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Take up your cross and follow

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“Take up your cross and follow” (Mark 8:34-36)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 29, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When we were in Israel and Palestine, on our last day before going to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Philippi, clear north of Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Patty, our leader, said to us, “Here begins the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering.” Here Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and here Jesus speaks for the first time about his death, saying, “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.” Here our minds move from human thoughts to divine thoughts. Here our eyes begin to open to who Jesus truly is, and who we are called to be.

It’s like what happened in the village called Bethsaida, just before Jesus went on to Caesarea Philippi. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up, and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus had to lay his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time, and then he could see clearly. At Caesaea Philippi, Jesus’ disciples begin to see, though not yet clearly.

I’ve often thought I have an idea how the partially blind followers of Jesus must have felt. Without corrective lenses, I have very poor eyesight. Without glasses or contacts, I can see, but it’s all fuzzy and blurry, like opening your eyes underwater. As a matter of fact, once when I was in high school playing summer league basketball in Hesston, I lost a contact lens during a play. And even though I still had one good eye, so disorienting was it that I actually passed the ball directly to the other team without even knowing it. And I stood dumbfounded as everyone started rushing to the other end of the court! It’s actually enough to make a person’s head hurt. Would that I had lost both contacts instead of just one and knew well enough not to pass the ball!

Well, my namesake Peter’s head was hurting, all right. He’d been with Jesus almost since the very beginning when Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. He had seen, with his own two eyes, the amazing works of power: casing out demons, healing a leper, restoring a paralytic, calming the storm and the seas with the word of his mouth, healing a woman who was sick for twelve years, raising a girl from the dead, feeding over 5000, walking on water, healing a deaf-mute man, feeding over 4000 more people, and restoring sight to the blind man at Bethsaida. And Peter’s eyes have seen it all.

Jesus has been going toe-to-toe with Satan, with sickness and disease of all kind, with the powers of evil, with death itself, and he as not blinked, but has emerged victorious at every turn. Here at last has the power and glory of God been revealed. Here at last has come the redemption of Israel, of the world. Here at last is the dawn of the victorious kingdom of God on earth. Here at last, for anyone with eyes to see, has come God’s Messiah, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth!

Anyone who can do all that will get quite a following, and Jesus did. Jesus’ works of power are so amazing that Peter has left his family fishing business. He has left his home. He would even later say to Jesus, “Lord we have left everything to follow you.” Peter has staked his whole future on the hope that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the anointed, the long-awaited Messiah.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter exclaims! And he is right. Of course he his right. Jesus is the Messiah. But Peter’s vision is yet blurred. He cannot see Jesus clearly. He’s pointing in the right direction, but he can’t see the person at whom he is pointing. Technically correct, but practically wrong.

Jesus rebukes them all for their completely correct yet woefully wrong answer, saying 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.” The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die, he’s supposed to put an end to all that! It’s like suddenly Peter gets a glimpse of perfect vision in one eye, and it’s so disorienting it’s making his head hurt.

Well, you know how the story goes. Peter actually rebukes Jesus, and Jesus says, in one of the most striking lines in Scripture, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting you mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

He then goes on to say to the disciples and the crowd around them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let that one deny oneself and take up one’s cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What a complete headache! It’s enough to make anyone’s mind go in circles. Should not faith protect us from suffering? “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. He will not let your foot be moved!” (various Psalms)

Should not responding in faith draw us into the fortress of God’s protection and the victorious kingdom of God? Should it not be our life, our success, our abundance, our comfort, our help? Is there not enough suffering and rejection and alienation in human life without all this? This isn’t how you win the world and gain followers! Suffering, bearing crosses, losing one’s life – that’s not a recipe for success. Only people with the most warped minds would find that invitation appealing. Safety, refuge, protection, and a modest measure of success and blessing, is that not what we want and expect from God? It’s completely disorienting!

Jesus knows that only those who follow him to the cross will be able to see clearly who he is and what his kingdom looks like. If his disciples stop before getting to the cross, they will have only a blurry, distorted understanding of Jesus. Other miracle workers, other exorcists, other authoritative teachers, other political leaders, others claiming the title “Messiah” have come and gone.

Jesus spends three chapters in Mark’s gospel trying to get his disciples to see who he truly is and what distinguishes him as uniquely God’s son. Three times he predicts his death and resurrection. Three times it makes his disciples’ heads spin. The next time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, his disciples immediately start arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus replies. More headaches.

The third time, immediately after Jesus foretells his death, James and John actually come up to Jesus and have the audacity to request to be seated at his right and at his left when he comes into his kingdom.

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The disciples just cannot see. It’s such a backward idea.

In Mark’s gospel, no human being truly sees Jesus until he dies on the cross, and then it is one of his executioners, a centurion, who finally and truly sees perfectly, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Only at the cross can anyone truly see who Jesus is, as the suffering Son of God who gives and gives and gives even his life to wrest the many from Satan’s grip.

That’s the only way to see, to truly see. I got glasses when I was in sixth grade. It had gotten bad enough that I could not even read the chalkboard when I was sitting in the front row. And I remember that, as we drove home from the eye doctor, I could look out the window and see branches and leaves on the trees. I could see rows in the fields and clouds in the sky. When those lenses dropped in front of my eyes, I could finally see. The cross is the lens, the glasses through which we can truly see who Jesus is, indeed, who God is, and who Jesus is calling us to be.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I never Knew, writes about looking upon life through these glasses. He says that in his career as a journalist, he has interviewed famous people: NFL football greats, authors, actors, politicians and such – the people who dominate the national attention, but he found this group to be tormented by self-doubt and worse. He also spent time among those he calls “servants.” An Ivy League graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago, relief workers across the globe, and ordinary people who care for one another. What he found was that these “servants” possessed qualities of depth and richness and even joy that he found nowhere else. People who work for low pay, long hours, no applause, often “wasting” their time and talent on the poor and hopeless. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them. And so will we.

