Last week the records of British soldiers who had earned medals in WWI went online. You can pay a small fee and search the names of thousands of soldiers who distinguished themselves somehow in that terrible war. You can see scanned images of field reports, official citations, and sometimes even pictures of the actual ribbons and medals.
Military history has always been a hobby of mine. I love the detail of the photographs and documents. I wonder what it would have been like to serve during those times. When I stop to think about it I’ll usually offer a quiet prayer of thanks that I never had to fight or kill or die in one of the wars we’ve seen over the last century.
One of the things you notice in the records of military bravery is the ordinariness of the people who distinguish themselves. They come from all walks of life—all kinds of backgrounds. Most are young—in their teens or twenties. They left their farms and factories and families and went off to serve in places with names they may not have known before they landed there with a gun. But somehow, with the burden of their duties and orders on their backs, these soldiers showed courage and made sacrifices that most of us will never know.
With that in mind, and as we continue to explore the meaning of Jesus in these weeks before Easter, our text for this morning is from Mark’s gospel, 8:34-35.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
This story comes at a crucial point in Mark’s gospel. Jesus has been traveling through the countryside, preaching and healing and trying to prepare his disciples for the ministry they’ve taken on. Typically for Mark’s gospel, the pace has been frantic—Jesus goes somewhere immediately, then suddenly moves to another place, only to do something else immediately again. Mark has Jesus running around Galilee from place to place for chapters at a time, so when he stops to teach them something you know it’s important.
Right before our story, though, Jesus starts a very important conversation with his disciples. Naturally, they’re walking to get someplace at the same time—the text says “on the way Jesus asked them: ‘Who do people say that I am?’” The disciples fumble around for an answer until Peter looks Jesus in the eye and says “You are the Christ.”
Now 2000 years later we tend to think of ‘Christ’ as Jesus last name, right? His name is Jesus Christ, that’s what we read in the Scriptures. It’s important to clarify the translation here just a bit. ‘Christ’ is simply the Greek word for ‘Messiah.’ When Peter calls Jesus the Christ, he’s naming him as the Messiah, the promised one of God, the focus of Israel’s hope for centuries. That’s different than just tagging Jesus with a new surname. Peter is confessing that this Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for all along.
That’s important because once Jesus knows that the disciples understand who he really is, Jesus starts to prepare them for his suffering and death. When he starts teaching them these things, Peter takes him aside—literally, that’s what it says. Peter interrupted Jesus, pulls him over to the side of the room and—brace yourself—argues with Jesus about whether or not this needed to happen. You gotta love Peter. One minute he recognizes that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the savior of the universe, God himself, and in the next paragraph Jesus calls Peter Satan and tells him to shut up.
That’s when Jesus called the whole crowd to him—this wasn’t just for the twelve leaders, what he was about to say was for everyone, great and small, young and old—for the everyday soldiers—the ordinary people. He calls them around and says: “If anyone would come after me, that person must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”
Now there are a couple of things to notice in this text.
First, some people make a big deal about the fact that Mark has Jesus using the image of the Cross before the crucifixion. But you have to understand the context of this story. Jesus is moving around with his twelve disciples and thousands of followers in a country that was being occupied by the Roman army. The entire region was under the domination of Rome, and the punishment for resisting that power was death on a cross. For Jesus to use that image—even before it became a reality for him—was his way of saying that following him meant giving up your allegiance to anyone else—to any other power. They’d seen the crucifixions by the side of the road—the Romans were good at getting the maximum out of a public execution—they’d seen crucifixions before, and they knew what Jesus was saying.
Second, like I said before, this is not one of the teachings that were limited to the 12 disciples. Jesus called the crowd to him—this could have been thousands of people. In the chapter right before this he fed 4000 people, so they were probably still hanging around waiting to see what he would serve for his next meal. So by calling the crowd around him Jesus makes it clear that this passage about denying ourselves and taking up the cross is directed at anyone who would call themselves a Christian.
This is really a call to an apprenticeship. There have been apprentices for as long as there have been skilled workers who pass their craft down to the next generation. Historically the apprenticeship process includes several steps.
