Taking up the Cross

Published: Monday, 26 February 2018

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on 25 February 2018. It is part of the ‘Journey with Mark’ series following the lectionary readings. Questions for personal reflection and group study are posted at the conclusion of this manuscript.

Reading: Mark 8:31-38

In 2004 Frank Warren had a crazy idea.[1] He printed 3,000 self-addressed postcards. They were blank on one side and had instructions on the other. He asked people to anonymously share a secret they’d never told anyone before. He handed these out randomly, not knowing what to expect. But soon the idea went viral. People from all over the world bought their own postcards and sent them to Frank. He posted them on his web site called PostSecret.com. It’s become one of the most visited blogs in the world. Frank has received more than half a million secrets.

Someone shared this secret: “I found these stamps as a child and I have been waiting all my life to have someone to send them to. I never did have someone.”

Another posted this: “Dear Birthmother, I have great parents. I’ve found love. I’m happy.”

A woman wrote: “One of these men is the father of my child. He pays me a lot to keep it a secret.”

And this one: “Inside this envelope is the ripped up remains of a suicide note I didn’t use. I feel like the happiest person on Earth (now).”

We all have secrets.

These posted secrets can remind us of the countless dramas playing out silently all around us. Secrets can touch us at our deepest humanity and right at the heart of our true identity. Sharing secrets can empower, inspire and bring healing. They can also shock and surprise. Hopefully Frank Warren’s idea can encourage people to share their secrets not just anonymously with the multitudes but in the family or network where they are needed to begin the work of building relationships.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus keeps saying, “Shhhhush! Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.”

At other times, Mark says, “Jesus told people openly.”

Where were you when you heard the news that JFK was assassinated?

Where were you when the first astronauts landed on the moon?

Where were you when you heard the news of Princess Diana in the car crash?

If you asked the disciples, “Where were you when Jesus went deep with you and disclosed his true identity?” they’d all say, “It was Caesarea Philippi. The centre of the worship of the Roman Emperor. That’s where he asked us, “Who do people say that I am?” Then he said: “Who do you say that I am?”[2] When Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” he said, “Shhhhush! It’s a secret.”

And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

Mark 8:30

But the notions abounded of a victorious, powerful Messiah that would crush all opponents before him, especially the Roman occupiers and the Jewish heavyweights.

But just after the cat is out of the bag, Jesus begins to give a completely different version of his Messiahship:

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.[3] 32 He said all this quite openly.[4]

Mark 8: 31-32

This was the worst possible thing Jesus could have said. This wasn’t the Messiah they had in mind. Following this Messiah would be a dead end. So, Peter tries to straighten Jesus out:

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind[5] not on divine things but on human things.”[6]

Mark 8:32-33

Why must Jesus undergo great suffering, be rejected and be killed?

He’s going to suffer because of what he says. His teaching is so explosive. His flouting of religious rules and talk about toppling the temple inflames the Jewish leaders. His claims to be a King that people should follow alarms the government.

He’s going to suffer because of the way he lives.

He eats with the ostracized (Mark 5: 1-20).

He touches the unclean (Mark 5: 21-43).

He welcomes the riff-raff (Mark 7:24-30).

John the Baptist had already run foul of the powerful (Mark 6:18) and see what happened to him. It’s no wonder that Jesus will meet the same fate.

Now we see why these secrets are revealed here. Caesarea Philippi was the seat of power. Caesarea Philippi was named after the Emperor Caesar, and Phillip, son of Herod the Great. So, the text is comparing Jesus’ messiahship with imperial power. At Caesarea Philippi, there are so many temples and altars to gods and other deities, “it’s interesting that Jesus chose this spot to ask the question for there’s lots of competition going around here for loyalty.”[7]

And the telling of this secret about a suffering, vulnerable Messiah is so pivotal at this time. From this time, they no longer circle around Galilee. At this turning point, Jesus now sets his face toward Jerusalem. Everything that came before leads up to this point and all that follows finds its meaning in this secret. The sharing and revealing of a secret can be a new turning point.

Have you noticed in our foyer that we have a new defibrillator? We’re going to hear more about this and how it can be used. It can give us confidence because if a person has a cardiac arrest or their heart gets out of rhythm and there’s no pulse the defibrillator can deliver a shock to the heart and kick start it again.

Jesus’ sharing the secret of his identity acted like a defibrillator. Now he shocks his disciples again by telling them that his way of the cross may well be their future also:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Mark 8: 34

Let them deny themselves.

