Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby

February 28, 2021 Worship Sermon - "Taking Up the Cross"

Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22:23-31; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

On the radio this past week, I heard an interview of a man who has dedicated his life to protecting endangered species in the northwestern United States.  As an environmentalist, he has sometimes had to confront the mining companies whose practices have eliminated the natural habitats of many endangered species.  The reporter who was conducting the interview asked him if he had considered a less confrontational approach.  Perhaps there was some common ground that the environmentalists and the mining companies could find where they could work together.  The man’s reply caught my attention.  He said that after twenty years of environmental advocacy, he has learned that one must decide whether one wants to be popular or effective.  It’s rarely possible to be both.  Advocating for endangered species did not make him popular with the mining companies, or with the people who were leasing their land to the mining companies.  But he decided that it was more important to be effective in protecting endangered species even if it meant sacrificing his popularity.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus faces the choice between being effective and being popular.  By this point in his ministry, Jesus has made a few enemies among the Pharisees, who complain because he is healing on the sabbath, and the religious leaders, who complain because he doesn’t have the right credentials.  But for the most part, Jesus’ popularity is at its peak.  Word spread quickly about his ability to heal the sick and cast out demons, so huge crowds meet him in any town he enters.  But from now on, Jesus is going to turn his attention to Jerusalem, the seat of power.  He’s going to Jerusalem to confront the political and religious elites, whose policies are impoverishing the people.  Jesus recognizes that this is going to get him killed.  But he also recognizes that this is what must happen in order to dismantle the power structures that keep so many people in misery.  If Jesus limited his activity to charitable works, like healing the sick or feeding the hungry, few people would complain.  But once he turns his attention to the societal structures that perpetuate hunger and disease, that’s when the real opposition to his ministry begins.

Jesus tells his disciples what is about to happen and Peter, who is really speaking for all the disciples, voices his objection.  Peter and the disciples have bet their whole lives on Jesus.  Remember, they left their boats and their nets on the sea of Galilee so that they could become “fishers of people.”  Their whole future depended on the continued success of Jesus.  The more famous and the more powerful Jesus became, the more the disciples would benefit.  So, Jesus’ talk about being handed over to the chief priests and the scribes had a significant impact on the future well-being of the disciples.  You can understand why Peter is upset.

When Peter objects to Jesus’ pessimistic prediction, Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Last week, we heard how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness.  Now, Jesus hears Satan’s temptation once again, this time in the voice of his trusted disciple.

Then Jesus speaks, not only to the disciples, but to the crowds of people who were following him.  He tells them: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

It’s worth reminding ourselves once again what it means to take up ones cross.  We decorate our churches with crosses and lots of people have crosses hanging from necklaces and keychains.  So, it’s easy to forget what a shameful image the cross was for people of Jesus’ day.  It was so shameful that in the first few centuries of Christianity, crosses would never be displayed in a church.  It would be like decorating a synagogue with a swastika.  The Romans used the cross as a means of death specifically for rebellious slaves and those who threatened the social order.  The cross was a powerful instrument for maintaining the social order because it was both agonizing and public.  By crucifying rebellious slaves in public places, the Romans had a way of saying, “This is what is going to happen to you if you try to throw off your shackles.”  So, when Jesus tells his followers to take up their cross, he is saying “Don’t let your enemy terrorize you into submission.”  Take control of the instrument with which they are trying to terrorize you and you will deprive it of its power.

Perhaps the closest analogy to crucifixion in our own day is lynching.  Lynching has been a way of terrorizing a segment of the population into submission.  So, when Jesus says to the crowds, take up your cross, it would be like a civil rights leader saying, “Take up your noose.”   That’s something that would certainly offend a lot of people.  But that does remind me of something I heard recently about Billie Holiday and her most famous song, “Strange Fruit.”  If you are unfamiliar with it, “Strange Fruit” is a song about the lynching tree.  It’s an eerie and powerfully moving song that Holiday sang as a protest.  Her record company refused to record it because they found it too inflammatory.  Rather than being silenced, though, Holiday insisted on singing the song at the end of each performance.  It was her way of confronting white supremacy head on.  I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

When it comes to standing up against the powers and structures that oppress us, I can definitely relate to Peter, who ran away from the cross and abandoned Jesus on the night of his arrest.  I’d rather be popular than effective, especially if being effective means losing my life.  Knowing this about myself, I’m so glad Jesus chose a weak-kneed man like Peter to be his disciple, because that says that God is willing to use people like Peter me to build God’s kingdom. 

Or from our Old Testament reading, we have the story of Abraham, whom God chose to be the ancestor of many nations.  Paul, in our reading from Romans, describes him as this pillar of faith.  But if you read Abraham’s story, you’ll see that he wavered a lot.  He pretended that Sarah was not his wife because he was afraid that the king of Egypt would kill him to get Sarah.  So much for never wavering concerning the promise of God.  But still, God chose Abraham, just as Jesus, centuries later, chose Peter.  God chooses people like Abraham and Peter to show that human frailty will not prevent God from fulfilling God’s promises. 

We who seek to follow Christ have a heroic calling: to dismantle the structures of sin and death that burden humanity.  The gravity of such a calling is enough to make us, like Peter and Abraham, run away in fear.  But fortunately, God is persistent in working with us and through us.  Abraham did become the ancestor of many nations and Peter did become the rock upon which the church was built.  God will use us and anyone else to fulfill the promise of the Kingdom of God, the promise that justice and peace will reign on earth.  ​​