Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Sunday Sermon: The Hard Work of Our Cross

Okay. I know this is early in the morning, but we’re in Lent and the Gospel demands it so we’re going to talk about the cross. Ready?

Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that if we want to be his followers -- and we do -- then we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. So let’s start with your cross. What is it? What do we think Jesus means here? [SILENCE].

What did Jesus mean? Let’s look a bit more at the context of the reading. We are in the central section of the Gospel, the hinge, that is constructed in a peculiar way. It begins with the story of the healing of a blind man in Bethsaida. Oddly, the healing takes place in two stages -- the only time this happens in the New Testament: first the blind man can see people but they’re as fuzzy as trees, so Jesus tries again and completes the miracle. Then Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is, and Peter declares Jesus as the Messiah. (This is a moment to celebrate, particularly in this Gospel, in which the disciples have been quite slow on the uptake.) Next we arrive at today’s reading -- Jesus explains that the Messiah isn’t who they expected him to be, that the Messiah would suffer and be killed before rising again. Peter, so recently applauded as the disciple who finally gets it, decides to tell the Messiah who he should really be and gets rebuked accordingly. Jesus now turns to the crowd to explain that his followers must deny themselves and take up their crosses in order to follow him. And they go on their way.

This section’s structure is peculiar because Jesus foretells his death and resurrection two more times within just a couple of chapters. Immediately following this second prediction of his death, in a startling non sequitur the disciples argue among themselves about who is the greatest, and Jesus has to remind them that to be the greatest they’ll need to be the servants of all. Immediately following the third and final prediction of his death, James and John ask if they can sit on either side of Jesus in heaven, and then Jesus heals another blind man, bookending the section. So Jesus gives a blind man his sight, tells the disciples three times what it means to be the Messiah -- after each prediction his disciples miss Jesus’ point by prioritizing the Messiah’s glory over his sacrifice -- and then Jesus gives another blind man his sight. His disciples clearly don’t understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Do you? Even if you don’t get it at first, St. Mark tells us, Jesus will try again to restore your eyes as he did with that blind man from Bethsaida.

But do we accept Jesus’ version of who the Messiah is? How easy is it to hear his words and yet still miss his point: that we follow one who serves, who sacrifices, for the well-being of the world. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus apparently responds to Peter’s misunderstanding of the Messiah’s purpose by inviting all to deny themselves, pick up their crosses and follow him. Jesus’ work was to greatly suffer, be rejected by the elders, be killed, and rise again -- that was his cross. And he asks us to pick up our cross, not his cross (thankfully). So what is our cross, our work, our particular calling in this time and place? God has a different answer in store for each of us. Each involves service and sacrifice -- that’s the connection Jesus is making between his cross and ours.

I think of my cross as the three-fold disciplines of ordination, marriage, and parenthood. These vocations organize my daily work -- they cause me pain as well as joy -- -- they require self-sacrifice -- they exhaust me and frustrate me and tempt me -- and they are absolutely central to my identity as a Christian. In fact, thinking of our main responsibilities and life commitments as our cross can claim these obligations for Christ. Our cross is Christ’s gift to us: our purpose in the world as a Jesus-follower.

Yet it’s not as easy as deciding that what we’re already doing every day happens to be our “cross,” because our crosses will resist domestication, easy answers, self-serving justifications, perpetuation of unjust status quos, or anything that leads us away from justice and peace and reconciliation and self-sacrificing love. For indeed we follow a God of justice who works in this world so that all people may one day thrive; taking up our crosses implicates us in this mission. It guides us more deeply into the life of God and into God’s ongoing peacemaking work. It means for me, for example, I can expect God to continue inviting me deeper into a life of servanthood and selfless love within the context of my work as husband, father, and priest. Our crosses are the hard, weighty work of a life devoted to God and to the service of others.

So I ask again: what is your cross to bear? Will you take it up each day?

Take up your cross, Jesus urges us: claim your daily, self-sacrificing work for his sake, allow him to affirm it as a part of his grand messianic project to bring peace and justice and reconciliation to the world. Let the weight of our cross shape the contours of our moral lives so that we too may be formed more closely into Christ’s loving servants. We walk, my brothers and sisters, behind a Messiah poised to suffer and die for our sake. How does God invite each of us to give our lives up in love as well?

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