Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God.”
That is how Mark’s gospel begins. We’ve been reading Mark all year long, and just two weeks ago we heard this line, along with the whole first chapter of Mark during our fall kickoff Sunday.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God.”
From the very first words he writes, Mark is clear to the audience about who Jesus is. When Jesus walks from town to town, asking people to leave their livelihoods and follow, when Jesus heals and feeds and teaches, when Jesus casts out evil and walks on water – that stuff makes some sense to us, the audience. Because we know who Jesus is: Human. Anointed one. The one who saves us. God.
But the other characters in the story don’t know as much as we do. This is a point of tension and drama throughout the gospel of Mark.
- Who does this person think he is, that he has the authority to forgive sins? (2:7)
- Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? (2:16)
- Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him? (4:41)
- Isn’t this the carpenter, the child of our neighbor Mary? (6:3)
King Herod says that Jesus is John the Baptist, back from the dead (6:14-16). The religious authorities say Jesus is possessed by evil (3:22). In the first seven and a half chapters of Mark, the only ones who recognize Jesus for who he really is are the demons, the evil spirits that Jesus is casting out.
But here in today’s story, that changes. After all this speculation, Jesus addresses the topic directly with the disciples:
Who do people say that I am?
And they answer: Well, it depends who you ask, some people say you’re John the Baptist, other people say you’re Elijah, and still others say that you’re one of the prophets.
But who do you say that I am?
And Peter answers for the group, in a bold confession of faith: You are the Messiah.
Now, how Peter got that idea I really don’t know. As far as the gospel of Mark tells it, Jesus has not said anything about being the messiah (meaning the anointed one, the one who will save and liberate the people). But since we know that Mark’s story is called “the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God,” we know that Peter is right.
Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will save. And so finally, after all these chapters, Jesus talks directly with the disciples about what exactly that will mean. Being the Messiah means that Jesus will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). The story takes a turn; now, Jesus is headed towards the cross.
The cross is at the heart of today’s gospel. The cross is symbol of our Christian faith, embroidered on our linens and embedded in our window designs, hung on little chains around our necks, traced on our bodies.
The cross, Jesus’s crucifixion, is the dramatic turning point on which the whole gospel pivots. The cross is a large piece of wood, harvested from a tree for use as a state instrument of torture and terror. It is a death reserved for the dangerous ones, the ones they want to make an example of. The cross reveals the radical and power-threatening nature of Jesus’s ministry.
The cross is the reality that Christ suffered and died – the cross means that the divine suffers with all of creation. In our pain and death we are not alone. The cross means that even the most desolate and lonely places are filled with God’s presence.
Back to our story. Peter says that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus says: Yes, and that means I am headed for the cross. But evidently that’s actually not totally what Peter meant by Messiah. For Peter the Messiah isn’t the one who dies, the Messiah is the one who saves!
I imagine that Peter has these beautiful dreams of what it will look like when Jesus finally brings justice for their people, when Jesus will cast the mighty oppressors down and lift up the fishermen and the bleeding women, when the movement that they’ve begun together will become so powerful that they can feed five thousand thousand people, and everyone will have a place at the table.
Messiah – the one who saves.
But Jesus rebukes him -Get behind me, Satan! You aren’t thinking the way that God thinks.
See, the thing about God is that God does God’s thing, by doing the exact opposite of what humans might expect. When God (God!) came to earth, it was in the belly of an unwed peasant mother. When Jesus built a powerful movement, it was a band of misfit fisherpeople and tax collectors. And when the Messiah triumphed over sin and evil, it was by allowing sin and evil to triumph over God. God’s real strength is demonstrated through (apparent) weakness.
This is a big reveal. In just a few short verses, Mark’s gospel went from “We’re not totally sure who Jesus is,” to, “Wow, we are very clear now on who Jesus is, and the stakes have just gotten a lot higher.”
At this point Jesus turns to the rest of the disciples, and the whole gathered crowd, and addresses us directly:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their 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.”
Now, this is why sometimes it confuses me when I remember that Christianity is a major world religion. This is the invitation to discipleship, the marketing slogan for the Jesus campaign. Not, “If you follow me, together we will create a better world!” Not, “Join us to experience true happiness!” Not, “Make your life better with these 10 simple steps.” No.
The invitation is, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
The cross is at the heart of today’s gospel. This passage “take up your cross” has been misunderstood as a command to passive selflessness, or an invitation to be doormats. It has been misunderstood to mean that God wants us to suffer for the sake of suffering. But this isn’t about any of those things. It is about the cross, which is the exact opposite of what we might expect.
Jesus is inviting you take up your cross – to pick up that instrument of torture and terror – because crosses come in new shapes and sizes these days. The thing that causes you fear. The thing that is trying to destroy your life. The place of loneliness and pain. To lift it up and hold it in your hand. To look closely at the grain of the wood and to tell the truth about what it looks like, and what it feels like. The fear, and the longing, and the death. To try putting it on your shoulder to notice how heavy it is.
Jesus isn’t inviting you to fix it, or to save yourself, or to get over it.
This cross isn’t something you deserve. It’s not a test. And it’s not something God wants – God made the world for goodness, not for crosses.
But the crosses are real. Jesus spoke very plainly about that to Peter. Pretending or sugarcoating would only stand in the way of Jesus’s mission. So Jesus was honest: Here’s my cross.
And Jesus turns to us. What’s your cross?
Be honest about it, and come along with all of us, each carrying something heavy, and follow Jesus, the one who somehow transforms these same heavy crosses into instruments of freedom and wholeness and justice.
You see, following Jesus, the Messiah, isn’t what you might expect. It’s not glory and holiness and victory. It’s not shiny clean people who have already left their baggage behind, or figured out a way to carry it without sweating. No, it’s us, carrying all this painful stuff right into the work of the gospel. As we are. Our crosses are heavy and it is alright – Jesus has a cross too. We can take lots of breaks to rest as we go, and we can help each other carry when things get too heavy. Jesus invites us to bring it all along, and to bring each other along.
Just as we are we’re ready for work that will threaten the powerful. With Jesus we will be radical and take risks. With Christ we will go to the desolate and lonely places, and we will trust God to do the thing we least expect.
The story that we’re writing with God doesn’t say, “Once upon a time some really exceptional individuals saved the world by overcoming their baggage.”
This story is bigger than that, and God is bigger than that.
This is, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God,” the one who saves the cosmos from all its crosses by dying on a cross.
And that story is still beginning.