When Christ said to take up your crosses and follow me. He was speaking to his disciples knowing that they too were to face a lot worse than what they were to experience even with Christ’s crucifixion. For the disciples, the idea that they might lose their teacher and friend in such a horrific way as crucifixion may not have been a total surprise because of the nature of the work they were doing. But it would have been disturbing and would have been cause for a great number of questions. Questions they weren’t ready to face.
In Jewish tradition, the savior was supposed to march into the city of Jerusalem with force, cleanse the temple of the pagan influence, and bring Israel into glory once more. The savior was supposed to have the might of God behind their hand that they hoped would smite the pagan Romans who came through and brought a sense of shame to the people of Israel. So the idea that Christ would die at the hands of such people would shock his followers and bring with it serious questions about the divinity and validity of Christ. After all, Jesus was not the first “savior” to come riding into Jerusalem to smite Rome and every single one of those individuals claiming to be the savior of the people was killed and sometimes in much more brutal ways than simple crucifixion.
What Christ did was remind people that his work on Earth was drawing near an end, an end that was brutal, a reality that Peter could not handle or face in those moments. Life was about to test the loyalty and faith of Christ’s followers. Could they believe without Christ? How would they fair after his death? Were they ready to face heightened persecution, torture and even death themselves for the message they were being charged with?
These were very real questions for the disciple, questions they were not prepared to deal with yet. Christ reacted so harshly to Peter’s rebuke because Christ needed the disciples to hear his words and ponder them. He needed his disciples to truly understand what they had gotten themselves into and what they were being asked to do before it was too late. Christ knew that when people are caught off guard with tragedy, they make rash decisions that in this case could have resulted in early deaths or the end of the message that Christ was to die for. He needed his followers to start preparing themselves so they could carry on without him.
We too are part of this scenario. When Christ says “if you want to follow me then you’ll have to take up your own crosses”, he was speaking to more than just his own disciples. The literary style of the writing also speaks to the reader, to us as well. We are being challenged to take up our own crosses for the word of Christ. We are being asked to face our own challenges and fears in life and as a people for the life giving message of the Holy. Being Christian isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s about sacrifice, sometimes it’s about holding onto our faiths even when life rocks everything we have held to be true in our relationship with God.
I think of my great grandmother, Ethel Standish, when I hear this passage. She suffered tremendously in her life. Her husband died of an aneurism in his early sixties. She was in her late fifties. She had six children and she had to bury two of them and two son-in-laws due to cancer. She lost one grandchild. She was an avid churchgoer. She was considered the matriarch of my home church. The minutes of every annual meeting was riddled with her words and thoughts about the future direction of the church and the importance of the church in community life.
Yet these life experiences shook her to the core of her faith. They brought questions that she would never be able to find answers to and struggled just to find that resting place with. Questions like, why would God do this to me? Why didn’t Christ answer my prayers? And Why am I still here? I believe that the disciples struggled with these very same questions and many more after Christ was arrested, tried, and killed. But it is what you do with these questions that really matters. It is how we handle these times of trial that Jesus was talking about in today’s scriptures.
It’s about whether we allow for these times of question to tear our faith down and destroy us or whether we use these questions to strengthen our conviction, our hearts, and our communities. Christ said in our scriptures this morning, “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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”
So as we continue on our Lenten journeys this year, as we continue down that road of introspection in our book study, keep in mind that the path of faith is riddled with challenges and struggles, questions and times of great choice. It is up to us in the end to take these experiences, these questions and to search them and allow for them to strengthen our faiths and make us stronger people of God. They can give us perspective and open us to the possibilities of Christ in this world, in our lives, and in our own local communities. Christ asks us not to be frightened off by the struggles of this life and world and to bear those struggles and to unashamedly carry on in the work of the Holy. This is our challenge as we move forward into the next week of Lent. Allow for the questions to strengthen your faith not to tear it down. Allow for them to form you and guide you into the next stage of faith development.
(sermon based on Mark 8: 31-38)