February 25, 2018

Lent 2  February 25, 2018 Psalm 22, Genesis 17:1-7,15-17; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5,

Mark 8:31-9:1


‘Get behind me Satan,’ Jesus tells Peter. ‘You’re thinking like the world, not like God.’ Just before where we began reading today, Jesus asks disciples “who do people say I am?” They reply: ‘Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say one of the prophets. “But who do you say I am?” Jesus asks. And first-round-draft-choice disciple Peter blurts out “you are the Messiah, the Christ.” (Messiah- Christ, same word in Hebrew and in Greek.) Right answer.

But immediately Jesus is teaching that he must be rejected by religious leaders, suffer much, and be killed… and on the third day rise from the dead.  Suffering and death aren’t in the job description of the Messiah most of us have been expecting. (And rising from the dead doesn’t seem to register.) And Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.

Jesus rebukes Peter back, in front of all the disciples, saying “get behind me Satan.” And the Christ-without-a-cross option Peter proposes does sound suspiciously like some of the temptations Satan offered in the wilderness. (Where we were with Jesus just last week.)

And half way through Mark’s gospel, now, Jesus tells us – anyone who wants to be my disciple must take up their cross, deny themself, and follow me…

The cross was the Roman Empire’s cruelest form of execution, reserved for murderers and insurrectionists, designed to cause maximum pain and humiliation. Those condemned to crucifixion were stripped, whipped, and forced to carry their  cross-beam through crowds to the place of execution. It’s difficult to translate the intentional horror of the original cross – which has become so familiar in domesticated form in our culture. “Take up your electric chair and follow” doesn’t quite work; as the  electric chair is meant to be quick and less painful. “Follow me; be lynched with me” might work. Lynching, the means of torture most employed in our nation as a means of terror over the centuries, is closest… to the cross.

Take up your cross is a metaphor designed to shock. Not always meant to be taken literally – but all the first disciples of Jesus knew – dying with Jesus was a very literal possibility for them. They probably mean it… when they swear they’re ready to die with Jesus…. We know how hard it is to do all that we mean to do… We know Peter will deny he even knows Jesus three times in one night… while other disciples flee… and Jesus goes to the cross… alone.


This commandment to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Jesus is not exactly one of my favorite verses in the bible. But as John Wesley, our Methodist ancestor, said: “If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him…”

Self-denial doesn’t come easily or naturally for most of us. Even Billy Graham said he was much more interested in baseball than in God till he committed to Jesus. And Billy often said he still had sins to confess, even as he preached Christ faithfully for more than 70 years. He had extraordinary gifts for evangelism. But he knew he had to practice prayer and self-denial, bible study and good listening every day. And he regretted, he said, not doing these practices more than he did…

Self-denial is inherently difficult. (It bring me a little comfort to know it’s not just me who finds it hard.) But sacrifice is teachable and learn-able. Just as athletes practice every day with their teams and their coaches, and learn to face defeats and victories alike more gracefully with practice… So too, we learn self-denial together as human beings …and especially as the body of Christ… with daily practice.

The necessity of self-sacrifice is universal. It comes with the turf of being human. No child’s ever born unless a mother takes up the cross of pregnancy and childbirth. (Which indeed can resemble time on the cross…) Most children are taught from an early age to make simple sacrifices – help around the home, pay attention in school, do your chores before you go out to play. Most parents make many sacrifices for their children to be able to have food to eat, clothes to wear, a place to live, and values and knowledge to guide them in life…

In the church we’re expected to aim higher. Our gifts and graces and capacities are different. But taking up the cross is for all Christians, as Jesus makes very clear. (Not to say we’ve always remembered.) I can’t recall hearing of a church whose mission statement is to “take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus.” That doesn’t tend to attract new members… We want to reach the world with the good news… But… it’s a difficult line to walk… and…

The church is always at risk of seduction or cooption by the world. It’s much easier to go along and get along… than to be openly opposed to the gods of self and personal preference, the idols of money, power, and privilege. Yet like Peter, without the cross of self-denial – we’re following the world, not Jesus.

