This is one of my favorite texts in the entire Bible, which is probably a strange commentary on my thought process. I know it isn’t a particularly comforting passage in the classical sense of some of the Psalms. When I read it, I don’t often feel peace.
And yet, this passage is central to our understanding—both about who Jesus is and about who we are as his followers. It’s certainly pivotal for Mark.
In the first eight chapters, Mark locates Jesus in all kinds of strange places, among strange people—and that, in itself, makes a theological statement about the reign of God—which is always to be found in the back alleys and dive bars where the respectable people rarely go—which is to say, where any sensible person would least expect it.
The next eight chapters, find Jesus en route to and having arrived in Jerusalem, a not so strange place, peopled with the powerful and influential.
The contrasts are fascinating: Jesus spends the first part of Mark’s Gospel in Nebraska, then he takes a fateful journey to Washington D.C. And our text for today stands as the threshold—the point at which, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes the first move on his journey to Jerusalem. He’s been here, now he’s going there.
Portentous. Big deal. The story picks up speed from here.
Dr. Albert Outler tells the story of the warrior-king Charles XII, who in 1716 visited a little village seaport town named Ystad in the south of Sweden. King Charles arrived unexpectedly at the village church for worship. When the pastor realized that the king was at the service, he puzzled over what he should do about his sermon. Should he preach the message he’d prepared or take this opportunity to praise King Charles and the royal family for their leadership of Sweden? You know, call him maybe the greatest king in history, a tremendous leader, probably done the best job of any king ever.
He decided to lay aside his sermon and suck up to the king.
After the service the king, a man of integrity, greeted the pastor and went on his way. A short time later the church received a special gift. The Pastor called the congregation together to share in the opening of the gift.
When the large box was opened there was a life-sized crucifix. Attached to the cross was a note from the king: “Let this crucifix hang on the pillar opposite the pulpit, so that all who stand there will be reminded of their proper subject.”
We, of course, have read the final chapter and we know what happens when Jesus gets to Jerusalem—as did Mark’s readers. So, we can’t help but read our text for today with a sense of foreboding.
We know what it’s ultimately going to cost Jesus as he makes this final prescient speech. And so we cover this tough passage again because somewhere at the center of it all is what we confess about who Jesus is, and who we are now because of him.
Our Gospel this morning looms as a constant reminder of what is, for all of us, at stake in our faith. The cross stands at the end of this journey for Jesus, and it is the cross Jesus commands his disciples to take up.
According to Mark, Jesus knew, as he walked down the narrow path that day, that there was no way for him to be faithful to the purposes of God and avoid that cross. He knew that his challenge of the powerful on behalf of the powerless couldn’t help but appear threatening to the ruling authorities. He knew the special kind of death reserved for Messiahs, for those who would presume to challenge Caesar.
In David James Duncan’s book, The Brothers K, the family is discussing a little girl with a cleft palate at church named, Vera, whose parents won’t let her have an operation to fix her lip because it is, as they say, “her cross to bear.”
One brother, Peter, observes that “There were some crucial things Vera’s parents were forgetting about crosses . . . One was that Jesus was nailed to His by his enemies, not by Mary and Joseph. And another,” he said, “was that it killed Him. Christ’s cross killed Him. We’ve got to remember what crosses are . . . They’re not just decorations on steeples. They’re murder weapons . . . the same as guns, or gas chambers, or electric chairs. Only much, much slower. So Vera’s parents . . . were one of two things. They were either fools without the slightest idea what Christianity or crosses are. Or they were unbelievably evil people.”
Jesus isn’t talking about some subjective experience, some inconvenience, like being near-sighted or having an uncle whose an overbearing loudmouth nobody wants to sit next to at Thanksgiving dinner. The cross is something we decide to bear, something we take up, not some physical infirmity, our aches and pains. This is a voluntary thing, not something thrust upon us by genetics or lack of aptitude or just sheer bad luck—things over which we have no control.
The crosses we bear, like Jesus before us, have to do with the consequences we suffer in our determination not to stay silent in the face of injustice, with the pain and suffering we embrace as those who try to live like Jesus by saying “yes” to the vulnerable and the destitute, while saying “no” to those who operate the machinery of the death-dealing systems of domination.
In Christianity, the cross is central to what it means to be faithful. I’d like to be able to tell you otherwise—that crosses are an optional part of the travel package, but in fact, they are both the destination of this journey, as well as the baggage we strap to our backs. That’s a fairly bracing bit of information to hear from the cruise director, but Jesus isn’t a good salesman. He’s the anti-Zig Ziglar.
As James Cone argues, “We cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross as a locus of divine revelation is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power” (Kindle ed.).
The cross was something people got nailed to as a form of capital punishment for being political subversives—not a handy piece of jewelry, perfect for accessorizing a smart evening dress.
