The Easy Path Toward Destruction

2-25-18 Scripture:  Mark 8:31-38

Theme:  Ironic, isn’t it, that many of the things that promise life end in our destruction.  Money, alcohol, drugs, sex, violence, materialism – all of these, when pursued in excess, reverse the pathway of control; what was once an asset to life ends in greed, alcoholism, addiction, brokenness, and idolatry.  This is the easy way; to be human is to pick up these things.  To be Christian, however, is to pick up something that seems to promise death, but leads to life.  To be Christian is to pick up the cross of Christ.  Death does come, but it is the death that sets us free; it is the death of self.  Only when self dies may the deeper life arise.

Something interesting happened in August and September of 2003 in New York City’s Church of the Holy Cross. (Thieves Take Figure of Jesus, but Not the Cross; By ANDREA ELLIOTTAUG. 25, 2003)

The church was broken into twice. First a metal moneybox next to a votive candle rack was stolen. Three weeks later vandals got away with something far more valuable: a statue of Christ. This is where it got interesting, for the thieves unbolted the 4-foot long, 200-pound plaster Jesus from a meditation area, but they left the wooden cross on the wall.

David St. James, 49, a caretaker who helps maintain the sacristy of the church, was amazed that someone would try to take Jesus without also taking his cross. “They just decided, ‘We’re going to leave the cross and take Jesus,'” he said. “We don’t know why they took just him. We figure if you want the whole crucifix, you take the whole crucifix.”

          “We’re going to leave the cross and just take Jesus.”  I think this describes much of Christianity these days.   In those simple words we find expression to a very widespread practice amongst those who profess faith in Christ as well as those who are curious about that faith – to somehow separate Christ from the cross.   There is a very strong tendency to strain out the negative, painful, challenging, sacrificial parts of our faith in Christ in favor of retaining and even reinforcing the positive, uplifting, peace-instilling parts of his revelation that are much more appealing and digestible.  A cross just doesn’t fit into that picture very well.

         In the top ten list of scriptures pastors would love to skip over and not preach on, today’s scripture makes the list – and we’re in good company!   In the passage, Jesus tells of his suffering, rejection, and death; he adds vinegar to the wound by stating something that sounds immensely unappealing – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  And it gets worse:  “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.”  This message of Jesus was terribly unappealing to one of the very first Christians of note – namely, Peter, the disciple of Jesus.  We hear his protest in our passage today; but we hear Jesus in a powerful rebuke, understanding that this is, indeed, a message straight from the heart of God – and meant for us all.

          The message is simple, but not easy.  There is no Christ without the cross.  And, as our scripture lesson tells us quite plainly, we cannot have Christ without the crosses he has prepared for us to take on ourselves.  Jesus says it this way:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

How many people here have crosses to bear?  Almost everyone here, I believe, could answer yes to that question.  Think about what we consider to be our crosses……. Chronic pain.  Depression.  Broken relationships.  Mistakes you continue to pay for.  Misspoken words.  Experiencing violence.  Fixing things you didn’t break.  Mediating between persons in conflict.  Unfair criticism.  Misunderstandings that strain relationships.  Did I hit one of those for you?  Who here can relate to these kinds of crosses in their lives?

But wait a minute — are these crosses at all?

Now, none of these things are to be denied their difficulty – they describe a great part of the human condition, of our reality on this earth – we hurt, we struggle, we suffer, we are thrust into darkness in so many ways.

But the implication of Christ’s words today is that WE EACH HAVE OUR CROSS TO PICK UP AFTER WE HAVE DENIED OURSELVES.   This challenges how we think about what we mean by the crosses we have to bear – many of them ARE PRIMARILY ABOUT OURSELVES – our pain, our struggle, our situation, our lives.  So often, the crosses we see ourselves carrying are defined in precisely personal ways – yet They do not arise out of our self-denial, but out of our self awareness.

