A sermon preached February 25, 2018, the second Sunday in Lent, at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD
By the Rev. Justin Clemente
What Good Is A Dead Messiah?
Finish this sentence: “He who dies with the most toys _______.” Yes, wins. What could be more American? The Christian response might be something like, he who dies with the most toys, still dies. We have trouble believing this. So did the disciples. This speaks, in some way, to much of what’s going on in our passage today. Right before our passage, Peter, who was always a kind of spokesmen for the twelve, answers Jesus’ singular most important question in the Gospel of Mark – who am I? – with startling clarity – “you are the Christ.” You are the Messiah – you are God’s Son, you are the deliverer, you are the king. But in the next breath, as Jesus replies, “Yes, but don’t tell anyone and I MUST die,” Peter is now taking him aside and essentially saying to Jesus – you’ve got your theology all wrong! As Ben Witherington says, Peter, “Like the blind man healed [just a few verses before], sees, but through a glass darkly, and so is easily misled.” Ever been in that place? Correcting God over his theology? Peter believed Jesus was the Messiah and for that reason he believed that a dead Messiah could not possibly be any good to him. They were headed for glory! For fame! For success! And, in a sense, so they were, but Peter failed to see that smack dab in the middle of all that, of all God’s purposes, would be the cross OF the Christ. And the life of the disciple in this life will be the cross-shaped life. Let’s hear again Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Notice how broad this call is – he is talking to everyone. Everyone who would name the name of Jesus.
Our Cross Is His Cross
So in our time together, let me ask you in the midst of this Lent. What exactly does it mean to bear one’s cross? Because that’s a misunderstood phrase, isn’t it? For instance, people often say about an unpleasant task or commitment, “It’s my cross to bear.” “I’ve got to clean the kitchen now. It’s my cross to bear.” “I have to put up with my persnickety neighbor – it’s my cross to bear.” This sort of thing really has nothing to do with what Jesus is saying. So what does it mean? I am persuaded that above all taking up one’s cross means joyfully bearing, believing, accepting, and walking in light of the good news of Jesus himself and truth he represents no matter the shame or disrepute it may bring us in this life. Ronald Kernaghen says, “To take up the cross, then, means to follow Jesus in calling the world…to repent and believe the gospel. To deny oneself is to accept God’s point of view about life.” More than anything, I think the cross we are all called to bear is none other than the stark necessity of Jesus’ cross for the life of the world. I was reflecting on the Parkland, FL shooting, particularly about what I would say if someone shoved a microphone in my face and said, “What do you make of this? What’s the answer? And I thought about how truthfully, I would have to answer and say “the cross of Jesus.” And yet at the same time, I thought about how open I would feel to being misunderstood or overly simplistic or too heavenly minded to be of any use. The always cross grates against our way of human understanding – it did for Peter, it still does today. Listen to how J.C. Ryle puts this:
“All who accept this great salvation, must prove the reality of their faith by carrying the cross after Christ. They must not think to enter heaven without trouble, pain, suffering, and conflict on earth. They must be content to take up the cross of DOCTRINE, and the cross of PRACTICE–the cross of holding a faith which the world despises, and the cross of living a life which the world ridicules as too strict, and [overly] righteous.”
Now read the rest of the passage and see if it lines up with what I’ve said about cross bearing:
35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The Cross Will Carry You (The Joy of the Cross)
I said earlier how “bearing a cross” is often confused with having to do some unpleasant task, but that never be how it is for the Christian. Bearing the cross of the Gospel is always paradoxically a joyful thing. In our cross-bearing we find, in the end, that is not we who bear the cross but the cross which carries us. “Give up your life, your way of thinking and living…and you will have your life!” says Jesus. “Embrace me and my words that you may be embraced!” Again, Ronald Kernaghen is helpful here: “The assumption of [Jesus’ words] is not just that our lives are in God’s hands, but that they are already forfeit.” We, whose lives were lost under the power of sin, have been recovered by the Messiah who came to redeem us by his cross, not despising the shame, and so there is always reason to rejoice for the Christian. Cross bearing is a joyful thing because in it we find the one necessary thing – Jesus himself. Remember what Paul said? “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” If you have him, you have your life and all God’s promises to come.
There is a scene in C.S. Lewis’s book, The Magician’s Nephew, which captures this well. The book is about the founding of Narnia (yes, even Lewis wrote prequels) and one of the main characters of the book is the young boy Digory. Digory manages to find his way into Narnia just as Aslan is singing it into existence. But he’s not alone – he brings the White Witch with him. For this, Aslan asks Digory’s assistance in protecting Narnia from the Witch. Aslan gives him a mission – pluck an apple from a garden and bring it to him. Equipped with a flying unicorn, he dashes off to the garden. Just as he is about to leave with the apple, he realizes he is not alone. It’s the Witch. She badgers him, letting him in on a secret – the apple could heal his mother. In our world, his mother is terminally ill and about to die. Digory is faced with a choice – trust Aslan, or take for himself what he thinks is right and best. In the end, he comes out of the temptation trusting in Aslan’s goodness. As he brings the apple to Aslan, Aslan explains that a stolen apple would, in the end, have brought nothing but misery and pain. And so:
“Digory could say nothing, for tears choked him and he gave up all hopes of saving his Mother’s life; but at the same time he knew that the Lion knew what would have happened, and that there might be things more terrible even than losing someone you love by death. But now Aslan was speaking again, almost in a whisper:
“That is what would have happened, child, with a stolen apple. It is not what will happen now. What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple from the Tree.”
For a second Digory could hardly understand. It was as if the whole world had turned inside out and upside down. And then, like someone in a dream, he was walking across to the Tree, and the King and Queen where cheering him and all the creatures were cheering too. He plucked the apple and put it in his pocket. Then he came back to Aslan.
“Please,” he said, “may we go home now?” He had forgotten to say “Thank you,” but he meant it, and Aslan understood.”
The Gospel is like that – we who have given up how we think redemption or life should work, find our very lives being restored back to us. When we bear the cross, we find the greatest paradox of all – it will carry us. Amen.
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.