Then Jesus called the crowd, with his disciples, and said to them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” This is where the story in Mark’s gospel takes a sharp turn. People are following Jesus in mobs because he is powerful. He teaches with authority. Gives sight to people who have never seen the green of a tree or the blue of the sky or the face of their own mother. Casts out the evil spirits that drive people mad and drive the townspeople to chain them up in the cemetery at the edge of town so they don’t have to hear the screaming. Earlier in this gospel story, Mark says that people are scrambling just to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe because they have seen his power to heal and trust that by just getting the tip of their little finger on the dusty edge of his robe, they will be made well. People are following Jesus in mobs because they are compelled by the power of his life and love.
And then there is this sudden turn in the story as Jesus discloses to his disciples that he will undergo great suffering, rejection, and be killed. This is a hard enough pill for Peter to swallow. If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, God’s promised deliverer, then this cannot where things are headed. And this cannot be how things will go for Peter and the others who have chosen, or will chose to follow Jesus. It really feels like a kind of bait and switch on Jesus’ part. When he first called the disciples to follow him Jesus didn’t mention any of this awful stuff. If he had, they would have thought twice about lining up behind him and leaving their regular lives behind.
This business about suffering, self-denial, death, and crosses in all of their futures is like a punch to their guts, a bursting of their hoped for happy ending bubble. These people know about crosses in a way that we don’t. Theologian Matt Skinner writes: “The cross was an implement of Roman imperial terror. It was officially for the punishment of treason and other egregious crimes, and its underlying purpose was to terrorize and deter. Not only was death on a cross slow and torturous, but the one who would hang upon it was made to carry the implement of their own execution through the watching and jeering crowds.” The road to Jerusalem was often lined with so many crosses, they looked like telephone poles. These crosses sent a clear message: ‘if you do not submit to our rule, this will be you.’ We don’t know crosses in this way, but we know something like it, more recently in this country. In the deep south, long after slavery had officially ended, well into the twentieth century, the parallel to the cross was the lynching tree where white mobs regularly hung black people, black bodies for all to see. The message was clear: “If you do not submit to our rule, this will be you.”
This is heavy stuff. These are ugly images. And I struggled with whether or not to go here this morning. But I want us to feel the full weight and the full shock of what Jesus says to the disciples and the crowds who are following him because they are hungry for life and freedom from oppression, for healing and wholeness. They are already so burdened and weighed down. They have already been denied so much by their circumstance. So why lay this on them, and why lay it on us who are also burdened and weighed down?
Jesus’ disclosure of his own impending suffering and death, and his invitation to follow by denying self and taking up the cross comes immediately after Peter’s recognition of Jesus as God’s Messiah. Mark has carefully placed this conversation at Caesarea Philippi. The city was named after Caesar, the Roman Emperor, and was the administrative center of the Jewish governor Phillip, son of Herod the Great. Mark is clearly contrasting Jesus’ status as God’s Messiah with the imperial powers of the day. Who is Jesus and how will he administer and manifest God’s kingdom? Who are Caesar and Phillip and how do they administer their kingdom?
The Roman crosses that line the road to Jerusalem keep the common people in their proper places. Who they are and how they live is defined by those who govern and drive the economy and create the socio-cultural norms. The cross itself motivates the commoners to behave and live and think of themselves in certain ways. This is how it works. This is how they are taught to save their lives. And the imperial reward for their submission is the promise of protection, safety, and a measure of solidarity and belonging. If you behave we won’t reject you. If you play by the rules, we won’t make you carry your cross to your execution. This is the reality that Mark wants us to see as a backdrop to Jesus’ words about self-denial and cross-carrying.
Everybody is living with some kind of received identity, and everybody is being invited to follow certain values and norms that are robbing them of at least a little life and a little bit of joy, and sometimes a lot of both. Everybody is already carrying around some kind of cross that somebody else put on their back. Like the first century folk who Jesus walks with, our identities and behaviors are shaped by the nations and cultures we live in. This nation with its consumer culture and the drive to be great appeals to that part of us that wants to be prosperous, powerful, successful, independent, influential. Academic degrees, money, the kind of work we do, the stuff we own, the age we are, the color skin we’re in, the gender we are—all these are offered as defining markers of our identity and worth.
We don’t make ourselves up from scratch. We don’t decide how to live and behave on our own. We are each of us a complex creation molded in complex circumstances. We all carry around some kind of cross that somebody else put on our backs. Some kind of received identity and way of being that is sucking the life out of us.
Then comes Jesus with eyes to see it all, and intention to offer another possibility. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me. “We view Jesus’ language of cross-bearing and denial through the lens of Weight Watchers,” writes David Lose, President of Luther Seminary. “…have a little less of the things you like, don’t overindulge in the things that make you happy, cut enjoyment calories…because they’re not finally, I don’t know, Christian?” But it is so much more than that. What Jesus sees is that the “life” that has been packaged and sold to us isn’t real life, it isn’t the abundant life we were made for. We aren’t yet the true selves we were created to be.
Jesus’ invitation is to deny this false life, to let die the false selves we have received. By trying to save this life and these selves, we dig our own graves. What Jesus has been up to all along is to show and offer true life. Life that finds its source in and is freely given by God. Life that is not bought, or earned, or fought for. Life that heals and makes whole. Life that is abundant and inexhaustible. Life that cannot die, be lost, or taken away. So you don’t have to try to save it. Self-denial and cross-bearing are about discovering this real and abundant life – a kind of life that releases us from fearful, pinched, cautious living. A kind of life that is destined to stand over against crucifiying systems and cultures. A kind of life that can risk sacrificial love for the sake of the other and becomes more abundant in being given away.