Only in denying ourselves, Jesus says, in taking up the cross, and following after the path Jesus has cut do we find the freed and abundant life of Jesus. Yes, it does mean leaving aside human thoughts of security, even survival, and even our ideas about justice. And it does mean facing a ghastly death, if necessary. But you see, Jesus foretold not only his suffering, rejection, and death, but also his resurrection. “The cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.”1

If you read through the New Testament, you’ll find that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are constantly talking about following Jesus, or waking in his footsteps, or taking his example, or being transformed and conformed to his image, or imitating him, or letting him rule in our hearts, or making his life visible in our own life. . . the list could go on and on and on.2 But what all these have in common is being joined with Jesus, sharing his life, his death, his resurrection.

As the church spread and grew and told the stories of Jesus over and over, it discovered that the symbol that captured the very essence of Jesus’ passion, his life, his heart and mind, was the cross. It was and is a symbol of incredible self-giving love, radical forgiveness, faithfulness unto death, trusting God even in suffering for the kingdom, humbleness and care for the least among us, the triumph of love over hatred, violence, and death, and the ultimate victory of God. Jesus told his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

The rest of the NT echoes this foundational invitation of Jesus himself.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved you and gave himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:-5:2)

“If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).

“God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atonement for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God. . . emptied himself. . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him” (Php. 2:3-11)

When we take up the cross of Christ, we not only accept suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; we also join Jesus in trusting God’s ultimate vindication. We join Jesus in living a life not of retaliation but of costly, redemptive love. We join Jesus in forgiving even those who do us the most harm. “When reviled, we bless. When persecuted, we patiently endure. When slandered, we speak kindly” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). We join Jesus in placing ourselves completely into the hands of God. We join Jesus in proclaiming and demonstrating the good news, and living the servant’s life.

Because we join with Jesus, we find perseverance in renouncing selfish sinful passions and preoccupations. Because we join with Jesus, we experience fellowship in his body and blood across racial and ethnic and social lines, and whatever walls previously divided us.

Because we are joined with Jesus in the cross, we find reconciliation with God. Because we are joined with Jesus in carrying his cross, we are also joined with Jesus in experiencing resurrection life both now already and in the everlasting age to come.

This is the sort of Kingdom this suffering Messiah brings. Paul once famously said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me!” (Gal. 2:20).

We can’t purchase it. Indeed, what can we give in return for our life? But we can receive it, and we can find that there are unending stores of it. We can yield to the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and accept the cross of Christ. We can be followers, not by our own power, but by God’s.

The night he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Because when we join Jesus in accepting the cross, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace, and we can join Jesus in saying yes to God and obediently yielding our will to God’s will and ways, no matter what the cost, no matter what the cross.

If you have denied yourself, if you’ve given up human thoughts to seek after divine thoughts, if you’ve identified yourself with Jesus by taking up your cross, then the cross you take up isn’t exactly yours. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, you are realizing that the truest, fullest life, the true goal of all human striving, is not your life but his. We don’t go seeking for our “true self” as the teachers of this age opine.

It’s not really about living life as an ascetic, and it’s certainly not about senseless suffering; it’s about denying one’s self as the “controlling center”3 and seeking first Christ and his kingdom as our center and chief loyalties, and receiving our “self,” our life, from him. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. Selfish human thoughts become transformed into the divine thoughts of costly love, joyful obedience, and unimaginable reward in glory. If we take up his cross upon our own shoulders, he will carry its weight.

Truly it is no longer we who live, but this Christ who lives within us and who promises us new life in him. When we are joined with Christ in the cross, we put to death our slavery to sin, we leave behind the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger or when someone speaks impatiently or unkindly to me – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, injustice, suffering, slander, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that, though I fail often, utterly, and miserably, if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, if there is any tense or hostile situation I can diffuse, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is only by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Jesus who calls, “Come, follow me.” This is the Lord who is great because he was least. This is the Savior who has ransomed us from Satan’s grasp. This is the Christ who lives within us and with whom our lives rest secure. It is his cross that we are called to bear in joyful, humble obedience. May we all be conformed more and more to the image and likeness of Christ, that in us, his life may be made clearly and plainly visible. Amen!

Notes:
1. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 211.
2. E.g. Mt. 5:44-48; Mt. 6:12, 14-15; Mt. 16:24; Mt. 18:32-33; Mark 8:34; Mark 10:42-45; Mark 11:25 (undivided as God is); Luke 6:32-36; Luke 9:23; Luke 11:4; John 13:14-16; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-14; John 17:22-23; John 20:21; Rom. 5:5; Rom. 6; Rom. 8:11; Rom. 8:29; Rom. 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; 2 Cor. 8:7-9; Gal. 2:19-20; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:20-24; Eph. 4:32-5:2; Eph. 5:22-28; Php. 1:29; Php. 2:1-11; Php. 3:10; Php. 3:21; Col. 1:24; Col. 2:12; Col. 2:20; Col. 3:1; Col. 3:9-10, 13; 1 Thess. 1:6-7; 2 Tim. 3:12; Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 Peter 2:21-24; 1 Peter 3:14-18; 1 Peter 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:12-19; 2 Peter 1:4-7; 1 John 1:5-7; 1 John 3:1-3; 1 John 3:11-16; 1 John 4:7-10; 1 John 4:17; Rev. 12:11
3. Geddert, 205.