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Cross to Bear

Mark 8:31-38

March 1, 2015

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, it was all about the glory. We celebrated the festival of the Transfiguration and walked up the mountain with Peter, James and John to see Jesus brilliantly shining and talking with Elijah and Moses. Last week, we talked about ashes and the reality that we are still tempted to sin and perhaps we might need to put on sackcloth and roll around in the ashes.

Today, we begin to see what is the meaning of discipleship if we are to truly follow Jesus. A few years ago thieves broke into a church in New York City. But they didn’t steal any money, any computers, or office equipment. No, they stole Jesus. This particular church had a 200-pound plaster figure of Jesus in the front of their sanctuary. The interesting thing is that the Jesus figure was bolted to the cross. Instead of the thieves taking the whole thing—the cross and all—they spent the time to unbolt Jesus from the cross, leave the church with Jesus, and left the cross behind.

In a very real sense, that was what the disciple named Peter was trying to do in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Peter wanted Jesus, but he didn’t want the cross. Up to this point, Peter witnessed Jesus casting demons out of people, causing the crippled to walk, the blind to see, and the deaf to hear. Up to this point, Peter witnessed Jesus teaching the people about the ways of God with great power, and he had seen how huge crowds flocked around Jesus and hung on his every word. Up to this point, Peter saw how Jesus just blessing a few loaves of bread and fish performed a miracle that fed five thousand people.

But all of a sudden, without any warning, Jesus turned to Peter, and the other disciples, and announced to them that very soon things were going to change, that the religious leaders were going to conspire against him and have him killed. But three days later, Jesus said, he would rise again.

Can’t you just imagine what was going on in Peter? Peter didn’t like what Jesus was saying. Peter took Jesus aside and basically said, “Are you crazy? What are you doing talking about suffering and death? That’s not what people want to hear. You’ve got a good thing going right now, Jesus. Don’t mess things up! Look at all these people who are following you around wherever you go. But you’re going to lose them—and you’re going to lose me—if you keep up this talk about suffering and death.”

Essentially, Peter was giving Jesus an ultimatum. Peter was saying, “Jesus, we’re willing to be loyal to you as long as you live up to our expectations. But if you let us down and don’t do what we want you to do, we’re done with you. We’ll dump you in a heartbeat and go find someone else to follow.” Peter wanted Jesus but he didn’t want the cross.

Patron Saint

Peter’s attitude can be seen in many Christians back in the Middle Ages. Back then many cities have patron saints. Cities would pick a patron saint for themselves and usually they would set up a statue of that saint in the city square in the middle of the town. They would name a church after that saint and generally the people of the city would hold that particular saint in high esteem. They would have a festival in the saint’s name. It’s like St. Francis for us in San Francisco.

Basically the people figured that if they honored their patron saint like that, the patron saint had an obligation then to watch over them, to protect them, and to make sure that good things happened to that city. The way that people back in the Middle Ages looked at things, if the patron saint failed to keep up his end of the bargain and bad things started happening in the city—like if some deadly plague began to spread or if there was a bad harvest out in the surrounding field—the people figured they had the right to fire their patron saint and to get another.

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Back in the Middle Ages, there was an official ceremony for doing that. The people would take down the patron saint’s statue, carry it outside of the city, and bury it. Then they would go back and pick a new patron saint for themselves, a patron saint whom they trusted, might do a better job than the old patron saint. But if that new patron saint didn’t work out either and didn’t live up to the city’s expectations, the people knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to fire that saint too.

Even though Peter gave Jesus that ultimatum, threatening that he and the other disciples would dump Jesus and go find someone else to follow, Jesus didn’t give in. In fact, Jesus raise the bar by saying, “Whoever wants to be 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” (8:34-35).

Cross to Bear

Take up the cross and follow me. Our problem when we hear that today is that we almost immediately translate Jesus’ words to be this cliché. We say things like, “My newspaper delivery man always throws my paper in the flower beds—it’s the cross I have to bear.” Or, “The seeds from the neighbor’s dandelions keep blowing onto my lawn. I guess that’s the cross I just have to bear.” When Jesus tells us to bear the cross, we see it as something petty to tolerate and accept.