All our other readings today remind us of how very different God’s ways are from the world’s ways. Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus begins to recite on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – begins in dark despair… Yet as the psalmist prays with tears, the psalm suddenly turns… and in its ending we hear… God is able to bring the greatest good out of even the worst disaster. (That’s why we say this psalm every year on Good Friday.)

Then we see Abraham falling on his face before God in our reading from Genesis. Laughing at the prospect of becoming a father at age 100 with his wife Sarah 90 years old. A laugh indeed. For anyone but God.

Thus what Jesus teaches today about thinking like God, not like the world.. is not an-all-new teaching. And… St Paul tells us – it’s nothing but the cross and resurrection of Jesus (the opposite of this world’s wisdom) – that brings true gospel hope.

Notice – Jesus doesn’t say every sacrifice is good or right or necessary.  Many sacrifices are misguided. Some are outright demonic. Beware of any leader who ask followers to make sacrifices he himself isn’t willing to make. Don’t quench the Spirit, but test every spirit, Paul tells us. Try to be sure, always, the cross we’re trying to bear is the cross of Jesus, not a cross of our own or the world’s making. Our faith needs to be grounded in the word of God, tested in community, nurtured in living relationship with Jesus… Our faith and self-denial may often look foolish by worldly standards.  But we’ll know its worth by its fruit…

I remember our seminary preaching teacher, Rev. Anthony Campbell, an African-American Baptist from Detroit, telling us how he’d tell parishioners who drove to church to offer rides home to those without cars. He’d assign drivers to riders. When a parishioner would say “Sorry, pastor, I live the other direction…” Professor Campbell would say “I know. That’s why I asked you. We’re here to practice the gospel. If it was about your convenience it wouldn’t be the gospel. ” It’s about God’s priorities. Not ours.

In the Dannemora NY Methodist church I once pastored, we used to sing in a nursing home one night a week. One resident would always look around before requesting her favorite hymn. Only if Jeannette, another resident, had gone back to her room, would she ask, “Can we please sing The Old Rugged Cross? Jeanette cries if we sing it while she’s here. It was her mother’s favorite hymn, sung at her funeral. It makes her weep. But she’s in her room. Can we sing?” Practicing self-denial… putting the other person ahead of herself.

Reading his obituaries and watching old videos of Billy Graham last week I was reminded of a habit he trained himself into – of listening to people who disagreed with him. A reporter asked him about other Christians who were critical of his ministry – some more liberal, some more conservative. He replied “I need to listen to them all. They may be telling me something I need to know about myself.” He practiced self-denial till it became a habit. Then he practiced because it was a habit. Self-denial probably didn’t come more naturally for him than for most of us. And he was always quick to credit his wife Ruth, right after God, for keeping him humble and focused. Another article mentioned Billy meeting Pope John Paul II. Graham was feeling very special. The Pope had given him a hug. Ruth reminded him, “Yes. And he hugged Castro too.”

Taking up the cross and following Jesus is still an unnatural act for me. But with practice and a lot of help from God and my wife, our daughter, and all of you…it gets more enjoyable the more I practice.

The more we practice taking up our cross… Renouncing ourselves in favor of Jesus.. The more our cross is no longer our own… But now it belongs to Jesus. And the more the cross we bear belongs to Jesus – the more we know the weight is mostly on him.

The more we know of his cross, the more we know – we too are highly blessed, with the first disciples – to glimpse, even here and now – the kingdom of God among us…

Remembering Jesus didn’t say we’d see the kingdom come in fullness in our lifetime. He said “some of you will see the kingdom come with power before you die.” As the disciples did see, soon, in his resurrection from the dead. As they saw again in the giving of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, with three thousand coming to Christ in one day…

And we too are blessed… to taste and see the goodness of God’s kingdom… as we share the good news of Jesus… crucified and risen from the dead…

As we proclaim the message of new life in Christ… following Jesus…  into

Life abundant, life without end…

Our calling.,, and deep blessing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.