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. He said all this quite openly. (Mark 8:31-32a)
When Jesus starts his ministry in Mark’s Gospel, he seems a bit timid about telling people who he is. He’s not afraid to work miracles, conduct healings or even perform exorcisms, but when it comes to sharing identity as the Messiah, mum’s the word. He even forbids others from clarifying. He commands the evil spirits in the possessed man not to speak for fear they’ll spill the bean. He raises a little girl from the dead and heals a deaf mute and in both cases, says to the witnesses: “Hush, don’t tell anyone.” Even the transfiguration is kept under wraps... Peter James and John are taken up the mountain where they see Jesus transfigured alongside Moses and Elijah and a voice says, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” And they want to run and tell the others to which Jesus responds: “Shh.”
Why is Jesus reluctant to pass out his calling card? Everyone is asking for it!
“Who is this that teaches with such authority?”
“Who is this that makes the deaf hear and the mute speak?”
“Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?”
They all want to know but Jesus isn’t talking... until now. In chapter 8, Jesus finally opens up to his disciples and the great reveal is finally made known. Why now? Why does Jesus wait till this moment? The best explanation I’ve heard is that it’s safe to do so now... Jesus is firmly on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. If he had revealed his identity sooner, the crowds would have whisked him off his intended path and onto another – not to the cross but to the throne... they would have made him king. So, he waits till his pathway to the cross is inevitable before coming out.
Today the reveal is made known – Jesus is the Messiah... and then Jesus tells his disciples where he’s headed: “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.” He said this plainly to them... and Peter has a problem with it. It’s so offensive to him that he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him for talking such foolishness. That’s not the pathway of the Messiah! But Jesus rebukes Peter right back saying, “Get behind me Satan,” and in front of the disciples and the crowd announces: “If anyone wants to be my follower, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
A lot of plain talk today – no more hushing, side stepping or avoiding... the Messiah is out of the closet now and get this – he’s bearing a cross! Not only that, he insists we all bear a cross, too! Now, Peter has a big problem with that... and I dare say, he’s not the only one. To be honest, who doesn’t have a problem with the cross? It’s dark, ugly and foreboding... even cast in the light of the resurrection it’s not that attractive. Oh, we try to dress it up... cover it in chicken wire and load it up with flowers... or fashion it out of gold and wear it like jewelry around our necks. But it’s still a cross... and there’s no getting around it – a cross is a symbol of Roman capital punishment. (It’s like wearing an electric chair around your neck.) So, Paul admits the obvious: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”
And if we have trouble with Jesus going to the cross, how much more troubling the command for us to pick up our cross and follow! Jesus says of his followers: “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” The call to discipleship is tied to the cross! How can we possibly answer such a weighty call?
I think one of the ways we deal with it is we make sure the crosses we pick up aren’t very heavy at all. We trivialize the word “cross” – make it into something that’s easier to handle. Someone comes to work complaining of a head cold: “Why do I come down with a head cold every year about this time? Ugh! This must be my cross to bear.”
“Look at Sarah – she can eat anything she wants, and she never gains an ounce, but me, I look sideways at a muffin and I gain three pounds! Guess this is my cross to bear!”
You see, if you make the cross something light and fluffy then anyone can carry it! But that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he said, “pick up your cross and follow me.” Crosses are not minor irritations or inconveniences. A real cross involves self-sacrifice... it costs you something! And Frederick Bueckner defines sacrifice this way: “To sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away for love. Christ’s life was made holy because he willingly sacrificed it on a cross for us... he gave his life away in love. And Jesus claims we can do holy things, too, if we pick up our cross, if we make sacrifices with our lives.
Interesting. So, our lives can be holy, too! We don’t often think of our lives as holy, do we? “Holy” is a concept reserved for God... sacraments are holy because God is part of them, Israel is the Holy Land because Jesus walked on that ground, the sanctuary or the temple is holy because God is present there. But me? Holy? Is my life capable of being holy? Jesus says, “Yes – your life can be holy!” Just pick up your cross and follow me... just give your life away in love for others.
