Of Crowns and Crosses

A few years ago a representative from Teach America paid a visit to one of the premier university campuses—Duke. Teach America hires the brightest students and places them in some of the nation’s worst public schools. So the representative stood before the crowd of Duke students and said,

“I can tell just by looking at you that I’ve come to the wrong place. Somebody told me that this was the BMW school and I believe it. Just looking at you, I know you’ve achieved success and that you’re on a track for even more success. Yet I’m here today to convince you to throw your life away in the toughest job that you’ll ever have. I want people to go into the hollow of West Virginia and the ghettos of South Los Angeles to teach in the worst schools in America. Last year two of our teachers were killed on the job.

But just by looking at you, I can tell that you’re not interested. So go to grad school, make your millions, and live for success and comfort. But if by chance you’re interested in the toughest job in America, I have a few brochures so come over and see me. Meeting’s over.”

With that, those Duke students pushed into the aisles and mobbed that representative, signing up for more information.     – Matt Woodley Bio pastor editor of Christianity Today

These students were discovering something that my wife Liza once said was true in the lives of most young people.  She said, “Young people want something important to do.  They know they were created to do something important.”  I sense that is true for each of us as well. 

We live with the sense that we were created for a great undertaking, and we sometimes ask ourselves the question of whether or not it has found us yet. 

We are reaching the middle Mark’s Gospel, where the writer is offering a reprisal of the message that Jesus has been sharing throughout the disciples’ journey.  It is reminiscent of the opening of Mark’s Gospel –  the message of repentance – change how you are thinking about God . . . change how you are living. 

Jesus is locking horns with Peter over over what this might mean.

This moment in Northern Israel at Caesarea Philipi is a nugget, a summary statement, something like the bullion of the Gospel.  Some have called it a kind of gospel within The Gospel.  Jesus is drawing the curtain back on the truth, and yet his lead disciple does not want to hear it; Peter offers the ministry of redirection.  And it is here that Jesus corrects the misdirection, issuing a profound invitation to follow.

Moments before this reading we have today, Jesus asks the disciples – Who do people say that I am?  And there follows from the disciples mouths a list of heroic titles – Elijah, John The Baptist, one of the prophetic heroes of old – the warrior, the conqueror, the vindicator.  And then Peter says, “Surely, you are the Messiah.”  When Peter offers this title, a title beyond all titles, that is when Jesus begins to tell them, to teach them, that they will have to discover a new meaning for that word and that expectation in their lives if they are going to know God. 

Peter is having one of those moments when the voice of God enters our lives unexpectedly, but with great clarity.  Peter is about to hear the impossible.  Jesus tells his friends the truth of what will happen to him as the Messiah.  Jesus tells the truth of who He is, and how He will be treated in the world.  Rejection, suffering, death are what wait for this Messiah.  And this unmakes Peter’s world.

            In Peter’s mind, and the minds of the disciples, a leader who would be rejected, suffer, and be killed would be anything but a leader.  In the words of NT Wright,

“Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown-up precisely as a false Messiah.”

Earlier in the Gospel of Mark there seems to be some hesitancy, some difficulty, in the disciples’ grasp of what Jesus is trying to teach them.  We are told: 

Mark 6:51-52

Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Mark 8:4

His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’

There is a discovery that the disciples have yet to make about Jesus, his work, his identity.  And now that Peter has fired a shot near the target, Jesus will begin to illuminate and fill the gaps in their understanding; the question is – do they really want to understand?  Do they really want to know what they do not yet know?

Finally Jesus is giving them the key to some of the puzzle of understanding.  The key to understanding what it means to follow Jesus, especially for the disciples who are constantly misunderstanding, will turn out to be the mystery of his Cross.

Rejection.  Suffering.  Death. 

Not only is the key to understanding what it means to follow Jesus his Cross . . . it turns out that the key to understanding Jesus is the mystery of OUR cross as well, and our decision to carry it.

These close all of the fire escapes through which the disciples might be seeking a safe passage.  Borrowing the words of Biblical scholar Lamar Williamson, “the call is not to deny oneself something, but to deny self . . . premeditated deprivation and asceticism can still hand the victory of the self to the self; “for self can ride as comfortably on a bicycle as in a limousine.” 

The cultivation and maintenance of self-centeredness can be accomplished with tools either simple or complex.  And there is perhaps no easier place for self-centeredness to hide than behind a religious and spiritual posture of “the suffering servant and selfless one.”

