The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Lent, Mark 8:31-38 (ESV):
(31) And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (32) And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. (33) But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (34) And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (35) For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (36) For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? (37) For what can a man give in return for his life? (38) For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
It’s hard, at first, to put this gospel reading into some kind of context, given the other readings it comes with — God’s reiteration of God’s promises and God’s unilateral covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (during which, Abram and Sarai get new names) and Paul’s musings on what it was about God’s covenant with Abraham that really mattered. That Abraham trusted in God’s promises unseen, against the evidence of his eyes, against the very infirmity of his body. (Except that he and Sarah got a little bit desperate about the “father of many nations” part, and took matters into their own hands.)
God’s promises are true. We can choose to believe we are the inheritors of the promises to Abraham, or like Abraham, we trust in God to deliver on promises we will never see — that we will inherit a homeland of our own, that from us will spring many peoples and nations and leaders, and that we will be a blessing to all the world. But we have come to trust in these promises. They are made to us. Maybe they are not about us, and maybe they are. But they are true promises because God has made them.
We trust. This is a better word for “faith” in Hebrew and Greek then “believe,” which has in it the implication that we have signed on to a set of ideas or intellectual propositions. We trust.
So what does Jesus rebuking Peter and calling upon his followers to “take up his cross and follow me” have to do with trusting God?
Jesus telling us to take up the cross almost makes it seem like a choice. “Today, I shall bear the cross. Hmm, which one shall I bear today?” Is this an aesthetic choice — pink cross versus blue cross, rainbow cross versus bright red? Or is this a political choice — today I shall bear the cross of family values in a society clearly hostile. I shall bear the cross of religious liberty, and fight for the right of churches not to pay for birth control and other medical procedures that said church might find objectionable. There are dozens, quite possibly hundreds, of crosses, in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and ideologies, that can be picked up and hauled not just to Golgotha, but with the aid of a wheel (or a fine circle of friends or like-minded comrades) taken and carried around the world. As many times as there are willing backs and grasping hands.
Bearing the cross is not a choice. At least not a choice any intelligent, reasonable and thoughtful disciple would take voluntarily. And anyone who would too readily, too eagerly, too easily, choose to pick up a cross is a fool. Or isn’t really carrying a cross. Just a cross-shaped object that weighs too lightly on their shoulders, doesn’t cause them to break a real sweat, feel any real pain, a glowing neon object designed to point attention to the bearer, and how good they are, dragging this cross-shaped thing around, suffering the pangs of imagined crucifixion.
But that said, we are not Schleprock or Eeyore either. When we bear a real cross, when we walk slowly and painfully toward Calvary, we do not do this to draw attention to ourselves either. “Woe is me” may be something we say, occasionally, either in loud lament or quiet tears, but these are not words that become our catchphrase. We are not followed by our own tiny storm cloud that blocks the sun everyone else seems to bask its light and heat. We are not the only miserable soul in a world of happiness and joy. That’s not a real cross either, and it born just as much for show — look at me, I’m miserable! no one loves me! LOOK AT ME! — as a pink neon cross of styrofoam. Even if it feels heavy on the shoulder and sometimes strains the back.
“Woe is me” is not a crucifixion either. It is self-flagellation. But it is not crucifixion.
No. We bear a cross not for the sake of bearing a cross, not to testify to how good and noble and blessed we are, or how miserable and unloved and unfortunate we are, but because we testify to a reality that the cross Jesus carried to the place of the skull pointed to — the empty tomb. We bear the cross to testify to the power of God’s love and faithfulness and the meaninglessness of suffering and death in the face of that love. We bear witness to God’s promise. Of new life. Of life that stomps the very meaning and threat out of death.
God’s absurd promise, that a man from Palestine 2,000 years ago who was nailed to a cross and killed outside Jerusalem rose from the dead, walked out of a rock-hewn tomb a day-and-a-half later (the third day) not just alive but resurrected, and told and empowered his cowardly and traitorous followers to preach his words to the ends of the earth. Which they then did.
Oh, and that this guy who was dead and who now isn’t, was somehow God incarnate in the world.
It is a completely absurd thing to believe. Christians have lived with the words and ideas for so long, mixed them with so much Aristotle and Plato as to make them seem and feel reasonable and logical and rational, that I think they’ve forgotten just how completely bonkers the very essence of their faith is. (Islam is reasonable and rational by comparison.) We trust in something not just unseen, but something utterly ridiculous. Even more ridiculous than an elderly couple being promised a biological son through who the world would be blessed and populated.
We trust a God who makes absurd promises in completely absurd ways. And yet … we trust.
So you who bear a cross, remember what you bear witness to. Not your righteousness and innocence (though you may be righteous and innocent). Not your misfortune or misery (though you may be unfortunate and miserable). We bear witness to the eternal life given the world in and through the risen and resurrected Christ. That is the promise we trust. That is the promise to which we testify. That is the only promise that matters.
The only promise that matters.