There is a book on the shelf in my office entitled The Hard Sayings of Jesus. It contains short essays on some of the more difficult things that Jesus said in his preaching and teaching.
I looked at it this week because I thought surely a quote from today’s gospel reading would be included. “If any one want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
To me, this is one of the most difficult things we hear Jesus say. But to my surprise it wasn’t included in the book.
This passage is the first of three times in Mark’s gospel that Jesus predicts his suffering and death. These are words that it is hard for the disciples to hear. Like many of us when we hear bad or difficult news, they tend to ignore or deny what Jesus says.
Peter, that most bumbling of the disciples, even has the audacity to take Jesus aside and rebuke him for suggesting such a thing. The word he uses for “rebuke” in Greek is the same verb used to silence demons.
It is as if Peter wonders if Jesus is insane and in need of exorcism. In fact, Peter is the disciple who just a few verses earlier recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. And then Jesus immediately begins to talk about suffering and death.
To Peter that must have sounded like crazy talk, indeed. What good is a Messiah who suffers and dies?
Jesus will have none of it. He interrupts Peter with his own rebuke, startling in its harshness – “Get behind me, Satan!”
Lent begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. Jesus withstands the temptations and Satan leaves with the ominous promise that he will be back at a more opportune time.
The idea of choosing a different path, one that does not include suffering and death, must have been a real temptation to Jesus.
The tempter is not only found in the wilderness; the tempter can be found in the face of a friend who is trying to be of help.
After rebuking Peter, Jesus turns to the crowd of people who claim to be his followers and says, “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, will save it.”
This passage raises so many difficult questions.
First, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for poor Peter. Who wouldn’t be horrified to hear their teacher and friend talk about the necessity of suffering and dying, dying in a public, humiliating way?
And why, exactly was it necessary for Jesus to suffer, to be executed by the state? Is Jesus saying that suffering is a good thing, that it is necessary for everyone to go through what he is about to experience?
I don’t think so.
Jesus’ healing miracles and his compassion for those who suffer make it clear that God does not delight in human suffering.
I don’t believe that Jesus’ death was a necessary thing, if that means that God had it all plotted out ahead of time that Jesus must die this way.
What I do believe is that for Jesus to be true to who he was, true to who God was calling him to be, required going down a path where confrontation with the authorities was inevitable, and that confrontation inevitably led to his death.
Those who work to bring justice and peace to suffering people throughout the world are often victims of the violence they are trying to end.
There are modern day examples of this. Martin Luther King certainly knew that if he continued on the path he was on confronting injustice, that it would inevitably lead to his death. There were those, including his own father, who urged him to get off of that path.
But staying true to who he believed God was calling him to be, to continue doing what he believed God was calling him to do, meant going ahead.
The same was true for Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, who spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture by the government.
He knew that his words and actions were making him powerful enemies, ones who might kill him. But he continued on the path that he believed was true to God.
In March 1980, he was assassinated by government gunmen while celebrating the Eucharist.
Does this mean that Jesus is calling all of us to be martyrs? Of course not.
One theologian I read this week says, “To take up the cross is not to endure stoically the burdens of life, but rather to set oneself on the same trajectory as Jesus.
“It does not mean adopting the posture of a doormat by abandoning all sense of self. It does not mean giving up all pleasures or desires.
“It means accepting God’s claim upon one’s life.”
Of course, that means different things for each one of us. It doesn’t mean being called to lay our lives on the line, but it might mean being willing to step outside our comfort zones, to speak up when we’d rather be silent, to reach out to someone who differs from us, to risk taking an unpopular stance when we know it to be the right thing.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that those who dare to stand up to the powers and principalities of their day, those who look at the world as it is and dream of moving it closer to the world God intends, those who are willing to take up the cross and follow Jesus – are prophets filled with God’s spirit.
The words they speak, he says, are “from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historic possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire.”
In times of distress and tragedy, God is able to raise up prophets from unexpected places and people, who take up the cross, accepting God’s claim on their lives.
I think we are seeing that now with students from Florida and across the country who, in the aftermath of the Stoneman Douglas massacre, see the shambles of their schools and cities and are saying enough.
The full force of empire, fueled by the gun lobby, may be against them, but they see the possibility of a new and better way, God’s way, and their resolve is strong, even though, as Brueggemann reminds us, “the empire always wants to silence, nullify, and defeat such utterances.”
We’ve seen the truth of that in the past week, too, as the gun lobby and its lackies launched a media campaign full of lies and vitriol against the students.
I’m sure the students have their Peters, those who urge them to step off the path they are on, motivated by love and concern. But they so far they remain strong in their resolve.
The way of the cross is not always the easy way. It may take us places we would rather not go.
But no one ever said being a Christian was supposed to be easy.