Every follower of Jesus will at some point find themselves in Peter’s shoes; seeking to keep alive and hopeful the messiah of our own preciousness, the messiah we have cultivated, keeping that messiah safe from the hands of those who would destroy it.  And yet the incredible paradox within our lives of faith, the incredible paradox of Peter in the midst of this moment, is that it is Jesus Himself who is dismantling the precious messiah, the imitation, that may have been fashioned in one’s imagination.

Like Peter, our preciousness will be offered in exchange for The Cross of discipleship; and that exchange is facilitated by the one we seek to follow.  We must seek to deny ourselves, even to the point of denying ourselves the latitude of fashioning a Messiah who has been made simply in our own imaginations; Jesus will always be standing near us waiting to replace our messianic fabrications with a Cross that bears an actual resemblance to the path we share with him.

Rejection.  Suffering.  Death.  It is a broadside for Peter.  It is a broadside for us.  It is the voice of God rearranging the human heart and mind.  And the only path out of such moment is take up the very thing that Jesus is taking up and follow him into the land of new answers and a new life.

Denying one’s self, taking up our cross, is giving up being at the center of things.  Denying one’s self is counter-intuitive and contrary to the spiritual and psychic atmosphere in which we spend much of our lives.  It is a reliance that is prior to “self-reliance.”  It is an identity that is not affirmed simply as the project of our own intimations.  It is an identity that comes once Jesus helps us to die to one way of being in the world so that we might “awaken” to a new Way.

I believe that finding and taking up our individual cross is perhaps the greatest and the last adventure of being human; finally discovering our identity that was formed by God.  An identity toward which we are moving in the midst of this life, and that will find us once we take our place in heaven.

This counter-intuitive movement toward God will be different for each of us.  For some it will be so large as to move a mountain in our lives.  In the place where the largest aspiration or avoidance of our souls might happen to be living, Jesus wants to be in that very place.  What is the all consuming passion, or the all-consuming distraction, that is truly living on the center-stage of our lives; that is the place where our cross is waiting to be raised.  Jesus wants that very space in our hearts.  For some of us discovering the Cross of Christ will be as significant as the moment Peter is having with Jesus.

For others, exchanging of a false messiah for the true one will be found in those many, small, repetitive moments of life where we have to put the concern and good of others before our own – if we are going to call ourselves followers of Jesus.  The small places, the inconveniences, the irritations, the grudges, those feelings and perceptions of others that our so easy to maintain, when we are at the center of all things; when are very sure that our “self” is intact and operating.  Finding the Cross of Christ in those places might change thing.  “Losing our life, our self” in those places might mean that things have to change.  It might mean that our “self” finds a new place and way to be beneath the presence of the Cross.

Who and what is living with us at the center of our hopes and aspirations? 

Be careful.  In the presence of the Jesus that we meet this morning with Peter, the Carpenter, the Son of Man as He calls himself, is coming and waiting to take that very spot.  He wants, and expects, the best seat in the house of our souls. 

Jesus wants to have this conversation with each person who follows him. 

Some of us know that conversation when Jesus says,

“Will you stand with me when the hard decisions arrive?  Will stand with me when you have to choose between the reflection you find in the professional or social mirrors, and the revelation you find in scripture? Will you stand with me?  Will you stand with me when you have to choose between the reflection you find in the good opinion of others, and the revelation that the world may think you a fool for carrying a cross and following me?” 

“Will stand with me when I ask you to put down the fabrications of your spiritual preciousness, and lift upon your shoulders the hard reality of a Roman cross?”  Will you deny yourself gazing at the reflections of a “self” you have worked hard to create, and accept the cross containing the image of your true self that God has created?  Will you accept the revelation of the “self” that you find when you discover the power of my Cross?

I was told in seminary never to end a sermon with a question.  However, having lived through the broadside of God’s voice more than once in my own life, and knowing that I will face it again, the questions I leave with you are questions that I sometimes carry in my own life of following Jesus.  Questions for which I too seek direction during Lent.

“What did you want?  What did you really expect as you follow Jesus?

Some version of a glorious life, or a glorious death?”

Not even the Son of Man was granted things as these. 

In the end, at the end, what is important? 

Our version of life and death, or the certainty of where real life begins, and never-ends?

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