The call, in today’s gospel passage is even more sweeping: Jesus calls his followers not only to journey with him but to give up their lives for him and for the sake of the Gospel.
Paradoxically, Jesus declares those who do so will not lose their life but find it.
This is not a call solely to discomfort or upheaval but to a completely new way of being in the world. Abraham receives a new name; we receive a new purpose and identity. Carl Jung said, “The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”
[I learned this at a young age, as first adults, then peers, and later colleagues all tried to tell me who I was/am.]
When we cast our lot with Christ, we begin discovering who God wants us to be. Each of us finds our true name, our essential identity, in God. (See Ephesians 3:15). And, responding to that identity in this life results in a fuller life than any we could design for ourselves.
For example, I never imagined in a million years that I would become an ordained clergy in The United Methodist Church. Until the age of twenty-seven I had never stepped into a United Methodist Church. At twenty-seven I was an introverted graduate student in the Department of Religion at Miami University. I was preparing for an academic life teaching Comparative Religion.
One morning, after weeks of walking around the building I decided to attend worship one Sunday. It turned out that stepping into the local church became a life-transforming event. Years of personal spiritual seeking culminated in a response to a call to ministry that led me to Boston, then into local church ministry. That was in 1982. I never could have imagined this life, this vocation; but I would not choose anything different- I could not choose anything different and still be who I am, my authentic self.
We each have a vocation, a calling, and it is this Jesus references when he says, “take up your cross.”
Every day we “trade” or spend that day of our life for something. When we try to follow Jesus’ example by bringing love and healing, we have a clear answer when situations and decisions ask us who we are.
If we walk into a day intending to listen consciously to God and to do what Jesus asks, we increase the chances that the “trades” we make day by day will have lasting value.
This what spiritual disciplines and taking up our cross are: expressions of our intention to walk deliberately with Jesus Christ.
It is significant to notice that when Jesus instructs the disciples to take up their crosses, it is a profoundly free, voluntary action.
In the eighth chapter of Mark, Jesus predicts his suffering and death, rebukes Peter, and challenges his followers to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel. The vocabulary of discipleship is not always peaceful, since it includes calls for self-sacrifice, predictions of suffering and violent outbursts such as “Get behind me, Satan!” To be a follower of Jesus is a sometimes, if not often, challenging, stressful and painful.
The late theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us before we fall into formation behind Jesus, we need to count the cost.
Mark tells us that Jesus began to teach the disciples “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” (8:31).
These words set the stage for the drama of the remaining chapters of the gospel of Mark, right through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The vocabulary of this verse is a violent shock to the disciples at this point; they cannot believe their ears when Jesus says that the Son of Man must suffer.
In their eyes, Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. They know him by the powerful titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Like most of those seeking the Messiah, they expect that Jesus will exercise military authority and establish the kingdom of God on earth. They see him as their divinely chosen leader, and they are anxious for him to show and wield supernatural power as God’s anointed king — they hope Jesus will begin by overthrowing the hated Romans who rule the land, control their religious institutions and leadership, and ruthlessly exploit the Jewish people.
But Jesus says that he must undergo great suffering.
For many this completely unexpected. Unbelievable. Unacceptable.
Peter goes so far to think that Jesus is insane, possessed by a demon, in need of exorcism. According to Mark, he took Jesus aside “and began to rebuke him” — the verb for “rebuke,” epitimao, is strong language, often used in reference to silencing demons. Peter thinks Jesus has gone mad.
Jesus responds by rebuking Peter with the words, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (vv. 32-33).
Jesus wastes no time in undermining Peter, because Peter is charging in the completely wrong direction, toward the earthly instead of the heavenly.
With these words, Jesus is making his position clear, and reinterpreting the meaning and role of Messiah
When Jesus says that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” he is speaking in a very matter-of-fact way about what lies ahead. Rejection by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes — that’s inevitable for someone who is called by God to challenge and reform the religious establishment and show people a new way to God.
Even death makes sense when you understand Jesus’ direct challenge to the political authority and practices of the Roman Empire, and exposes the collusion between the Temple and that oppressive government by marching into a hostile city, upsetting the tables of the money-changers, and predicting that the temple will be destroyed.
Jesus is willing to bear his cross, to put his life on the line moving toward Jerusalem. Jesus is determined to devote body, mind and spirit to the work that God has called him to do. He is not interested in satisfying the expectations of others, not even the dreams of his closest friends. All that concerns him is doing the will of God. Jesus knows who he is, the world cannot tell him.
There’s a message for us here, as we struggle daily to tell the world who we are as human beings, and as followers of Jesus. In our multi-tasking world, we have a hard time sorting out the competing demands of family, work, community, friends and church, and our endless activities can leave us feeling scattered, sometimes even shattered.
With remarkable clarity, Jesus gives us a new vocabulary for discipleship.
Set your mind on divine things, not on human things. Take the time to listen, to breathe, and to follow your vocation, your calling even in the midst of your busy life. Don’t let the world tell you who you are.
But, be willing to suffer.
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering,” says Jesus. And so must those who follow. Sometimes the world does not like who we are.
Now this is not to say that suffering is pleasant or desirable in any way. We shouldn’t seek it for ourselves; or overlook it in others. Yet Jesus knows that there are some things worth suffering for — and so do we, if we think about it.
I will let you think of your own examples, but we know there are some kinds of suffering that produce great good.
A recent documentary I saw reminded me how the suffering of polio experienced by so many led to the determination and funding for a vaccine.
We don’t want to suffer. But suffering is a fact of life, and something most experience more than once.
The vocabulary of discipleship includes suffering, and Jesus sees it as an important part of understanding life. We simply cannot mature into the loving and sacrificial people God wants us to be, if we try to avoid suffering.
Jesus illustrates this life of loving sacrifice by lifting up the image of the cross. Calling to both the crowd and disciples, Jesus 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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (vv. 34-35).
Our lives will involve both great love and suffering, and they will certainly include self-sacrifice. But if we set our minds on the things of God, we receive the riches of everlasting life because know how to answer the question of Jesus, “What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?” (v. 36, CEV).
Through our discipleship to Jesus we know who we are, the world cannot tell us.
Holy God, show me who you want me to be. By your grace help me to live into your dream for me, one day at a time.