Take Up Your Cross

by Elaine Maust
Mark 8: 34-37
March 9, 2008

This sermon scares me a little bit.

We are going along through the Red Letter Edition, this series of sermons on the words of Jesus. Last Sunday we heard, “for God so loved the world.” We heard Jesus teach us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” We heard the list of all that are blessed from the Beatitudes. We’ve heard a lot of Good News.

Our passage today is another in the Red Letter series, but it could be listed among the hardest teachings of Jesus. Could this be Good News too?

There really are overwhelming benefits of being God followers. They come to us like waves. Forgiveness. Acceptance. Deliverance. New beginnings. Meaning in life. A church family to support us. It goes on and on. Wave after wave of God’s kindness splashes over us. It is a wonder we do not wake up every morning soaking wet with grace. We live our lives shaking our heads in disbelief at how good God is to us.

With all this grace and joy and hope going on, we can forget about the costs of following. The costs are sobering. If following Jesus came with a warning label, this passage would be it.

Do you still want to hear the sermon? Well, a sermon is a terrible thing to waste. So, turn with me to Mark 8:34-38. And the verse that I confess, scares me a little bit.

In Mark 8 Jesus is just going along with business as usual. As usual as business can be for the Son of God with minimal time to communicate the greatest Good News and get ready to die at the same time.

Jesus feeds 4,000 folks (8:1-13), warns against religious and political leaders (8:14–15), explains (sort of) what feeding all those folks was about (8:16-21), heals a blind man (8:22-26), asks his disciples who they think he is (8:27-30), and tells them “quite openly” that he will die and rise again (8:31-33).

Then we arrive at verse 34. Remember there was often, well, usually a crowd of disciples following Jesus around everywhere he went. This group included his twelve special friends. On this day he gets the attention of everyone around. Calls to them, “Hey ya’ll… Come here a minute. There is something I want to tell you…”

He looked them in the eyes. They wait. This is going to be big. They can feel it. “If any of you wants to follow me…”

They look around. Wasn’t that what they were already doing? Weren’t they already the “followers”? Of course they wanted to follow! But Jesus was still talking.

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (v34). So here are the prerequisites Jesus laid out that day. If you want to follow me, three things:
1. Deny yourself.

Like the disciples we are practiced preservationists. We naturally take care of ourselves. Self-denial is painful business. If you are uncertain about that, try caring for an infant or an elderly relative.

We have seen the consequences in the lives of celebrities who do not deny themselves of anything, who get whatever they want. Is that really life? Of course not!

But what would it mean for us to deny ourselves in order to follow Jesus? What does Jesus wish we would deny ourselves of?

Lent is the time in the Christian year during which Christians consider this question. What could I give up that would help me follow Jesus more cleanly? If I were in the crowd that day, and Jesus looked at me when he said, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself…” I think I would have known exactly what he had in mind. Like when you were a child and your mother said, “You know what you need to do.”

One of the benefits of following Jesus that I didn’t mention earlier is the Holy Spirit. Jesus may not walk up to me and look me in the eye. But the Holy Spirit in my heart does a great job of letting me know how I need to change.

Sometimes self-denial is not about giving up one specific thing, but rather giving up control of my life to God. To make God first. To let God be God. To say, “Thy will be done” with my life because I belong to you.

Brett shared the story of the rich young ruler with us. It you want to check it out, turn to Luke 18:18-30. What was his struggle? He was a good person who followed the commandments. But Jesus asked for something more. That he deny himself. That he swap his treasure location by giving away his fortune.

I think Jesus was addressing the money issue. Challenging the way money hooks and consumes us. The way we put our trust in it instead of God. But I think Jesus was also saying, “If you want to follow me, you have to deny yourself.”

Self-denial is adapting myself to God’s intentions. Letting God be in charge. Letting God drive.

We have some unnamed relatives who take turns driving and fussing. He says that when she drives, one person drives. But that when he drives, according to the way he tells the story, “two people drive.”

When we give our lives to God, we are saying, “Okay God, you can drive and not only that, I won’t tell you how.”

