Monday, September 17, 2012

September 16, 2012 - Yes, the Cross

Yes, the Cross
Mark 8:27-38

            I have been reading a book by Alain De Botton with the unexpected title, Religion for Atheists. Yes, it was written for atheists. The premise of the book is that, after you strip away all belief in the reality of God, there is much to appreciate and much to learn from religion. For me, as a Christian and convinced of the reality of God, reading this book for atheists reminds me of the way we learned appreciation for our English language by studying a foreign language. It is the basic premise of the book that I cannot accept: that there is a lot to appreciate and much to learn from religion when you strip away all belief in the reality of God.
            A. I can’t accept the author’s premise because, for me, living a decent, moral life is inseparably intertwined with the God we worship.
1. The character of God is the standard against which all human motives are measured. Human motives and insights are variable. They are too dependent on the news cycle:  one day your issue is the talk of the nation; the next day the nation has moved on to something more interesting. God, however, continually presses us to live in love, in justice, in service.
2. God is not just an object to be studied, like a nearby planet orbiting nearby waiting to be photographed or sampled or measured. The relationship between humanity and God is a required element in our understanding of God. Indeed, we are defined by this one relationship.
            You see, in relationship we are more than the pile of cells and hormones that animates us. A believer responds in faith to the call of God and by that response is endowed with the hopes and purposes of God. Through relationship with God, we become more than isolated individuals.
3. Our history with God becomes our story. The simple fact that God has walked through this life with us is momentous. That God on occasion bends near to listen when we pray is life-changing.
To strip away all belief in the reality of God turns the Bible into just another book of pulp fiction. And that, I cannot accept. And I hope you will not accept such a premise. Through faith, we know the God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ, and indeed we are known by this God. In Jesus Christ, God has entered our world-space to share what it is to be human. To worship other gods or ourselves as god would change the character and the possibilities of human life. To worship the God known in Trinity: Creator, Son, Holy Spirit, is be in life-giving relationship and held to the greatest life that we can aspire to live.

I. I don’t travel outside the USA often enough, but each time I walk through Customs, headed for home, I am tempted to do something unexpected. What keeps me from acting on this temptation is the conviction that Customs and Immigration Officers are recruited on the basis that they have no sense of humor what-so-ever. So, no, I do not plan to act on my temptation. I’ll just share it with you.
            Each time I walk through the customs station, I have been met with the question from the officer, “Do you have anything to declare?” I know that the officer is asking if I have bought anything on my foreign travels for which I should pay duty. But, as a Christian, that question has an entirely different meaning.
            You see, each time I hear that question: “Do you have anything to declare?” I want to announce with confidence and conviction: “Yes, I do. I declare my faith in Jesus Christ. I follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” You see, the most important thing that I want to declare is my faith and commitment to Jesus Christ. My declaration may be foreign to the guy behind the customs desk, but it is a great treasure for me.
            I know that in times past, Christians were brought before magistrates and judges to demand that they renounce their faith in Christ or face persecution. In those arenas, declaring your faith in Christ could be very costly indeed. But, where are we called on to declare our faith? Where do we take a risk simply by saying, “I believe that Jesus Christ is Lord”? The modern world has managed to do what the Romans and their arenas could not do; it has made following Christ toothless and without consequence. We pass through the customs station as we arrive home in the USA. The customs officer asks, “Anything to declare?” And we meekly respond, “Nothing.” Such a pity.

II. Thus, when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do they say that I am?” he was pressing them for a declaration. He was pointing them to a relationship with the God of heaven and earth. They would have preferred a lower target. They wanted to focus on the skills they had been learning at Jesus’ feet:
+Casting out demons,
+Feeding multitudes with lunches pilfered from small children,
+Changing water into wine,
+Prep-ing for the Messiah debates coming up.
On the way he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?"
28 And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah;
and still others, one of the prophets."

“Let’s keep this conversation anchored to earth, Jesus. Let’s talk about stuff we can debate even though Judas gets all political and John gets all dreamy eyed and Simon starts blustering about how brave he is. We can handle earth-bound stuff.”
            It was Jesus who changed the subject on them. You’ve spent long enough focused on things you can hold in your hands; now it is time to focus on the One who can hold you in His hands. “Who do you say that I am?”
            You see, had they kept Jesus anchored to earth, they would have taken the safer choice. But, when they saw God in Jesus and acknowledged it to him and to themselves, they were reaching for realities beyond their grasp. They were reaching for the God who can only be reached when God is reaching for us. It was a life-changing moment for all of them.

