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Take Up Your Cross


If you live a life of love, you will experience pain and loss. If you live a life of purpose, you will encounter challenge and resistance. But aren’t these the very things, living for God and neighbour in love and leaning into the God-given purposes for which you were created, aren’t these the very things that make life worth living?

 

We have reached the point in Mark’s gospel where it gets real. Where we, and the disciples, realize that for Jesus, this life of loving others and taking on his God-given mission is not going to be all rainbows and unicorns. This is where the disciples have to come to terms with the reality of what Jesus is facing. And getting real, getting real about things like suffering and death, is hard.

 

Up until now, the disciples have been on a high. Jesus, with them at his side, has been traveling around Galilee attracting huge, adoring crowds. The crowds come for healing, they listen to his words, and he has just fed thousands, not once but twice. The people are ready to make Jesus king. This guy has potential.

 

And so, when Jesus takes the disciples north, to a hill overlooking a military town of the Roman occupying forces, and asks them “who do you say that I am?”, Peter suddenly gets it - sort of:

 

“You are the Messiah,” he says. The anointed one of God. The one that we’ve been waiting for. The one that God had promised to send to save his people.

 

Have you ever given the right answer to a question only to realize later that you really didn’t know what you were talking about?

 

Because Peter’s answer is indeed the right answer. But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Because Peter, along with pretty much everyone else in Palestine living under military occupation, thought that the way the Messiah would save his people would be by becoming a military leader who would liberate the Jewish people from Roman oppression by defeating their enemy in battle.

  

But that’s not what Jesus will do, and so Jesus decides that now is the time for a reorientation. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the one sent by God, but his calling is to save all people, not just the people of Israel. And to do that he would not be another military leader who would simply repeat the ways of violence and oppression that permeate human history. No, Jesus would find another way. He would stand for justice, call for an end to oppression, reach out to those who were marginalized, he would oppose corrupt leaders and power-hungry authorities without resorting to violence and oppression. Jesus knew that God was calling him to another way, to the way of service and love, a love that would even be extended to the enemies who would reject him. A love and a purpose that would lead to suffering.

 

So he begins to teach them. “It is necessary that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and in three days rise again.”

 

This is not what the disciples signed up for.  More than that, it makes no sense to them, It’s not their understanding of what the Messiah had been sent to do. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. But Jesus, knowing that this is the path that God has chosen for him, the purpose to which God has called him, he rebukes Peter in no uncertain terms. For Peter is advocating for the usual way that humans do things – the grasping of power, the way of victory, the use of strength and even violence to overcome our enemies. But Jesus has chosen another way, the way of forgiveness, of service and of self-sacrificing love. And he challenges others, those who wish to follow him, to do the same.

 

Jesus is calling us to a way of life lived for God and for neighbour in love. And if you live for God and neighbour in love, sooner or later, you will suffer. It’s important to notice that Jesus isn’t calling us to seek out a cross.  He’s calling his followers to be ready to take up their cross. There is no glorification of suffering here, no call to suffer for suffering’s sake. There is simply the acknowledgment that suffering and challenges are a part of life and will certainly arise as we seek to live for God and neighbour in love. And when they do arise, will you turn away or take them on?

 

What it means to follow Jesus will vary dramatically for each one of us. The call to love God and neighbour will remain constant, but God has created each one of us for unique purposes and will call us to our purpose. The disciples following Jesus in today’s gospel would soon be given the mission of witnessing to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and of proclaiming the Good News revealed in Jesus throughout the world. For most of them, the consequences of leaning into that purpose would be persecution and death.

 

Thank God that for most of us the consequences of following Jesus won’t be that severe. But for all of us, as we lean into whatever mission God has given us, sooner or later, we will face challenges. And when that happens, will you turn away, or will you take them on?

 

The way of love that Jesus calls us to is, eventually, always, sacrificial. Sometimes the sacrifices are modest. When I became the father of young children, there was certainly a sense in which I lost something of the life I had before the birth of my children, and there were nights when I was denied the sleep that I craved in order to meet the needs of my kids – but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

 

I think too of the example of many among us who become caregivers for the people they love. It’s not easy, and it will entail moments of self-denial. The way of love, the call to follow Jesus, will involve service and sacrifice. But it’s worth it.

 

For some, the call to follow Jesus requires a courage that I can only imagine. Many of us were saddened and distressed this past week to learn that Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader had died in a Russian prison. Some of us were puzzled by his decision to return to Russia in 2021, knowing that he faced almost certain imprisonment.

 

Here's what Navalny had to say about this at his trial in Russia in 2021:

 

“If you want I’ll talk to you about God and salvation. I’ll turn up the volume of heartbreak to the maximum, so to speak. The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually rather sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation, because mostly our people are atheists, and I was once quite a militant atheist myself.

 

But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities, because everything becomes much, much easier. I think about things less. There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation. It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying. And so, as I said, it’s easier for me, probably, than for many others, to engage in politics. …

 

'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.'

 

I’ve always thought that this particular commandment is more or less an instruction to activity. And so, while certainly not really enjoying the place where I am, I have no regrets about coming back, or about what I’m doing. It’s fine, because I did the right thing. On the contrary, I feel a real kind of satisfaction.

 

Because at some difficult moment I did as required by the instructions, and did not betray the commandment.”

  

If you live for God and neighbour in love, sooner or later, to a greater or lesser degree, you will experience pain and loss. If you take on the purposes to which God is calling you, sooner or later, to a greater or lesser degree, you will encounter challenge and resistance. When these things happen, will you turn away or will you take them on?

 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

 

Amen.


Homily Yr B Lent 2. Feb 25 2024. Trinity

Readings: Gen 17.1-7, 15-16; Ps 22.23-31; Rom 4.13-25

Image by Daniel Arrhakis, Creative Commons. This is an image not of Aleksei Navalny but of Oleg Sentsov, who was also incarcerated in a Russian prison.

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Mark's books are available at amazon.ca and amazon.com

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