Cross-Bearing and Being a Disciple of Jesus
Pastor Jim Kniseley prepared this sermon for September 17, 2006, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The gospel reading is Mark 8:27-38.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Many of us here today wear a cross. I wear one all the time that was given to me by Carol shortly after our wedding. Undoubtedly you have noticed some of the crosses I wear each Sunday with my robe for worship. One was made for me by a man in our former congregation in La Canada, California. Here is one I purchased in Jerusalem. A couple of others I purchased in Germany. The largest pectoral cross is one I inherited from father, who was a Lutheran pastor for 60 years.
I worry that some of us will enjoy the beauty of the crosses we wear so much that we will miss the message of Jesus today. Indeed, Jesus says that we are to pick up our cross and follow him, but his call upon our lives is so much more profound than just wearing a symbol of the faith.
We are in the 8th chapter of Mark’s Gospel today. This is halfway through the earthly ministry of Jesus. Then it was that Jesus chose to ask his deep question of the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?”
Peter is the first one in this entire gospel account to get the words right: “You are the Messiah.”
Jesus then takes the opportunity to describe what sort of Messiah he is: “I will undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
This is obviously too much for Peter for he “takes Jesus aside and rebuked him.” Can you imagine the audacity of Peter in doing this? The account of Jesus response here is what interests me. “Jesus turned and looking at his disciples, replied to Peter.” In other words, Jesus knew that Peter’s answer represented the understanding of the other disciples too. He was just voicing what they were thinking.
They wanted a certain type of Messiah. Probably a political leader who would wage war with the Romans and restore the kingdom of David. And Jesus dares to tell them not only that he will be a far different kind of Messiah, one who will suffer and die for others, he expects them to pick up their crosses too and be willing to suffer all kinds of suffering and shame for the sake of the gospel.
Martin Luther coined the phrase “theology of the cross.” He means, we must never ever take too lightly the price paid for our salvation. The Creator God of the Universe became one of us, Jesus, and went to the cross and died a torturous death. Even in Luther’s day there were folks who liked Easter much better than Good Friday. They liked the happiness and the joy and the smiles and the laughter. Luther called this the “theology of glory.” But Luther asks the
question: how can you ever understand the terrible price and the wonderful gift, unless you’ve walked the way of the cross?
Back in seminary days in California, Robert Schuller came to our class one day from the Crystal Cathedral. Maybe you’ve heard him preach on television on his “Hour of Power” from Garden Grove. He told us of his success and his philosophy of “possibility thinking.” I will always remember his advice to us seminarians: “I advise that if you want your churches to grow and be successful, you don’t talk about sin. People don’t like to be negative. Some churches have confessions of sin. I will never do that!” Today you can lump a number of the wildly popular t.v. preachers in this camp of the “theology of glory.” Look at the latest issue of Time magazine and you will read about Joel Osteen whose church is so large they meet in a converted sports arena that seats 16,000. One of Joel’s popular themes is that God wants every one of us to be materially rich in this life. All you have to do is believe!
And Jesus said: “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.”
In the original Greek text, the word for “cross” is “stauros.” The word “stauros” can also be translated as “mark” or “brand.” How would it change the meaning of Jesus words if we heard it this way: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take on my mark (be branded) and then follow me. That is almost the words of the mission statement of this congregation: “marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered and sent – for the sake of the world.”
This past week I spent 3 days with our Virginia Synod Council. My service with this leadership group has given me some insights into the opportunities and challenges faced by our 166 congregations in this part of Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley we have numerous small Lutheran congregations. Most have been there for generations and generations, often with a cemetery attached and a remembrance when only German was used in worship. Today many are too small to afford their own pastor and many have this profile: most members are related to each other and new members are a rarity. One of our council members from Luray said he cannot remember a person joining his congregation who was not already a Lutheran. It amazed him when I told of our experience here at Resurrection of attracting folks from a variety of church backgrounds.
What we are hoping to do with a number of these small congregations is to get them to work together, to pool their resources and perhaps call a pastor for 2 or 3 congregations; we are looking at licensing lay people to do word and sacrament ministry in some places since we have a real shortage of pastors. This will involve change for some of these congregations, and the word “change” brings terror to the hearts of many a parishioner, especially in small family churches. But here’s the rub: People are moving to the Shenandoah Valley now in unprecedented numbers. So the population is going up and the attendance and membership of many of our congregations is going down. Something has to change, something has to die in order to have rebirth and new life.
The cross is a symbol of victory over death, but it is also a challenge to us who would follow Jesus. We must take up our own crosses – meaning not taking the easy way out either personally or as a community, of serving others and not just ourselves, never forgetting the terrible price that Jesus paid for our salvation, and truly believing that there is power in the cross of Jesus.
Thank you, Lord Jesus.