power to have their way in the world. The vision continues and Daniel sees that although the reign of these beasts last for a time, God eventually takes away their dominion and destroys them. Then one like a human being, the Son of Man, comes and is presented before God. No part of him is beast-like. There is no violence in the reign of the Son of Man; no weapons of destruction mark his coming; he has come to rule with justice and peace, not violence and inhumanity. To this Son of Man God gives dominion and glory and kingship that does not pass away and will never be destroyed.
By calling himself Son of Man instead of Messiah, Jesus identifies himself with this apocalyptic image from Daniel over and against Peter’s expectations of who he came to be and how he was going to accomplish it. When Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, he expects Jesus to lead a revolution to throw out their Roman oppressors and reestablish the autonomous throne of David. He expects that Jesus will make Israel mighty again by the world’s obvious definition. He longs for days gone by when the Jewish people controlled their own destiny. He expects that Jesus and his righteous cause will win in the way Peter and the other disciples have imagined, that Jesus will be embraced and anointed as the new high priest to restore the law and make things right. So understandably, when he hears Jesus speaking openly about being rejected and killed, Peter pulls Jesus aside and says “What’s all this about suffering and dying at the hands of the political and religious authorities Jesus? That’s not what we signed up for and it’s certainly not what’s going to happen to you. In case you didn’t hear me before, let me say it again: you’re the Messiah! Everyone is going to rally behind you and we’re going to take the power back!”
I think Peter honestly expected Jesus to say “Oh. My mistake. Right you are Peter! The Scriptures do testify to a Messiah who will save Israel from the grasp of Empire and restore it to its former glory.” But instead, Jesus turns back to look at the disciples, and rebukes Peter in front of them saying “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.” Although Peter is trying to correct Jesus, Jesus tells the Tempter at work in Peter to get back in line, back where you belong, as follower not teacher. Jesus identifies Peter with Satan because Peter has voiced the perennial temptation—to take a painless shortcut to the kingdom. It’s what Satan tempted Jesus with in the wilderness and what Jesus was tempted with on the night he was betrayed and arrested when he prayed for God to take this cup from him.
Jesus then calls the crowd over and says to all of them “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those of you who want to save your life will lose it, and those who lose your life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? Indeed, what of this world can you give in return for this life I am promising you?”
This is where theologian Ched Myers says “Mark’s subversive narrative bursts into the open.” This is where it is vital for us to understand what “take up your cross” means and what it doesn’t mean. Carrying your cross was not some squishy metaphor for any type of discomfort or suffering. As Myers puts it: “There can be no equivocation concerning the political semantics of this invitation. The cross had only one connotation in the Roman Empire: upon it, dissidents were executed.” As we have gotten further and further away from the Roman Empire’s preferred method of exectution, this reference has lost its power for the church. Maybe it’s because Christians have not always seen fit to challenge the power of state that we have confused the metaphor of the cross. We have used it to give meaning to any type of suffering, but that is unfair to those who suffer meaningless tragedy and it’s unfaithful to what Jesus is asking of us. John Howard Yoder said it like this: “The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs. The cross of Calvary is not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.”
Taking up your cross is not any random suffering or discomfort. It is not, as many wrong-headed ministers have counseled, the passive acceptance of any abusive situation. The call to be a disciple of Jesus is a call for each of us to freely enter into a quarrel with the way things are in our world. It’s a call to reject the quiet life, as Wes put it last week, in favor of a life that boldly resists evil. It’s a call to love God’s world and God’s children enough to speak truth to the powers, to expose their lies, and to accept the charge that we are dissidents against an empire that exploits and dehumanizes God’s beloved children, regardless of the consequences those powers may dole out for your refusal to bow to them. If we can follow Jesus in this way of the cross, Jesus promises us that despite what it may look like to the world, we will truly be saving our lives.
In this passage, and throughout his ministry, Jesus affirmed the way of the cross over the way of the world. The way of the cross is God’s ultimate paradox. It’s the mystery of how God’s kingdom grows against all odds. It’s the hidden truth that God transforms weakness into strength. God transforms death into life. It’s the little-understood truth that gospel ministry succeeds in its “failure.” This is why Jesus is so fond of seed metaphors for the kingdom. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…The kingdom is like a sower…Gospel ministry’s success is not measured by numbers and wealth and winning but by how much has been scattered or poured out on behalf of God’s beloved in our midst; by people being made whole by transformative encounters with each other and with God; by people being freed from a vision of scarcity that tells you that you must become a wolf to defeat the wolves; by people seeing that abundant, eternal life is found not in amassing wealth and prestige and security for yourself, but in the revolutionary improbability of God’s mission to transform the world by washing its feet rather than beating it into submission.
