The Gospel lesson for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) is Jesus’ first passion prediction in Mark. When Jesus told his disciples that he must die before rising again, and that they, too, must die and rise, it took their breath away. The Way of the Cross is definitely the road less taken. But are we being truthful in our Christian witness when we tiptoe around the pain and the demands of the cross? Here is a sermon from my archives on this text. It contrasts the Way of the Cross with the way of self-fulfillment.
A Divine Mindset
A Sermon on Mark 8:27-38
Peter’s longing was the longing of all Israel. Peter longed for the time when God’s anointed one, the Messiah, would take the throne himself, liberate the nation from oppression, and restore its power to what it was when King David reigned. Israel would be in control of its own life again. No more Roman procurators. No more Pontius Pilate. No more Roman soldiers. No more Roman crucifixions.
The sight of crucified bodies was a common one. At times the roads were lined with them, cross after cross, and the message to the people was clear: this is what will happen to you if you dare to challenge Roman authority. How everyone longed for all that to stop! How everyone longed for a new king, a righteous king of their own!
Peter was right—Jesus was the anointed one. Moreover, he had reason to believe that Jesus would fulfill all their hopes. He and the other disciples had witnessed Jesus casting out unclean spirits that fought against God and caused untold suffering. He even made the wind be quiet! That’s power! They had witnessed many healings, even one in Peter’s own family, when Jesus lifted up his mother-in-law, as we saw last week. That’s power! Peter and all the rest were on hand and participated when Jesus fed 5000-plus hungry people with only a little food, and then did it again later for a crowd of 4000. That’s power! Yes, Jesus certainly had the power, and that made the victory they all longed for seem so close. The crown seemed so close. At last, everything was going to get better. At last, everything was going to get easier. Never again would their stomachs turn at the sight of a cross.
It must have felt like Jesus had slapped Peter! What did Jesus say? No, it can’t be! No, Jesus’ journey can’t lead to a cross. This road leads to a crown. The Messiah must not die! If Jesus dies, that’s the end of the dream. Jesus will be just one more in a long line of failed liberators, and we’ll be right back where we started!
Jesus was talking foolishness, and Peter started to tell him so. He rebuked Jesus. Matthew tells us what Peter said. “God forbid!” Peter exclaims in Matthew. “This shall not ever happen to you!” And implied is this: “And it had better not happen to us, either!”
It must have felt like another slap in the face when Jesus, with his eye on all the disciples, rebuked Peter in the strongest possible way. “Get behind me, Satan! Get out of my way, Satan! You’re working for Satan. You mind is on human things, not on the things of God! You’re not set on God’s way. You’re set on YOUR own way. You’re set on what YOU want.”
And as if that weren’t enough, Jesus gathered the crowd around him along with the disciples and told them all, “The cross is the way. If you want to be my disciples, then the cross must be your way, too. You must deny yourself, put your life on the line, shoulder up your cross, and follow after me. For those who seek to save their own life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Jesus calls his disciples to accept the pain that comes from trying to do the will of God, the conflict that so often gets aroused when you obey God. The accusations that Jesus endured would be theirs—this one for example: what on earth are you doing associating with THOSE people?
Jesus calls us to come with him and die and then to let God raise us to new life. The center of our concern cannot be me, mine, we and us. Serving ourselves and keeping ourselves alive cannot be the goal. Our heart, soul, mind and strength must be set on the things of God, the will and the way of God. He calls us to let go of our own dreams, to let God place us in God’s dream. He calls us to let go even of our life itself, in order to receive the life that really is life, a gift from God. Peter and the other disciples got a rude shock: God’s plans were not a bigger version of their own. God’s way was the way of weakness and death, and it looked utterly foolish in the world’s eyes. It looked utterly foolish in the disciples’ eyes.
The call to take up the cross is not a message that plays well in a culture in which people’s minds are set on “what’s in it for me? What’s in it for me and mine?” I thought about it again when the West Mt. Ruritans had their barbecue this week. The point of the whole thing is to think of someone else and serve the community. That’s what the work and the money are for. Some people do come as a sign of support, and the fact that the food tastes good is just “icing on the cake” for them. They want to contribute. But others come with the mindset, “I want a cheap meal. This is for me. You are supposed to serve me the way I want to be served, or else I won’t support you.” We saw this in an ugly way the other day. A woman came into the clubhouse and said she only wanted dark meat, and could they fix her plates with dark meat only. The response was, we were sorry, but the servings are a half chicken. We weren’t equipped to cut them apart. But she could separate the dark meat from the white. The woman slammed down her tickets, said she would never buy another one, and she stomped off.
The message of shouldering up a cross for Christ’s sake, for the gospel’s sake, and for somebody else’s sake makes no sense to the “what’s in it for me” mindset, the “what I want” mindset, the what’s going to make me and make us look good. Shouldering up a cross does not compute. It’s just foolishness. Since it might turn people off, some Christians and churches have come to the conclusion that it’s best not to talk too much about the cross, especially around people that aren’t Christians, and not even much around people who are Christians.