It is precisely this barbarity that Friedrich Nietzsche latches onto in his book, Genealogy of Morals, in which he criticizes Christianity as a religion of servitude and resignation. In contrast to the pacifism of Jesus, Nietzsche prized the manly virility of the ancient Greeks and their heroic culture, which he considered the pinnacle of human moral achievement.
According to Nietzsche, Christianity successfully won the P.R. battle by convincing people that moral good consists of things like kindness, piety, and humility, which he identifies as the last refuge of the impotent (180). The perfect symbol for this morality of the weak, Nietzsche believes, is the cross, which he says has a “debilitating narcotic power,” with its “ghastly paradox of a crucified God.” In the cross, he laments, is the certainty that the pacifism of Jesus “has by now triumphed over all other, nobler values” (169).
Nietzsche rightly saw that the power of Christianity didn’t come from making straight up claims to power, by trying to be the boss by supplanting the boss, but rather precisely from refusing to make those claims in favor of embracing the vulnerability of serving the vulnerable, the highest demonstration of which comes in the cross.
More accurately than many Christians, Nietzsche recognized that at the very heart of Christianity sits the cross—a preference for what appears to the world as weakness: peace over violence, gentleness over cruelty, welcome over exclusion, love over hatred.
Where he and I disagree isn’t over whether this is true, but whether this vulnerability is a good thing.
Followers of Jesus do think the vulnerability of serving the vulnerable is a good thing.
Nietzsche’s right, though, that the cross has been seen throughout history not as an invitation to an adventure but as a symbol of a domesticated stability—an ode to resignation and acquiescence. But it’s possible that in domesticating the cross we no longer sense either its offensiveness or its glory.
In today’s text, Jesus not only says that he’s walking toward the cross, he invites us to go with him; he promises us that, where the crucified are, there he will also be.
If we’re following Jesus, we’re walking, you and I, toward the cross. But we’re not walking the path of the cross alone. The call is to take up our crosses and follow behind Jesus. With Jesus. He’s walked down that road toward the cross and he walks down that road again and again, whenever the faithful bear their crosses—challenging the oppressor on behalf of the oppressed. Having borne it before us, he is able to bear it with us.
Is today’s text about the cross good news or bad?
It sounds like bad news—the worst of all possible news—in a society in which pain and sacrifice are avoided and denied at all cost, in which any suffering is considered unfair and unnecessary, in which we’re taught that “every day, in every way” the world is growing into a kinder more hospitable place, where pain of all sorts will eventually be eradicated.
The cross disabuses us of the facile notion that the meaning of life revolves around pleasure, around getting my needs met the way I think they need to be met.
But what if the cross, at the same time as it delivers the bad news of suffering and sacrifice, offers us some good news?
What if the cross, as fearsome and terrifying as it is, is the place where we meet Jesus?
What if the cross allows us to consider that cross-carrying is not an individual, but a team sport? Even Jesus needed help lugging that lumber up the road. Not only do we find Jesus struggling under the load, but we find one another there too.
Moreover, being near Jesus puts us near the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless. That’s good news. Because since we’ve embraced the cross, we’ve already embraced powerlessness, not as a strategy for effective living but as a way of life that seeks above all else to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
And if we want to know where Jesus is going, we only have to look to where it is that children go to bed afraid and hungry, where women are told by men with power over them to accept their abuse, where people of color live in terror that they’ll lose their children to the brutality inflicted by the people sworn to protect and serve them or be torn away and thrown in cages, where refugees huddle in camps hoping for a chance at a life that doesn’t include guns and bombs and being carted away by the authorities in the dead of night, where LGBTQ people fear the violence and vindictiveness of those who claim to be serving God.
We don’t have to wonder anymore whether we have any responsibility for our brothers and sisters, those who can’t stand up any longer by themselves.
We don’t have to ask whether those who’ve been forgotten, abused, kicked to the curb are our people any longer.
Through the grace of the cross, we’re able to see not competitors in the food chain, not threats to our individual projects, not nuisances for which we have neither the time nor the energy, but family . . . family everywhere we look.
Athol Gill points out, “One of the profound paradoxes of Christianity is to be found in the fact that the one who was not able to carry his own cross (15:21) is the one who enables us to carry ours.”
The cross isn’t optional equipment for the journey of faith, but we don’t have to bear it alone.
One of my favorite stories is told about one of my favorite people, the Baptist prophet and writer, Will Campbell, who was being shown a beautiful new church that had just been dedicated in a city that Campbell was visiting. Proudly, the pastor showed him through the magnificent sanctuary. Pointing to the large cross, suspended over the altar, the pastor said, “Can you believe it? That cross alone cost us over ten thousand dollars.”
Campbell muttered to himself, “Amazing! There once was a time when they would give you one for free—just for being faithful.”