A skilled craftsman takes someone under their care.
The apprentice follows/watches/learns the work of the master.
Eventually the apprentice becomes a journeyman, taking on
apprentices of his own.
The point of this text is that each of us is called to take on some of the calling, some of the ministry, some of the sacrifice that Christ made for this world and this church.
There’s a story that all ministers tell about a guy in a storm who goes up on his roof to escape the flood. He prays to God in the midst of the storm—he prays to be rescued. While he’s praying a large log bumps into the house, but the guy ignores it. After that another guy in a boat comes up and offers him a ride. He turns him down and goes back to his prayer. Finally a helicopter lowers a rope to him but he waves it off, saying, “God will rescue me, I know he will.” Eventually the man is swept away by the flood. When he gets to heaven he marches up to God and says: “I prayed for you to rescue me—why didn’t you come and help?” God responds by saying: “I sent a log, a boat and a helicopter. What else did you want me to do?”
Now if you take that story and turn it sideways, it illustrates the truth that God uses people to provide his help to other people in need. All of us can be paralyzed by waiting for God to do something out of a Hollywood movie, we can be so blinded by that that we miss the chance not just to receive his help, but also to be the instruments of his help and comfort and rescue to a world that needs it badly. The belief that everything has to come directly from God, from the central authority, is a way of avoiding the call to take up Christ’s cross and get on with the work of being his disciples.
In the Guardian last week Simon Jenkins lamented the lack of help and leadership that people provide for each other in Britain today. Too much depends on the central government, and that has a negative effect on life in this country. “Of all the nationalizations in British history,” Jenkins said, “none has been so corrosive of the public good as the nationalization of social responsibility.”
Christ’s call to take up his cross is a call to be socially and spiritually responsible, to be his present, visible, sacrificial representatives here, in our homes, in our offices and in our neighborhoods and schools. This is a call to be the face of Christ wherever we go and wherever we are. But what does that face look like? What can we do to represent Christ in our lives and to other people? Last week we talked about Micah 6:8, about how the call on each person’s life is to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. This week we can look back on another passage from the Old Testament, one that Jesus chose to describe his own ministry: Isaiah 61.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim freedom for the captives,
And release from darkness for the prisoners,
And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
It’s nice when we get a clear list, isn’t it? These passages are central to what we’ve been talking about in our Thursday evening studies on what the Bible teaches about justice. The focus of the videos we’ve seen and the passages we’ve read together have been on the call God gives to each person to be an agent of God’s justice in the world—the calling on each one of us to be an enemy of injustice and oppression.
When Jesus looks out at the crowd around him and invites them to take up his Cross, this is what he meant.
Know that I have come to bring good news to all people.
Take up my calling to bring justice and peace to the world.
Don’t let Rome, or any part of the culture, take my place as Lord.
Know that this apprenticeship is hard and frightening and dangerous.
As you grow you’ll make apprentices…disciples…of your own in my name.
There’s a lot of talk during Lent about what we’re giving up. I know some have decided to go without bread or sugar or caffeine or wine—often times, if we’re honest, what we choose to go without during Lent is as much about us as it is about reflecting on Christ’s sacrifice—New Year's and Lent are popular times of year to start new diets. That kind of self-denial is very different from what we see in our passage this morning.
To engage in a little self-denial isn’t the same as denying oneself. One is about going without something, and the other is about putting someone else’s needs—someone else’s plan—before our own. That’s what Christ gave to us, and it’s the life he calls us to in response.
One author wrote on this passage that Christ’s call was “that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God.”
That’s not easy—Christ knew that better than anyone even as he made the offer to all of us. It takes courage and sacrifice, like those thousands of soldiers in the database—courage and sacrifice to be the people God made us to be, to make the world into the place he designed it to be, and to serve people with the same selflessness Christ showed us as he faced the Cross.
As we focus on the meaning of Jesus during this season before Easter, we’re faced not only with the Cross of Jesus, but also the cross he calls us to take up. We learned last week what that call includes: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
As we prepare for the Table this morning, my prayer for each one of us is that we will hear Christ’s call and follow him, wherever he leads, with an extra helping of reckless abandon.