This has been a difficult week for our family here at GFBC, to say the least. The powers of this land deported our brother Gilles—despite the fact that he did everything right, despite the fact that he faces political persecution where they have sent him, despite the fact that he cannot receive the medical care he needs to live in the Congo. It was an evil thing to do, plain and simple. Throughout this whole process, ICE has trafficked in deception, obfuscation, cruelty, and indifference. ICE has revealed itself to be a half-human, half-beast monster straight out of the book of Daniel, bent on doing violence to God’s beloved children like Gilles. We called them to heed the gospel of Jesus, to have mercy, to remember God’s justice, and they hardened their hearts, covered their eyes, and stopped up their ears. Our scripture today has a word for our sisters and brothers at ICE: Those who are ashamed of Jesus and his words in this sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in glory. Today, however, instead of focusing on that evil, I want us to see what God is doing among us in spite of it. I want us to look in spite of our grief over what has happened and notice how God might be transforming all of us as we walk this path together with Gilles.
On the morning after we found out that ICE had moved Gilles from Stewart Detention Center to Atlanta, Lauren and I were in the office together. Thom Tillis’ Raleigh staff members were on their way to meet with us and I could tell Lauren was feeling the pressure of it all. This whole time Lauren has been carrying a heavy load and I didn’t want her to get to the place where she felt solely responsible for converting everyone at ICE and saving Gilles and making everything right. So I gave her a hug and I said “you know we’re probably going to fail. But that shouldn’t stop us from fighting. And it won’t really be failing.” It’s not really in either Lauren’s or my personality to accept that we can’t fix something. This process has reminded us of a theological truth that we sometimes forget: God doesn’t expect us to fix everything. God just expects us to be faithful—to scatter the seed with reckless abandon. It may feel like we have failed this morning, GFBC. And from the outside, we have. We fought with everything we had and ICE still deported Gilles. But I believe God gave us these words from Mark 8 this morning to remind us that following Jesus in the way of the cross often looks like failure from the outside. The coercive and destructive powers of this world are strong. The great surprise of the gospel is that crucifixion, the worst that the powers could do to Jesus, is not the end of the story. ICE may think they can just deport Gilles and that will be the end of it. But I have some news for them. This is just the beginning of what God is doing through Gilles and through GFBC because of Gilles’ witness. Something is happening here within our walls and far beyond our walls because of Gilles’ story. Our love for Gilles has only grown and God continues to transform us through that relationship. Before this happened, we may have been able to bury our heads in the sand about what is happening to our immigrant brothers and sisters in our country, but Gilles has made sure we have heard the gospel call. We can no longer ignore that God’s children are being rounded and sent to concentration camps on our own shores. Not only are we going to make sure Gilles is taken care of, but we are now committed to shining the bright light of God’s justice directly at ICE until no one experiences what Gilles has experienced ever again. Not only has this community been awakened, but hundreds of thousands of people have heard Gilles’ story, and are waking up as well. As one of your ministers, I just want to say that I am deeply humbled by the love you have shown for Gilles, by your commitment to each other, and by your righteous fire in the face of a formidable enemy. Now, Jesus is calling us to follow him forward, to continue fighting for Gilles and for all God’s beloved, and to expect God’s resurrection even in the midst of our most difficult moments, when it seems like the powers of this world have won.
I don’t know about you, but I have decided to follow Jesus and there’s no turning back. I have experienced the abundant life and freedom that the way of Jesus offers in this fight we have engaged in together. I am not interested in gaining the whole world and forfeiting that life that I have seen is possible. I will continue to do everything in my power to fight for Gilles and for a world where all of us can live in God’s peace and abundance. I hope you will join me. We will probably get in trouble. We may have to take up our crosses because the powers of this world don’t like it when people refuse to accept their authority and their version of reality. We will certainly have to lose the quiet lives we had planned for ourselves for the sake of the gospel. But we will discover together the life that God intends for us and for all people—a life where no one is trampled under the foot of empire, where everyone lives in freedom, in health, and in love.