Sunday, March 4, 2012

God Who Suffers With Us, Sermon on Mark 8:27-38

5th Century Casket Panel, “Condemnation of Christ and the Denial of Peter”

This week’s gospel passage contains the seeds of what has been easily one of the most familiar and also the least understood concepts in the history of Christianity. (How’s that for a sweeping statement?) The idea of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following Jesus remains so troubling, so controversial, that people of good faith still are arguing about what, precisely, it means (or, perhaps in more “Christian” terms, having extremely animated dialogues about it). For Christians, scripture is the rule of faith, our witness without equal to the mind of God. For me, the rule within that rule remains the words of Jesus himself. Combine that with the fact that we are reading, this morning, the very earliest gospel account, the one committed to papyrus or parchment before all others, and we have words before us we can’t in good conscience ignore or explain away. But we also have words that challenge us, to the core of our being.

Let me tell you a few little stories to try to illustrate this point:

An elementary school teacher is living firsthand the reality of the sandwich generation: she has a middle-schooler and a teenager still at home, and an aging mother whose health is deteriorating, necessitating her moving into her daughter’s home. And, of course, she works the more-than full-time job of educating young minds. She sighs, “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.”

A man watches his life partner die a gruesome death from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. A good friend who attends the same church tells him: “AIDS was Jerry’s cross to bear, and yours.”

A woman pushes her 4-year-old son on a swing at the playground; the child is severely disfigured as a result of a birth defect. A couple who are looking on from a distance murmur, “Why would God give that cross to such a young child?”

Many of us learned from an early age that anything that is difficult for us to deal with in our lives constitutes a “cross to bear.” We were told that enduring everything from mild discomfort to terrible suffering could be our opportunity to do as Jesus tells us, to deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow him. This understanding has even, at times, led ministers and priests, otherwise well-meaning folks of the cloth, to encourage victims of abuse to stay with their abusers, since it would, of course, be Jesus’ will that they endure their suffering patiently.

I hope that today we can walk away from that particular interpretation of this passage. That’s because I believe it’s wrong. Period. No qualifiers. And our first hint that this is wrong can be found in previous chapters of Mark’s gospel, where Jesus heals, in this order, a man with an unclean spirit, Simon’s mother-in-law, every single person in Capernaum who was sick or possessed with demons, and a leper. And that’s just chapter 1. In other words, if it is Jesus’ will that people suffer for his sake from things that can be otherwise relieved or cured, he has an odd way of showing it. The witness of scripture strongly suggests the opposite: that Jesus wants to alleviate suffering, an understanding of the “Good News” most of us can get behind. So what does Jesus mean when he says, “
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”? How do we reconcile those words with Jesus’ actions on behalf of healing and giving comfort to the suffering?

When Jesus talks about our taking up our crosses to follow him, he is not telling us to endure the suffering that is out of our control. He is most certainly not telling us to put ourselves in situations (or to remain in circumstances) in which our safety was at risk, all because that is his will. When Jesus spoke of the cross, he had a specific understanding of it, and those who followed him understood what he was saying.

When Jesus speaks of a cross, he is referring to a specific instrument of torture and death that was used by the Roman Empire for purposes of intimidating and controlling those whose lands they occupied. The Romans nailed one particular kind of criminal to the crosses that lined their well-built roads: insurrectionists, those who sought to overthrow Rome, to loosen its grip on their homelands or people.

As Jesus begins speaking to his disciples about the cross, he is telling them how he understands his role as Messiah: he is preaching a gospel of good news to the poor, release to the captives, restoration of sight to the blind and the ability to walk to the lame, the open table of welcome to all, young, old, saints and sinners. And he understands that this is a dangerous gospel. This message has the power to confront and challenge Rome in all its oppressive, militaristic might. Therefore, Jesus knows, he understands in the deepest part of his heart, that the gospel he is preaching will lead inexorably to the cross. If he continues to preach that gospel, the cross cannot be avoided. Rome will look upon him as an insurrectionist, and there is only one path for an insurrectionist to walk, the path to crucifixion.

But Jesus is willing to walk that path. That is not to say he desires it. But he is willing to walk it, he chooses it, because he understands that, in the end, Rome will not prevail, but God will. Because Jesus shows us a God who, rather than subjecting us to suffering, is willing to suffer right alongside us. And Jesus understands that it may well take his death to truly expose the ugliness of Rome to the world, and to bring life and hope and relief to everyone Rome has oppressed. Jesus is willing to take up his cross in order to lift the burden of suffering from others.

That is what a cross is for Jesus’ followers. A cross is an instrument or situation of suffering, voluntarily taken on, so that the burden of suffering might be lifted from someone else. Our cross is our free choice to lift the burden of suffering from another person.

But notice: it is our free choice. No one assigns us a cross and forces it onto our shoulders. Our physical suffering (which may be profound), our mental anguish (which may be nearly intolerable), our burdens and responsibilities do not, in themselves, constitute our cross to bear. Our cross is something we choose to take on because we see that the end result is that someone else will suffer less.[i]

This is what the cross is for Jesus: a witness to the love of God that does not flinch in the face of suffering if, in turn, others’ suffering will be lessened. If taking on some kind of suffering would relieve the pain of that disfigured child or that man with AIDS or that ailing grandmother, or the pain of those who love them—believe me, Jesus would take it on, and would encourage you and me to do the same. Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and to take up a cross—to lift another’s suffering—and to follow him. We have the ability to choose do that, or to not do it. We have assurance that, as Jesus received comfort and assistance, we will too. We have the hope that, even in suffering, we will have moments of joy and peace. We have the promise that Jesus himself—the one who sought in all circumstances, in every way to lift the suffering of humanity—we have the promise that he will walk the path with us.  We have the awe-inducing knowledge that the God we serve chooses to suffer alongside us, never leaving us alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Flora Wuellner, Enter By the Gate: Jesus’ 7 Guidelines for Making Hard Choices.


  1. Awesome to hear yours and Lisa's sermons on the same topic....great job, ladies !!

  2. Thanks Janet! Great to see you here. :-)