Sunday, February 28, 2021

Crosses

February 28, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Mark 8:31-38[1]

Almost every Christian gathering place has one. Often made of gold, silver, or brass, sometimes of wood, glass, or even plastic, they hold a depiction of Christ crucified or stand empty to symbolize resurrection. The cross, the Roman tool of public execution, is a focal point, present in almost every sanctuary, chapel, and home where God in Christ is worshiped.

That was where the journey of Jesus was headed. He knew it. His message was too disruptive, too threatening to the powerful for him to be ignored or swept aside. The empire lined the roads with them, the crucified rebels, bandits, and thieves. Go against the power of Rome and this will be your end. Jesus knew where the journey would take him.

He knew also that his path would set him against the religious authorities, the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes. They would be disturbed, disrupted by this holy man who healed on the sabbath and tried to connect people to God, not through the Temple with its economy of sacrifices, but directly, without intermediary. Not loved, but tolerated by the empire, the religious leaders feared the heavy hand of Rome would crush them given any excuse. Yet Jesus knew they would reject him, said so openly, and tried to teach the disciples that this was the way.

Until now, the disciples had mainly heard the parables, witnessed the healings, and experienced a few miracles. The death of John the Baptist had been upsetting, but not unnerving. Excitement is building. The foreshadowing of the crucifixion and resurrection comes as Peter has just proclaimed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Perhaps knowing that they did not truly grasp the meaning of that title, Jesus begins to teach them about betrayal, denial, suffering, death, and still unimagined resurrection. You’ve come this far with me, he seems to say, do you think you’re ready for what comes next? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”[2]

Living the life of discipleship means losing your life, sacrificing your own personal success and achievement in sacrificial love for others. You might gain the whole world, but to what end, if you forfeit your life? If you want to save your life, you must lose it for the sake of the gospel. You must take up your own cross, take the journey that may bring you suffering because it leads through suffering to the saving grace of redemption and resurrection. The salvation of the cross happens for us, but also through and within us. Do we have to suffer all that Jesus suffered? No, but the road through life is painful at times for us all; and each of us can know that God understands what we have suffered.

The writers of the New Testament, and all the theologians since, have tried to explain what happened on the cross. Paul’s letters had already worked out saving work of the crucifixion and the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection long before Mark wrote down this Gospel. Already the church had formed and begun to preserve and interpret the meaning of the cross. But as one recent writer explains, “Mark has put this teaching moment of Jesus with his disciples and with those who desired to become his disciples at the center of his Gospel.”[3] The first call to ministry was not to ordination, or to teach theology, or even to be apostles; it was to be disciples, to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus on the journey of faith.

To get to the meaning of our own crosses, we need to have an understanding of the cross of Christ. A Lutheran Pastor from Denver, Nadia Bolz-Weber, was interviewed for a film series called The Work of the People. In the segment entitled “The Antidote,” she explores what happened on the cross. She remarks that “I’ve always felt like the cross was about God saying, ‘I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business anymore.’”[4] Jesus doesn’t condemn, let alone do violence to, his own crucifiers. To have all the power of the universe, to be entirely justified in using it, and to choose not to. Incredible. How incredibly redemptive.

It is shocking, then, to me that so many ascribe to condemnation and violence as integral to the Christian faith. One form this takes is Substitutionary Atonement – the idea that sinners deserve to die and face God’s judgement because of their sin. Jesus Christ, by dying on the cross, was the substitute for sinners, paying the price of death for us. That theology is in the Bible; it’s in Mark, in chapter 10 where we read “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”[5] And it’s in 1 Peter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross.”[6] In the way it tries to explain salvation, Substitutionary Atonement says that God is not a god of peace and love but an angry and vengeful god who demands that the cost of sin be paid in death.

Imagine, God had a little boy, and loved that little boy so much. But God had to kill him because you stole a candy bar, or disobeyed to your parents, or looked at another man’s wife with lust. And now you have to be grateful for your whole life that God killed Jesus. Really? That’s messed up!

That theology is not what I believe happened on the cross. And it’s not Trinitarian. You see, that’s not God’s little boy on the cross, that’s God. Jesus is God. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons in one Godhead. They share the same essence or substance.[7] That’s God on the cross, taking in all of our sin, all of our brokenness, all of how messed up we are into that broken human body. God takes in all of our desire for vengeance, all of our hatred and anger and fear, all of our desire to use power against other people, and gives back only forgiveness and grace.

It is God’s nature to create and to redeem creation. God is continually trying to redeem us, all the time, even if we don’t see it. God is continually trying to heal a broken world, and our broken hearts, our broken minds and bodies. That is the nature of God, not to punish, not to harm, but to heal, and to love, and to forgive.

To take up our own crosses, then, is to take on the work of redemption, of healing and loving a broken world. As people who have received God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, we might just get the chance to help bring that into the world. We can, in spite of our often selfish, fearful, broken nature, offer healing, peace, love, and grace as the hands of Christ in the world. In that way, by having been redeemed ourselves, it is possible for us to offer redemption to others. “Opportunities are daily before us, times when we may give our lives sacrificially to acts of love, compassion, justice, and peace, even in the face of the same imperial forces of sin and death that confronted Jesus.”[8]

Now, we’re not suddenly made perfect. We’re still broken, but we’re healing. We can’t make the bad things of the world go away, but we can be companions for others on the road to healing. If we want to be disciples of Jesus, the suffering and brokenness of the world should cause us to offer healing, forgiveness, and love. Having carried our crosses, having suffered brokenness and received healing ourselves, mercy and love that heal can pour out of us like an antidote to the sickness that infects the human condition. Let us set our minds on divine things, and go out to love and serve the world.  Amen.



[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Mark 8:34.

[3] Paul C. Shupe, “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 8:31-38” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 70.

[4] The Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, “The Antidote” featured on The Work of the People: Films for Discovery and Transformation, Copyright © 2021 The Work of the People, online at: https://www.theworkofthepeople.com/the-antidote.

[5] Mark 10:45.

[6] 1 Peter 2:24.

[7] See “Trinity, doctrine of the” in Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 288.

[8] Shupe, 72.