Sermon preached at the Church of S. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Second Sunday in Lent: Mark 8:31-38
Our Gospel reading this morning occurs right in the middle of Mark’s Gospel and is in many ways its pivot point—the point around which everything in the Gospel turns.
It’s part of a larger story. Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Caesarea Phillipi, a town in the northernmost part of Galilee. While they’re walking along, Jesus asks them a question. “Who do people say that I am?” They give him several answers. He then asks them, more pointedly, “Who do you say that I am?”
It is Peter who speaks on behalf of all. “You are the Messiah.” Jesus’ response is not to deny it, but to order them not to tell anyone about it.
Then comes this morning’s reading. The answer to this question has been a critical moment. Jesus decides it’s time to start preparing the disciples for what he believes will take place. They are almost going to go to Jerusalem and they need to be ready for it.
He began teaching them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Peter is indignant. This is not at all what he believes it means for Jesus to be the Messiah and he tells Jesus so in no uncertain terms. Jesus, however, comes right back at him, stronger, in extraordinarily harsh words,
Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
And then he makes the nightmare worse.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It is the first mention of the cross in the Gospel, and it is meant not for Jesus alone, but for all his followers. The cross was a terrifying thing and those listening to Jesus would have reacted with fear and horror.
Imagine the stir I would cause if I hung a great banner from the tower out front: “Come join us and die.” You would have thought that I had gone stark raving mad. And people out there would be repelled and wonder if we had become some strange cult.
Yet Jesus said we had to take up our cross.
Then there is one last challenge.
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
We decorate our churches with crosses, some of them simple, some with Jesus’ body on them, some empty and quite pretty. We wear crosses around our neck. We do so to identify ourselves as Christians, yet we do not think much that these crosses are for us as much as they are for Jesus.
What a terrifying thing to contemplate! What did Jesus mean when he said we had to die in order to follow him?
Well, he tries to teach the disciples again after they had journeyed back south deep into Galilee. Again they are on the road and he is teaching them
The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.
This time we are simply told that they do not understand what he is talking about and were afraid to ask him about it.
Afraid? Of course they were afraid! This was all taking a very strange turn.
Yet they did talk among themselves on the road. When they arrived at their destination, Capernaum, he asked them what they were talking about, for they seemed to have been arguing about something. Mark tells us
But they were silent, for they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
He knows what they were arguing about and the depth of their misunderstanding of what he is about. He tries to teach them what he means.
He sat down [Mark says], called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
They continue south, heading toward Jerusalem, which is making everyone afraid. Once again he takes the disciples aside and tries to explain what is going to happen to him using the same language as before. Their response is not recorded but Mark tells us right after he said these things, James and John approached him and asked if they could sit at his right hand and his left hand when he came into his kingdom.
They just don’t get it. He says to them,
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Mark gives us no indication that they understood, in fact, he implies that they remain blind, by telling one last healing story, the giving of sight to Bartimaeus. Jesus gives sight, but the disciples remain blind.
Then Palm Sunday happens and it is too late to understand anything because it is upon them.
Jesus has made it clear what it means that we have to die in order to follow him, what it means to “deny ourselves and take up our cross.” It means to live the life of a servant.
Now that would make a better banner, “Join us and be a servant.”
But the truth is that people do not want to be servants, even we in the church chafe under that bit, paying it lip service with our fingers crossed behind our backs. We will be a servant if it does not cost us anything. But Jesus says it will cost us; it will cost us everything.
It will cost us being in charge. It will cost us our reputation as a winner. It will cost us being surrounded by all the things that say to the world, “I have made it.” It will cost us that attitude that the world around us rewards: “I take care of myself first.”
The disciples of Jesus are called to be servants, which means that they will often look like people who are on the losing side of life.
Try as we may, there really isn’t any way to make the cross pretty. It is not a pretty thing. It is a symbol of death, Jesus’ death and ours, our death as people who’ve got it made, and our rebirth as servants of all.
“Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” the deacon says to send us out into the world at the end of the service. We hear the words so much we do not pay any attention to them, but they are strong words about setting our face to face the world—not as self-made men and women, but as servants.
If it is your practice to dip your finger in the holy water and make the sign of the cross as you leave the church (a practice I commend) take it as a sign of your acceptance of the death of which Jesus speaks and say to yourself, “I will take up my cross and be a servant.”
 The second passion announcement is Mark 9:30-37.
 The third passion announcement is Mark 10:32-45.