Text: Mark 8:27-35 (“take up you cross”) * Video of complete service
The Gospel of Mark can be seen as a comedy. Have you ever thought of it that way? It’s not that people laugh out loud when they read Mark for it tells a dark story filled with dark deeds. It’s just that Mark ends his Gospel with new life; it has a “happy ending;” and so it takes the classic form of a comedy.
This week we are halfway through Mark, and today’s text is its hinge. At this turning point we first encounter the cross; Jesus’ prediction of his suffering and death; and his incredible call to “Take up your cross and follow me!”
“What is this rabbi,” we might scream, “some radical new type of therapy!?” “Yes,” screams Jesus in reply, “Death Therapy! Guaranteed Cure!” Wow! Thank you Jesus?
Take up your cross and follow me! What is Jesus talking about? And what must his friends make of this?
Up to this point, life with Jesus has been going well. After his baptism and 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God. He calls disciples who follow immediately. He teaches as one with authority. He casts out demons and heals the sick. He confronts religious authority and is himself confronted by a Syrian woman. He walks on water and tells brain-busting parables about the Kingdom. He brings a young girl back to life and gives sight to the blind. He feeds the 5,000 and then the 4,000. And finally, he asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
“The Messiah,” replies Peter — the Christ, the long-waited King who will once again rule Israel in glory.
Jesus doesn’t contradict Peter. But as he has done before, he orders the disciples to tell no one.
And this brings us to our turning point. Jesus finally explains the kind of king he will be: one who will be rejected by the elite, one who will endure great suffering, and one who will be killed!
Peter takes Jesus aside and dares to rebuke him. But Jesus fires back, “Get behind me Satan!” He calls the crowd and his friends around him. From this point onward there will be no more secrecy.
“If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross, and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the Good News, you’ll save it.”
The crowds have come to trust and love Jesus. But now that they have a complete picture of the kingdom — one where the king is killed and in which they as subjects are called to take up their own cross and follow him on a fatal journey — how will they react? If ever there was a hard message to swallow – of losing one’s life to save it, a kind of death therapy — surely this is it.
The phrase Death Therapy comes from one of my favourite movies, a 1991 satire of psychotherapy called “What about Bob?” In the movie, comedian Bill Murray plays Bob, the world’s worst therapy client. He is afraid of everything and constantly annoys people. When Bob hears the news that his therapist, Dr. Leo Marvin, will be on vacation with his family for the month of August, he follows the doctor to his vacation home. Much to Dr. Leo’s horror, his children and wife graciously befriend and accept Bob despite Bob’s phobias and quirks. And as Bob starts to flourish, the doctor becomes annoyed, then fearful, then enraged.
Finally, Dr. Marvin goes completely berserk. He tries to kill Bob by strapping him to dynamite. Bob asks if this is some radical new kind of therapy. “Yes,” the doctor screams – “death therapy; guaranteed cure!”
Sure, I suppose? Death as a guaranteed cure for all our fears? But I doubt this is what Bob was hoping from his doctor, or what Jesus’ disciples were hoping from their Messiah. In the end, though, it is what they get.
Jesus tells the crowds the truth. Despite being the new King of Israel, he doesn’t have a social program that will get rid of the Romans. Despite being the anointed Son of God, he is also as fragile and mortal as us. Just like us, his life will end in suffering and death.
How can we love such a Messiah? Yet his followers do love him. They love him for his teaching, and his healing, and his courage. But mostly they love him for his willingness to accept them just as they are: sick and oppressed; sinned against and sinning; scared and fragile; and journeying towards death.
If we can love and accept Jesus as Christ Crucified (and who cannot?), then perhaps we can also love and accept ourselves, broken though we are. Freed to love ourselves by Christ, we are also freed to love neighbours and even enemies. Jesus has taken up his cross, and he invites us to join him.
Jesus says more than that, of course. He says that three days after he is killed, he will rise again. And he says that if we too deny ourselves and lose our lives, paradoxically we will save them.
St Paul understood this. After his encounter with the Risen Christ, Paul writes to the Galatians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Paul is free from the anxiety of life ‘under the law.’ He is living a resurrected life that, by embracing the inevitability of humiliation, suffering, and death, has paradoxically risen to freedom and love.
The same thing can be said about the foolish anti-hero Bob in the 1991 movie. Since the movie (like Mark!) is a comedy, Bob extricates himself from the dynamite put around his neck by Dr. Leo and finds himself freed from his fears as well.
The acceptance that Dr. Leo’s wife and children offer Bob also plays a role. Both factors make up the Way of the Cross. It is a path on which we maintain a sober awareness of mortality along with fellow pilgrims who love and accept us.
There are many other things that could be said about the Way of the Cross, but if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that would result — books about corporations and nation states, congregations and denominations, civilizations and religions — all dying to an old way of life so that a new one of freedom and love could rise in their place.
But since our time has already run out, I will close with a two-sentence summary of St. Mark’s Divine Comedy: “Take up your cross and follow the Way of Jesus. Guaranteed cure!”
From the Preamble to Worship about why I preached this sermon today . . .
. . . I also mark a third milestone today. In this “Year of Mark” we are hearing what for me is the central and most important passage from the New Testament a second time. We always hear this passage from Mark (or one of its equivalents from Matthew and Luke) at the beginning of Lent, and this will be the case next February here in church. But every third year, the church suggests that we hear and reflect on this passage (Mark 8:28-35) a second time, and I am happy to follow this suggestion.
In this amazing passage, Jesus tells his followers for the first time that he will be betrayed, arrested, and killed when they come to Jerusalem; and he urges them to take up their own crosses and to lose their lives for the sake of the Good News.
This passage strikes me as even more relevant to our lives than normal given the difficulties we are confronting, including the mess of directives across Canada regarding COVID-19; the increase in weather events associated with climate disaster; and the political turmoil that unresolved social problems like these are causing in Edmonton, Canada, and the entire world.
I believe the nature of this era calls us to reflect on Jesus’ surprising words; and yet I sometimes stumble when searching for the Good News in Jesus’ words in especially difficult times like today.
So, as a prelude to our reflections next winter during Lent, today I offer the sermon I first wrote on this chapter more than 12 years ago, in March 2009. This was when I took a preaching course at Emmanuel College as part of my work to become an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada. I wrote this sermon back then – but abandoned it at the last minute – and only released it as part of a larger reflection here in March 2015.
I hope that by hearing this reflection without any preamble or postlude today, we will be moved to reflect more deeply on our faith in this interesting time.
My prayer is that these readings, my reflection, and the prayers and songs will help us dig deeper into our faith as we confront the coming of a fall and winter that may challenge us more sharply than earlier falls and winters . . .