To deny ourselves is not going without chocolate or meat or giving up pudding.[8] Denying ourselves is setting aside our own agenda and our ambitions and reorienting our lives in line with the two great commandments: “Love God and love our neighbour.” (Mark 12: 28-31)

Take Up their cross

This is the first mention of the cross in Mark’s Gospel. It sounds so painful. I don’t want that. Going to the dentist is enough for me. To make things worse, Luke in his Gospel adds one word: “Take up their cross daily.” (Luke 9: 23)

Recently I went to the induction of a new pastor at one of our local churches. After vows were made by him and his new congregation, several people walked down the aisle and gave to him symbols of his new ministry. One gave him a loaf of bread, another, a chalice of wine, another gave him a flask of water, another gave him the Bible and one last person gave him a Church Directory. Colourful symbols of his work of preaching, pastoral care, serving the sacraments.

I wondered why didn’t someone go down the aisle and present him with an old rugged cross. Why didn’t he take up the cross? Because the cross was hanging up on the wall. It was there for people to remember and revere the cross of Jesus. But this crucified, Risen Lord calls us not to contemplate his cross but to ‘take up our cross’.

Denying oneself, taking up your cross and following Jesus is so inconvenient.[9]

Every day I pack my computer and papers in this snazzy bag. It’s got pockets galore, one for my pens, another for my power leads, another for my phone. One for my brolly. It’s a stylish Melbourne black, but I hope you notice the logo: ‘Harvard University’, ‘Harvard Business School’. This bag has got style. It gives me prestige as I sling it over my shoulders and saunter to work. How convenient!

Then on holidays I take this pack. It has heaps of room. Different compartments for clothes and food. Even a place to put a water bottle and I can drink water as I walk. It’s so light. These adjustable straps enable this pack to fit me perfectly. If you look at the back, there’s this netting that keeps the pack off my shirt and stops my back from getting sweaty. When at night we get to the hostel, there are straps and this loop to hang it up and out of the way. How convenient!

Now Jesus calls us to take up a cross. A cross is rough. A cross has no convenient compartments. There’s no handle on a cross.[10] A cross is heavy. To carry it we have to put everything else down and muster every ounce of strength we have to take it up. It’s about being ‘all in’. It’s about a 100% commitment to use our gifts, skills, talents and resources in the following of Jesus.

How did a cross become a piece of jewelry? The cross is a means of death. It’s like carrying a guillotine, an electric chair, a hangman’s noose. The Romans could kill instantly by the sword but the cross made for a slow, lingering death.

Have you begun to take up your cross yet? When we take up our cross, our faith is no longer a secret. It’s not a private matter. It’s for the whole world to see. Like Nicodemus, we no longer come to Jesus by night. When we take up our cross we go public with our faith. Our following Jesus becomes visible.

Going to a crucifixion, the victim had to carry their cross through the city streets. They had to endure the gaze, the jeers and the condemnation of the crowds.

When Lyn and I visited Kuwait, the taxi driver showed us the sights of Kuwait City, and pointing to a building he said, “That’s the prison. On the ground outside they often have a hanging on a Friday after morning prayers. Last Friday a Bangladeshi and a Pakistani man were hung for drug trafficking.” He said, “I’m sorry there are no hangings today for you to see.” What a relief!

The purpose of a public hanging or a crucifixion was to be a public display of guilt. It’s designed to terrorize, to act as a deterrent. It was reserved to punish dissidents against the Roman Empire, those who didn’t toe the line.

At a crucifixion, we’re reminded: Cross Rome and Rome crosses you! The Romans saw in Jesus’ behavior a clear political threat. Are you a threat to the government? Taking up one’s cross is a conscious decision to challenge the systems of power when it denies life and justice to the vulnerable.

Are we ready to be open about our faith and challenge injustice as we follow Jesus?[11]

Why would we choose a cross? Following Jesus isn’t an easy road. The one hopeful line in our reading is that this Jesus will not only suffer, be rejected and killed but he will rise again.

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

Mark 8: 31

Later, on the cross, we’ll see Jesus enthroned and the power of God revealed through weakness.

