This last week’s Gospel reading from the revised common lectionary contains what I suspect for many is a familiar passage about what it means to follow Jesus:
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he 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 soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 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.” (Mark 8:34-38 ESV)
The whole passage read for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost began with Jesus asking his disciples, as they were visting Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am,” and a whole clutch of answers. Jesus, of course, asks who people — οἱ ἄνθρωποι — think Jesus is. And it’s funny, given all Jesus has done, none of the disciples report that anyone thinks Jesus is ὁ χριστός / המשׁיח. Instead, they think he is Elijah, returned from heaven, or some resurrected version of John the Baptist. Or even a prophet. But only the disciples seem to know that Jesus is God’s anointed one, come to deliver and redeem his people.
Jesus then tells the disciples what that means — that he must suffer and be rejected and then be killed, only to rise against three days later. This does make Peter happy, who pulls him aside, and decides to tell the boss off. This is bad news, Peter says, and you should be giving us good news. Jesus then rebukes Peter, and tells him in no uncertain terms — what he described, about suffering and dying and rising, is good news. Because it is the work of God.
The work of God.
And then to make is clear, Jesus gathers not only the disciples, but the crowd who follows as well. And tells them what it means to come after him, to follow him — it means carrying a cross, it means suffering, it means dying. It means focusing on the glory of God, as opposed to the glory of the world, and running toward that glory.
But here’s the question. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow Jesus?
As long as I can remember, fairly conservative Christians in the United States — especially fundamentalists and those who have called themselves evangelicals — have told themselves a story of imminent persecution. The narrative, stitched together from bits and pieces of prophetic and apocalyptic scripture, predicts a time when a single world government will abolish true faith in Jesus Christ, and real belivers — if they haven’t already been snatched away — will suffer terribly for their faith.
And for a number of conservative Christians, the notion of being persecuted has an appeal. Being hated in the name of Jesus means they really truly follow Jesus. It means their faith and their following is both sincere and genuine in one of the few ways the gospels actually measure faith. I remember, if not quite a yearning to be persecuted, at least a kind of envy of those who truly suffered for their profession of Christ.
At the same time, while anticipating and predicting this series of events (they pre-date Left Behind by many decades, and came into their own in the years immediately following the Six Day War in 1967), conservative American Christians have also always claimed the cultural high ground. They see America as their country, and their society, one in which they get to set the rules and determine the meaning. In effect, they have always seen themselves a persecuted majority, with all the perks of both majority power and the claim to powerlessness that persecution endows.
So, you will see rapture beleiving Christians on the one hand claiming current events means the end is nigh, and yet vociferously and enthusiastically supporting U.S. government policies and actions that will effectively delay or postpone the end. Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist, but the United States still needs to fight him. The end will be ushered by an attack on the State of Israel, and the coming end is a glorious thing in which Jesus comes back, but the United States should, at the same time, protect Israel from attack, thus delaying the end. Perhaps indefinitely.
(In my time, I’ve only found one conservative rapture preacher who would even consider that the United States might not be on the right side of God and history in the last times.)
I’ve always found this to be something of a paradox. It certainly isn’t really denying one’s self.
I suspect some of this paradox is at work with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who temporarily went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For some conservative Christians, I suspect the long-awaited (and hoped for and feared) persecution has finally come. And yet, they still can’t square that with the belief both in righteousness and their own status as the majority.
And no doubt some believe Davis, in taking her stand, is denying herself and taking up her cross.
We speak of crosses to bear as our own suffering. I’ve heard a few things in my days described as crosses — health problems, troublesome spouses, ungrateful children, a difficult job. Crosses to bear.
And no doubt now some are calling Davis’s kind of standing up for Jesus a “cross to bear.” It is losing life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel.
I think we miss the point of what Jesus is saying here when we focus on our suffering as a cross to bear. Jesus didn’t come to bear his own suffering, he came to bear the suffering of the world. He bore my suffering, and your suffering, on that cross.
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)
Remember, this isn’t about a self-righteous proclamation on our part. This is about following Jesus, and he is in front, leading us. And so, this isn’t about our suffering (even as it is), but it is about a full-on encounter with the suffering of others, of the world — meeting it without flinching, without fear, without turning back, and bearing it with those who suffer.
We who suffer stand with a suffering world, telling the world that suffering is how God meets the world. Suffering is how God most loves the world. By suffering and dying with us, Jesus shows us what it means to love, to be loved, and to bear a cross with him.
Jesus would not be standing in a county clerk’s officer forbidding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But he wouldn’t be handing them out either. I’m not sure Jesus would care much either way. He had little to say about the governance of the world except that, in the end, it didn’t matter. Because the truth he proclaims is not the kind of abstract right and wrong that seeks to order the world or have us get right with God, but it is a truth about God’s presence in the suffering of the world. And our calling to be part of that presence of God.
To show the world what that means, we who follow Jesus — both the disciples whom Jesus calls and the crowds who choose of their own free will to follow Jesus — are called to join Jesus on that long journey to Golgotha, facing and meeting the world in its fear and loneliness and suffering and telling it the most important thing we can say — that God so loves the world that Jesus came to tell the world, to show the world that it has not been abandoned to despair, to sin, and to death.