I think we have a habit of confusing crosses to bear with thorns in the side.  A thorn in the side is the kind of thing that happens to us because of who we are or where we find ourselves in life – we get cancer, we become ill, we are misunderstood, we are injured, we have no choice but to fix what is broken, we are unfairly criticized.  BUT A CROSS TO BEAR IS SOMETHING WE CHOOSE TO INCORPORATE INTO OUR LIVES BECAUSE OF OUR FAITH, BECAUSE FOLLOWING CHRIST MANDATES CERTAIN SACRIFICES, HARDSHIPS, AND DIFFICULTIES THAT COULD BE EASILY AVOIDED BY A SELF-FOCUSED SOUL.

         This kind of understanding is expressed by our scripture lesson today.  The cross Christ speaks about is the cross we take unto ourselves after denying ourselves.  It is not imposed upon us; the cross is a chosen item, something we are free to pick up or not.  But it is the only way to follow Christ.  William Willimon puts it this way:  “A cross here is not something that you bear because you are a human being – a bad health problem, an annoying relative, a bad boss.  The cross that Jesus talks about is that which results from our following him.  The cross is the result of walking with Jesus.”

         Perhaps we’d like nothing better than for our walk with Christ to be a pleasant stroll with the sun shining on our faces, the birds singing in the air, and the company of the ones we love along for the journey.  And we can work that kind of life; we have that choice; we can surround our world with pleasant things, happy conversation, desirable people, respectable work, and clean living – only it will not be Jesus we’ll be walking with.  We’ll be walking with a figment of our own design, with something we want Christ to be, not with what he really is.  For Jesus journeys to the foreign lands of poverty, hunger, and warfare; he sits in the middle of the unclean, the sinful, the tarnished; he goes to the prisons, the hospitals, the marginalized, and the forgotten.  He lives among the weak, the lowly, the humble, the sorrowful.  He mediates between the hate-filled, the revenge-obsessed, the violence-motivated.  He feels what they feel because he loves them, and cannot help but share himself with them.  And he asks us to do the same.

So, what are the crosses you bear?  Separate out the thorns in your life, the things that have happened to you because you are a human being living in a certain place, at a certain time.  Think of the things you do because of your faith, the actions you choose because of your orientation toward God.  Think of the pain you accept on behalf of others, the causes you sacrifice for, the love that would not exist but for your willingness to suffer for another.  What are the crosses you choose to bear because you are a follower of Jesus?  I know that we each have answers, that we each can think of crosses we bear for the sake of our faith.

But a second question is greater still, a question that arises as especially significant in the light of this season of Lent – what cross is Christ inviting you to carry?  Not in order to hurt or suffer, but in order to be a part of the love God has for us, and for the world?  Think about the possibilities God may be throwing your way, the crosses Jesus might be inviting you to pick up today……….. 

*  That person who clearly wronged you?  Forgive them, NOT FOR HIS OR HER SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. 

*  That need out there in our community that no one is rising to?  Take it on yourself, NOT FOR THE COMMUNITY’S SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

*  That situation which is wrong but you are powerless to change?  Pray for those involved, on all sides, hold them in your heart in love NOT FOR THEIR SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

*  That lonely person so easily forgotten who simply needs an hour of your time once a week?  Visit them NOT FOR THEIR SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE. 

*  That family member who’s always messing up, and never meeting your expectations?  Encourage them in love, NOT FOR HIS OR HER SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

*  Those hungry children in Africa or South America or India whom you feel so bad for?  Support them through a relief agency, NOT FOR THEIR SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

*  That issue in the news that’s driving you crazy, like gun control, or gender bias, or healthcare costs, or Islamophobia, or white supremacy, or climate change, or sexual assault, or the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, or any number of things that say something’s gone very wrong in our country?  Get involved, write letters, join groups, explore solutions, take action, see what can happen when faith combines with community – NOT FOR THEIR SAKE, NOR FOR YOUR OWN, BUT FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.

As we do things for Christ sake, we will be carrying the cross designed by God and built by faith – and helping to shape a world by more God-worthy standards.  Let us never forget — Jesus joins us in the burdens we choose out of love.