This week I read a book by a Christian leader entitled Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. (Joel Osteen, New York: Warner Faith, 2004.) It sold many millions of copies and was on the New York Times Bestseller list. This book offers a roadmap to a happy, fulfilled life.
The author does have some good thoughts and advice, especially in the second half of the book. He is right: God is loving and generous. And God doesn’t want us to beat ourselves up and put ourselves down and crawl around with our face in the dirt. That’s for snakes. The author is right, service can bring fulfillment, even joy, and he recommends living to give, not living to get. And yes, there is something to be said about the power of positive thinking.
In the beginning of the book, and in the first few chapters, the author calls readers to set our sights high, to set our minds high. And where does he tell us to set them? Well, here’s how the book opens: In the very first story in the book, the author tells of a man who saw a magnificent house in Hawaii, who caught himself thinking, “You’ll never live in a place like that,” and then thinking, “That’s right, as long as I can’t imagine it, it won’t happen.” The author says, “The man correctly realized that his own thoughts and attitudes were condemning him to mediocrity. He determined then and there to start believing better of himself, and believing better of God” (Osteen, p. 3).
The author’s second example tells of a young woman in Florida who wanted to become Miss America, but twice was the runner up in the Florida pageant. She was discouraged, but determined. She moved to a different state, and watched hours and hours of pageant video tapes the same way sports teams watch videos, envisioning herself as the winner. That year, she became Miss Kansas, then Miss America. Seeing herself as the winner was the key to her success, she said. The author says, “She created an environment of faith and success” (p. 5).
The author’s third example is from his own experience. He describes how he and his wife were out walking one day when they saw a beautiful home in the final stages of construction. He writes, “Being the ‘great man of faith’ that I am, I said, ‘That home is so far beyond our reach, I don’t see how we could ever afford something like that.
“But [my wife] had much more faith than I did, and she would not give up. Over the next few months she kept speaking words of faith and victory, and I started believing that somehow, some way, God could bring it to pass.”
A few years later, it did come to pass, and the author continues, “I don’t believe it would have happened if [my wife] had not talked me into enlarging my vision….God has so much more in store for you, too” (p. 8).
The author goes on to assert that because of God’s divine favor, we can expect preferential treatment, such as this: He told a story about an excellent parking space opening up before him in a crowded parking lot as a result of God’s favor, and also stories of two occasions when he was stopped for speeding. Both times he got let off with just a warning. Why didn’t he get ticketed? Because of God’s divine favor.
He tells of another family who were struggling financially who liked to dress up and go visit a big, fancy hotel in the city. They would sit in the elegance and dream. The husband said, “I wanted to expose myself to an atmosphere of success. I wanted to be in a place where I could keep my hopes up. I wanted to get into an environment where I could dream of victories.” “What were they doing?” asks the author. “They were expanding their vision, focusing on what they could be” (Osteen, p. 19).
Is that the way to life? Is that where Christians should set their minds? Is a luxurious hotel the place for Christians to enlarge our visions? Jesus says that the way to life is in taking up the cross and following him, into the place of pain and need, and that sounds more like visiting a hospital, nursing home, homeless shelter or prison than visiting a luxury hotel. That’s the place to go to enlarge the vision and set the mind on the things of God.
The way to life is the way of the cross. The life that really is life is found in dying to self, sometimes literally dying, and being raised to new life by the Almighty God. I didn’t see the word “cross” in this book even one time, though I suppose I could have missed it. Not even on the very last page when he invites readers to (quote) make Jesus their Lord and Savior—not even there is the cross mentioned. I didn’t see the word “call,” or the word “discipleship” anywhere, either.
Are we really being truthful in our Christian witness when we tiptoe around the demands and the pain of the cross? When we try to avoid it ourselves, and aren’t honest about it with others? The cross demands our life, our soul, our all. Instead of protecting ourselves, instead of serving ourselves, we follow Jesus and put our lives on the line.
But it’s a hard teaching to accept, even if you want accept it. Jesus’ first disciples didn’t begin to “get it” until the other side of Jesus’ resurrection. In the next chapter of Mark, chapter 9, for example, Jesus puts the word of the cross before them again, and in the very next scene, there they are arguing about who is the greatest in the Kingdom, which ones of them should have the most authority. Their minds were filled with visions of victory and success and power. They wanted to make it big. Jesus rebuked them again. No! Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all, Jesus declared.
And it happens again in chapter 10. The word about the cross bounces off the disciples again! Having just told a rich man that he needed to sell all, give to the poor, and follow him, Jesus told the disciples yet again that the cross lay ahead. What’s their response this time? James and John come to him and ask for special places in his kingdom, places of honor at his right hand and his left. Well, they were in for another shock when they saw who did end up at his right hand and his left on Calvary.
Jesus eyed all his disciples and rebuked Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You mind is on human things, not on the things of God! You’re not set on God’s way. You’re set on YOUR own way. You’re set on what YOU want.”
He eyes his disciples now. He is eyeing this congregation of disciples. Where have we set our minds?
For another sermon on dying and rising with Christ as congregations, see this sermon: Dying Into Life.