            C. In the verses that follow Simon Peter’s confession, Jesus describes what believing in him must mean.
31 Then he began to teach 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. 32 He said all this quite openly.

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Surely, the disciples thought, following Jesus will take us like conquerors into Jerusalem. Following Jesus will draw the crowds to see what wonders he will do next. It will bring out the shouts and songs of Palm Sunday. What a shock it came to them when Jesus told them that following him would lead him to a cross and them to crosses of their own.
            The political staffers working in the election campaigns this fall assume, rightly, that they will have a chance to work in their candidate’s administration. But, Jesus warns his disciples that working in his campaign only leads to a cross. They had to know this just as we have to know that following this Jesus will lead to the cross.//  And you were hoping that following Jesus…
+would lead to an office with a plaque on the door identifying your importance to the boss in the corner office;
+would lead to a life of ease;
+would provide a path to a comfortable retirement.
But, Jesus says, “Let me tell you about the cross at the end of this journey.

III. Of course, Mark did not tell this moment from the life of Jesus just for history’s sake. He was not merely trying to get all the details recorded. Mark told this moment from the life of Jesus to bring us into the story right up to the moment when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It is our question, too.
            We all know how hard it is to be the first to say, “I love you” to another, to be the first to break the silence with such a large truth. One does not say anything like that for the first time without sweaty palms and a dry mouth. We may hesitate, not because we doubt that the words are true, but because we know how powerfully true they are, and because having spoken the truth, we can no longer ignore its implications for our lives (1).
            The first question: “Who do people say that I am?” is as easy for us as it was for the Twelve. But then comes the second question: “Who do you say that I am?” only one word is different, but that one word makes all the difference. There is no escape into comfortable objectivity. This question demands not so much the insight of our minds as the allegiance of our hearts. It is one thing to talk about Jesus; it is very different to state your devotion. It is the difference between talking about your loved one and sending a love letter (1).

B. So, we must take up the cross if we would follow Jesus. The call of Jesus is not to deny oneself something, but to deny self. Asceticism can hand the victory to the self, for Self can ride as comfortably on a bicycle as in a limousine. Nor is the call to reject oneself. Self-hatred is not the way of Jesus. The cross we take up is not the burdens life imposes from without but rather the redemptive action voluntarily undertaken for others.
            Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), a gruff retired Polish American factory worker and war veteran, has recently been widowed after 50 years of marriage. His Highland Park neighborhood in Detroit, formerly populated by working-class white families, is now dominated by poor Laotian immigrants, and gang violence is commonplace.
            A Laotian family resides next door to Walt. At first, he wants nothing to do with his new neighbors, particularly after he catches the son attempting to steal his Ford Gran Torino as an initiation into a gang. The gang continues to pressure the son and again assaults him on his way home from work. The gang performs a drive-by shooting on the neighbors’ home, injuring the son, and kidnapping and raping his sister.
            The next day, the son seeks Walt's help to exact revenge. Walt locks the young man in his basement and tells him that he has been haunted by the memory of killing an enemy soldier.
            Walt then goes to the house of the gang members where they draw their weapons on him. He talks loudly, berating them and drawing the attention of the neighbors. Putting a cigarette in his mouth, he asks for a light; he then puts his hand in his jacket and provocatively pulls it out as if it is a gun, inciting the gang members to shoot and kill him. As he falls to the ground, his hand opens to reveal an army lighter: he was unarmed. A police officer tells them the gang will be arrested for murder and imprisoned for a long time (2).
Kowalski dies as the Christ-figure in the movie. By offering himself for this killing, Kowalski provides relief from the gang and its violence which was on a path to destroy this family. And clearly, it was a path/cross which he chose.

            I told the Cross-story of the Clint Eastwood movie with some reluctance. It has always seemed to me that Christ’s work of taking the cross is the defining act of suffering love in the history of the world. Christ’s willingness to endure the cross stops me in my tracks.
            What I don’t get is how we step forward with similar acts of suffering love which we might call “taking up our crosses,” as Jesus commanded. Clint Eastwood can make up a scene for a movie – but that is the art of cinema. How do we make our response real?
            So, I leave this command of Jesus with you.
34  Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
            and take up their cross and follow me.

            How do we follow Jesus, taking up our cross? Jesus has embraced the cross for our life and our salvation. Let us watch for the ways by which we might follow in that way – the way of the Cross.

1. Copenhaver, Martin. “Who do you say that I am?” Christian century, Aug 24-31, 1994, p. 779.
2. Gran Torino, film directed and produced by and starring Clint Eastwood, 2008. Plot summary from

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