The invitation to follow comes with an invitation to deny ourselves.
2. Take up your cross.

Okay, this is the one that really gets me. How do I take up my cross?

There are folks who might hear these words of Jesus today for whom the application would be so clear that it would be insulting to speak it. For many years of my life time the Mennonite Church in Ethiopia was pushed underground. Pastors were arrested and disappeared for years or forever. All the while the Mennonite Church in Ethiopia was booming. Hidden but growing like gang busters. By the thousands.

If this phrase were preached to our brothers and sisters there, “Deny yourself and take up your cross,” what would it mean? They knew exactly that following Jesus meant sacrifice and maybe even death.

“Take up your cross.” Jesus’ disciples would have the rest of their lives to unpack those words. They had days in jail, months in exile, moments before their executions to consider the consequences of their decision to follow Jesus. But what could those words have meant to them that day?

Jesus hadn’t died on the cross yet. Though Jesus tried to prepare them, the disciples didn’t understand or were not willing to accept that Jesus would die, period. When Jesus tried to explain his death in verse 32, Peter took him aside and told him not to talk like that.

When we read or hear these words, “take up the cross,” we immediately think of Jesus on the way to the cross, carrying his cross, hanging on the cross. As Duane described last Sunday, the cross has become a symbol of hope, of redemption, of God’s love for us. The crosses on my neck, beside me, behind me this morning, are reminders of Jesus’ sacrifice that we take personally.

But back then, the cross didn’t symbolize God’s love. It was a method to execute criminals. For them this cross (the one I wear) might have made about as much sense as me wearing a noose or a tiny electric chair around my neck. I warned you that this passage scared me.

In the 1500s a group of radical Christians left the state church and baptized each other. They began a movement that swept across Europe, known as Anabaptists or re-baptizers. They are the religious ancestors of us here at Jubilee and all of us Mennonites around the world. Discipleship was one of the foundations of their beliefs. It meant, “…placing all of life under the lordship of Christ, not simply in imitation but also participation with him.” (Spiritual Life of Anabaptism)

Before anyone was baptized into that movement, it was made clear that they needed to be prepared to take up the cross, to die. Thousands were arrested, had their property seized by the state church. Thousands died. We follow a noble heritage of cross takers.

But that brings us back to us. What does it mean for us here today, in Jubilee in Meridian to take up our crosses?

Some people believe that the calamities, difficulties, disappointments, and diseases of life are crosses. That Jesus is saying to bear up under life’s hard times. I have some sympathy with this argument. I have often thought, “If it feels like a cross, it probably is a cross.”

But I find it curious that Jesus says to “take up” our cross. As in look for it and pick it up. As if it is laying there along my way and I have the choice to stop and take it up or to step over it or trip on it. Life’s difficulties happen to everyone. The faithful and the heathen. So how could they be marks of following Jesus? And beside, they are not chosen, they happen to us.

All of this leads me to believe that taking up my cross is making a choice for God that puts me at a personal disadvantage. To choose a way of life that will likely cause suffering. Not because we are trying to be miserable or to look good or get God brownie points, but because since God is first in our lives it is the most natural choice in the world. It is a lover’s choice.

I brought some pictures off our refrigerator. These are friends who have given up lives of comfort and privilege in North America to share the Good News in Africa and South America. They represent denying, taking up the cross and following.

Duane reads my sermons and they are better because he does. He challenged me to be more specific. So we came up with some possible examples of cross taking.

    * When you choose to make friends with someone who is not cool at school.* Or when you befriend someone in the community, for their sake and God’s when it will be to no apparent benefit to you.

    * When you make choices in business or at work that don’t make head sense, but make heart sense.

    * When you do what is honest when it may or will hurts you.

    * When you stay with a job that is difficult or pays less because you are called to it.

    * When you make choices that are best for your family but not financially.

We talked about many of you who make choices that are cross taking. I will not call your names. But we believe that we see you all choosing to follow, to deny yourselves to make difficult choices for God and others.