And there are people who truly do end up laying down their lives, aren’t there? Sometimes our men and women who go to war not to return... they end up paying the ultimate sacrifice. And no matter what your politics or what your feelings about war, there’s a universal respect and reverence for the life of a fallen soldier. They gave their all in the fight for our freedom. And it doesn’t matter how long ago it happened, there is something eternal about self-sacrifice. There is no sale-date for the “holy.”
One of the 17 casualties in last week’s mass shooting in a Parkland Florida high school was assistant football coach and security guard Aaron Feis. Feis threw himself in front of students as bullets hailed down on them in the hallway. He sacrificed his life to save those of the students in harm’s way. Denise Lehtio, spokeswoman for the school said, “He died the same way he lived – he put himself second... he died a hero.” Holy.
But most of the time God doesn’t require the ultimate sacrifice, does he? The great preacher, Dr. Fred Craddock, told the story of when he first accepted the call to follow Christ. He went away to summer camp at Bethany Hills and there was a stirring night of consecration around the lake with candlelight. They sang, “Are You Able” and he went back to his bunk that night pondering the question – am I able? Am I able to give my life for Christ? And in his youthful enthusiasm he pictured himself running in front of a speeding train to save a child... or swimming out into the rough ocean to rescue someone drowning.
He pictured himself standing blindfolded before the firing squad... “One last chance to deny Christ and live.” “No, I confess my faith in Jesus Christ.” “Ready, aim, fire.” Later, a monument is built on the place of great sacrifice, people come with their cameras... “That’s where he gave his life. Here, take a picture of me beside the place where ‘ol Fred stood.” Oh, he imagined, “yes, Lord, I am able!”
But that was ages ago and so far, God has never asked him to write a check for the full amount of his life. Fred said: “All my life I’ve been writing little checks: $1.25 here, $3.00 there, 87 cents, 21 cents.” He’s been giving his life in little checks ever since. And isn’t that how it is for most of us? God doesn’t ask us to cash in all our chips at once... he just asks for a few here and a few there... follow along, follow along. Nothing dramatic, no glorious ending, but when you add it all up, it’s your life given in small sacrifices! Holy.
This past week Randy Herman and his wife Rachel, were recognized as the Daily Press’ 2017 Citizens of the Year. They’ve been weekly volunteers with the Backdoor Ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in downtown Newport News for over 20 years. Every day St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church opens its back door to feed 75-100 hungry people a hot meal at lunch and the Hermans have been part of that program each week.
When the paper interviewed them, they asked Randy why he volunteers, and he had to pause and think about it. After all, they aren’t members of St. Vincent de Paul... they aren’t even Catholic! They don’t live in Newport News, and they are both “pushing 80” pretty hard now. “Why do I volunteer?”
He finally said: “When you put a dollar in the collection plate for a charity, you are showing sympathy for people... But when you get down and see those people face to face, when you look at some of those faces that have been living on the street, you start to form empathy. You put yourself, at least mentally, in their shoes. There’s a difference, even if it might be just a shade, but that’s when we feel more empathy.” So, Randy and Rachael have been writing these small checks week by week... giving their lives in small amounts for over 20 years because they had empathy – they could see themselves in the shoes of these homeless people. That’s as good enough reason as any to give yourself sacrificially.
So, here we are, knee –deep into Lent and we find ourselves at a crossroads. Peter is pointing in one direction and Jesus in another. Peter says: “This the way for us to go... to the throne. We need to take control, exercise power if we want to make a difference in this life.” And Jesus says, “No, that’s not the way... it’s this way... to the cross. We need to lose control, give ourselves in love for others, that’s how we make a difference.” So, which is it? Which way should we go?
If you pick the cross – then let me ask you, when is the last time you picked it up? When is the last time you gave yourself sacrificially in love for another? To do so is holy... and you can offer it daily in small checks. Sacrifice.