But back in the first century, people know what “Take up your cross and follow me” means. Jesus meant a real, actual cross. After all, twenty years earlier, when Jesus was around ten years old, the Romans had come along and crucified some 2000 Jews in the hometown region of Galilee because they had dared to oppose the Roman occupation of their land. There’s no doubt that the people that Jesus spoke to knew what a cross was.

When Jesus told his listeners to take up their cross and follow him, he wasn’t asking them to have a death wish. What Jesus was asking them was to commit themselves to being his disciples in such a way that they would follow where he led them no matter what. The question is: are we willing to be this kind of a disciple of Jesus?

When Jesus rebuked Peter with the other disciples looking on, he said, “Get behind me.” Some translators say, “Get away from me” and others say, “Get out of my sight.” I see Jesus saying to Peter, “Get behind me” is a call to discipleship. Jesus is saying to “follow behind me.” It is a command to get back where a disciple belongs.

In the New Testament, the word “disciple” is used more than 250 times while the word “Christian” appears only three times. The word, “disciple” literally means someone who’s a learner, someone who’s a follower. So if we identify ourselves as a disciple of Jesus, we are acknowledging that ultimately it’s not us, but Jesus who sets the course and direction for our lives.

You heard Melanie Baggao share about how she is being called by God to do missions when she was already a history and English teacher. Even when she wanted to serve in Egypt, God was setting a course and direction for her life to serve in Lebanon. She knows she’s a Christian but she also wants to bear a cross of a disciple.

That’s why, I think, so many people prefer to identify themselves not as disciples of Jesus, but as Christians. Because the word “Christian” is more vague and abstract, and often we twist it to mean that we like Jesus—as long as he’s heading in the same direction that we want to go. But if at any point the way Jesus wants us to go is different from the way that we want to go, we figure that, as Christians, we have the right to wave good-bye to Jesus and head off in our own direction.

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The problem is that many people assume that the version of the American Dream is the same as what it means to be a Christian—that if you’re a Christian, Jesus will fix it so that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and you can do everything that you do want to do. To come to that conclusion, we’ve taken everything Jesus has told us—“Take up your cross and follow me”—and we’ve moved it around, changed it, and rearranged it to make it into the way that we want it to be.

Follow Jesus

There’s a story of a man sitting in the middle of the room, staring at a locked door. He keeps getting up and trying the handle. Still locked—always locked. He sits there all day long, and finally gets up, walks to the door one last time. Summoning all of his positive energies, he reaches for the door handle and turns it. Yep. Still locked. Frustrated, he turns his back on the door and only then discovers the open door behind him. God is good at opening those unexpected doors and helping us see them when we are fixed on something else. God told Melanie that the door to Egypt is closed right now but the one to Lebanon is open for her to walk through and she is.

We just want Jesus and not the cross. We have taught ourselves to believe that “taking up the cross” only means putting up with petty annoyances in just getting along with each other. I can’t even count the number of times I have said silently when things were not going so well at FCBC that I said, “I guess it’s the cross that I bear.”

But God is calling us like Jesus called the disciples to “take up the cross and follow him.” Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds; and everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Mt. 7:7-8).

Jesus is inviting us to open the door to discipleship—to take up the cross and follow. Melanie Baggao is opening the door to follow Jesus into the mission field in Lebanon.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What does it mean to take up our cross and follow him? Basically it means setting aside that desire we have to take Jesus and try to change him and shape him and mold him to the way that we want him to be. It means listening to what Jesus has to say to us and having the faith to actually do what he wants us to be doing with our lives.

No one but God alone can determine what our “cross” will be. I know what mine has been for the past 40 years but even after my retirement, I will still have a cross to bear for the rest of my life. Our job as those who wish to follow Jesus, even the Jesus we would rather not see, is to do the best we can to live out each day in mindful faithfulness, focusing on “divine” rather than “human” gain, knowing that God will walk with us and give us strength for the journey.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, as you obediently take the path that leads downward toward the cross, give us what we need to walk with you. Though we rather just have you Jesus and leaving the cross behind, strengthen us so that we might faithfully follow that way to which you have called us into discipleship. Amen.

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