At the foot of the cross, the Centurion, the symbol of Roman power, will confirm Christ’s divine identity as we hear him share the secret: “Truly this man was God’s Son.” (15:39)[12]

If that’s not enough to cause us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, he switches into financial language and gives us a paradox to ponder:

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 

Mark: 35-36

At our Combined Local Churches stall at today’s Ashburton Festival, we will have many materials to give to passersby, indicating what’s on offer if we’re part of a church community. There’s information encouraging people to help with housing asylum seekers, Clean Up Australia, the Studiokids art class for children, WellSpring Programs offering training in prayer, there’s a drama group offered by the Salvos, Fairtrade Coffee being sold by St Michael’s… All wonderful things and symbols of what we do as Christians.

Will we also tell them that supremely being a Christian is about denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus? Will we tell them this or will we keep it a secret?

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ

Help us to hear your call to us today and each day.

Teach us what it means to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow you.

Enable us to do this.

We confess that we are not equal to this task.

We shy away from the pain, the effort, the visibility and the unpopularity of your call.

Yet enable us to line our lives up in accordance with your life and your ways,

to live justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

We thank you for all that you accomplished in your life, your death and your resurrection.

Help us to live fruitful lives.

For your sake.

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

Reading: Mark 8:31-38

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sharing Secrets

How do you interpret the popularity of Frank Warren’s action to encourage the sharing of secrets?

“Sharing secrets can empower, inspire and bring healing. They can also shock and surprise.”

Share an example of how positive it was for you to tell a secret from your life.

And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”

Mark 8:30

Bible scholars call Jesus’ reluctance to allow his disciples to share the detail of his identity as ‘the Messianic Secret’.

What is your response when someone asks you to keep something significant a secret?

Does this same reaction hold true when it is Jesus asking for secrecy?

Why do you think Jesus wants to keep his specialness under wraps?

Location, Location, Location

What do you think is the power of place?

Do you find significance in pondering the location of certain events?

What was so significant about the truth of Christ’s identity being shared at Caesarea Philippi?

What Kind of Messiah is this?

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Why was Peter’s reaction to Christ’s new teaching so passionate and forceful?

How do you respond to this episode of misunderstanding and rebuke?

What words and actions of Jesus attracted the most rejection and suffering?

The Way of Discipleship

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 

‘let them deny themselves’

Expand on what this exactly means for us (you) today.

‘take up their cross’ (and you might add Luke’s extra word—‘daily’]

What will this mean and how do you respond to this call?

‘and follow me’

There’s a curious parallel in this passage. In v33 Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ and says: “Get behind me.” In the next verse Jesus calls his disciples to “follow behind me.” These are the same words. There are two ways to get behind Jesus. Back there to hide or back behind to follow.

What does this mean for us (you)?

What might cause us to respond positively to this call of Jesus Christ?

Pondering an Economic Paradox

35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 

Share your reactions and reflections on these truths.

Any other insights to share which this passage has raised for you?

Prayer

Highlight the struggles that this reading raises for you and pray for one another as you seek to respond to Jesus.

 

[1] Frank Warren tells the story of PostSecret in the TED Talk, ‘Half a Million Secrets’, February 2012.

[2] In the Greek, the you is quite emphatic.

[3] This is the first of three predictions of Jesus’ suffering (v31; 9:31; 10: 33-34), three misinterpretations by the disciples (vv32-33; see also 9:32-34) and three teaching moments on discipleship (8:34-91; 9:35-37; 10: 42-45).

[4] In contrast to things said secretly.

[5] ‘Setting your mind’ may today be called ‘mindfulness’ and the issue is whether we are applying our minds toward divine or human concerns.

[6] Jesus silences Peter with the same term with which he silenced the demons (1:25; 3:12) and the wind (4:39)

[7] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminister Press: 1954 [Revised 1975], 192.

[8] This is the same word used when Peter denied Jesus (Mark 14: 66-72). He said he didn’t know Jesus. He didn’t have any connection with Christ. To deny ourselves is to set aside our interests and to state that we know Jesus and are vitally connected with his cause.

[9] Tim Wu, ‘The Tyranny of Convenience’, New York Times, February 16, 2018. This is an interesting reflection on “convenience … the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today.”

[10] Kosuke Koyama, No Handle on a Cross. An Asian Meditation on the Crucified Mind (Orbis: Maryknoll, New York 1977), 6f.

[11] There’s a curious parallel. In v33 Jesus calls Peter ‘Satan’ and says: “Get behind me.” In the next verse Jesus calls his disciples to “follow behind me.” These are the same words. There are two ways to get behind Jesus. Back there to hide or back behind to follow?

[12] Travis Meier, Mark 8: 27-9:1, The Gospel of Mark, The Bartimaeus Effect, 3 February 2015.