(Philippians 1:29 says about God) “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”

We Christians don’t run from suffering. We are the bravest folks on the planet. We embrace suffering. We take up the cross.
3. Follow me.

Ah, yes, “follow me.” Now this I understand a little better. It is easy for me to visualize Jesus walking along by the beach. I’ve seen him touch people. I’ve heard how he explains God. I am mesmerized. I think I would have followed for the stories alone! Hardly realizing what I am doing, I have joined the crowd and I am following. Pulled along by fascination with his ways. I want to see what he’ll do, hear what he’ll say. To be part of the action.

And even though it is different, me following Jesus in my real life, it is almost as irresistible. I don’t know how he may lead or where he may take me, but I know I just want to go along. I have to be with him. I want to be part of his action. I want to follow.

Of course living a life following God can be risky. Do you identify with this from Celtic Daily Prayer? “It is a terrible risk to follow even a Friend into the unknown. It is made worse by the fact that He so often seems to disappear or go ahead instead of staying close by. It is often like this:

    (Jesus says) ‘Follow me.”Yes, Lord, I’ll follow you… But Lord…’

    ‘Yes?’

    ‘Where to? Where will I be going’?

    ‘With me.'”

So every morning we pray, “This is your day. Just let me follow you today.”

That is Mark 8:34 (read). And here is the good news. This is the path to life. (35-37) The Message says, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”

Will you forgive me for getting personal in a sermon? 12 years ago Duane and I and Jubilee and Gulf States Conference were trying to decide if God was calling us to be pastors of this church. There were many difficult parts to that decision, but one side was that it didn’t make sense. We had a berry farm and a cabinet shop. That should have been enough to take care of our bills and keep us out of trouble most days. Becoming pastors would mean neglecting the business. Friends asked us why we would do this to ourselves, becoming pastors that is. Though we had a pretty good idea of what it might mean, we did not completely realize how difficult pastoring would be on our hearts, our marriage, or the business. Why indeed. But we said “yes.”

But here’s the truth. Serving God and you all for these years has been, next to parenting, the best thing in my whole life. (And surely you know how crazy I am about being a mother!) There has been nothing that I can imagine that could have made me any more alive than participating with you all and God in the joyful orbit of Jubilee. Any sacrifices I have made seem tiny in comparison to being part of what God is doing in your lives, to finding intimacy with God and to discovering who I am.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to deny ourselves because he wants us to be miserable. He wants us to be alive. The way to save our lives is to put them in God’s capable hands. The way to make our lives count is to give them up for the sake of the Gospel. Good news indeed.

Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish Saint, sums this up beautifully. Stay with me here… “He (or she) that takes up that bitter tree (the cross) and carries it cannily (quietly) will find it such a burden as wings are to a bird or sails are to a boat.”

So may it be for us. So may it be.

Reading: To Serve is the Only Way
Adapted from Mark: The Way for All Nations

Reader 1 — The kingdom of God is here. Now!
Reader 2 — believe the good news
Reader 3 — repent, turn around, stand on your head
Reader 4 — the upside-down way of seeing things has arrived!

1 — Do you want to be first?
2 — then be last; be a servant!
1 — Do you want to live?
2 — then die; stop living for yourself!

4 — What shall a person do to die?
3 — just live for themselves.
4 — What shall a person do to live?
3 — just die to a selfish life!

3 — not death to the possible self;
4 — not death to becoming what God intended;
2 — not death to being worthwhile for God!

1 — But death to living only for oneself
3 — instead of for others
1 — Death
4 — to hanging on to stuff!

1 — What does a person, gain even if he wins the whole world
2 — At the cost of discovering life?

1 — Anyone who wishes to be a follower of Jesus
2 — must leave the grasping self behind
3 — must be willing to suffer and die
4 — must follow Jesus.

1 — Whoever clings to life will lose it
3 — But anyone who lets go,
4 — who pries loose his selfish grasp on his own stuff so God’s kingdom can grow;
2 — that person will discover what it means to live
1– to be really alive.

4 — The upside-down way of seeing things has arrived!
2 — believe the Good News
1– The Kingdom of God is here.
All — Now!


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