Second Sunday in Lent  /  Resurrection Lutheran Church  /  March 4, 2012  

Text:  Mark 8: 31 – 38  /  Message by: Rev. Carol Kniseley  /  Take Up Your Cross

            Let’s begin by stating that if worship is anything at all…at the very least, it should begin by being passionate.    Looking to our Lenten devotional, Cultivating Fruitfulness, the word passionate is defined as: an intense desire, an ardent spirit, strong feelings, and the sense of heightened importance.    It describes an emotional connection that goes beyond intellectual consent bringing eagerness…anticipation…expectancy…deep commitment…and belief.    Now add worship to the mix…and we begin to sense how God uses worship to (again, from our handy devotional):  transform lives, heal wounded souls, renew hope, shape decisions, provoke change, inspire compassion, and bind people to one another.

Put simply, we don’t attend worship to squeeze God into our busy, over-extended lives.    We attend worship to meld our lives into God’s.     It’s a time to think less about ourselves and more about faith; less about our personal agendas…and more about  God’s will.     We encounter a fresh vision of God’s reality in Christ…so that God’s Spirit can reshape our lives and form us into the body of Christ.     We encounter a vision that during Jesus’ time on earth, many could scarcely bring themselves to accept, much less believe.  

Picture this.     In the midst of a very intense teaching moment, Jesus turns and says to everyone within ear shot (including his disciples…and now us):

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves...and take up their cross…and follow me.’

And from the look on everyone’s face…every single person who heard those words, came away…clueless.     Welcome…to Theology of the Cross 101.

In Jesus’ day, every person condemned to death by crucifixion was compelled to carry his or her cross, or at the very least the crossbeam, to the place of execution.    The cross itself was simply hewn out of a tree.     The only qualification being that the limbs had to be sturdy enough to support the weight of a human body.    Theologian and world-renowned Bible scholar, John Stott wrote something that when I first read it, absolutely blew me away.    He wrote:

‘To take up our cross, and follow Jesus, is to put oneself into the position of a condemned person on their way to execution.     For if we are following Jesus, with a cross on our shoulder, there is only one place to which we are going: the place of crucifixion.   

As Bonhoeffer put it:  “When Christ calls a person, he bids them come…and die.”

Now before we allow another thought to enter our mind’s eye, let’s all stop and say to ourselves three very enlightening words:  ‘saint….and….sinner.’     I am convinced that what Jesus is alluding to is exactly what Peter did to Jesus when he denied him three times.     The same verb is used in both cases.    Peter ‘disowned him’….’repudiated him’….’turned his back on him’.    

What Jesus is passionate about saying…is that every single one of us who wants to be his follower…must deny or disown ourselves, renouncing our supposed “right” to go our own way.    In other words, it is the old paradox of Saint and Sinner…where we are called to deny that part of self that refuses to follow Christ.     In the book of Galatians, Paul wrote that those who belong to Christ ‘have crucified the sinful nature with it’s passions and desires.    And the very real visual that we are handed is a very graphic one: an actual taking of hammer and nails to fasten our slippery fallen nature to the cross…and do it unto death.   

The image that we are left with is this.    Every day, there is a part of each one of us that is passionate about doing God’s will.    It is that part within each one of us that was created in the image of God…and renewed in the waters of Baptism.    In Baptism, we were made members of the body of Christ and marked with the cross of Christ forever.    Indeed, every person who is in Christ is a new creation.    

And yet, by the same token…there is a part of us that continues to be incompatible with Jesus.     It is that part of us that daily refuses to let Jesus take the lead.    Our mantra becomes one of self-turned-in-on-self:  “it’s all about me.”

It is that part of our self that Jesus says we are to deny…disown…nail to the cross…on a daily basis before we can ever hope to follow after him.     As Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonnhoeffer once wrote:  ‘to deny one-self…is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self…to “see” only him” who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us.     For only when we become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake.’

So, what cross are we talking about?    Again, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  ‘The cross is there…right from the beginning.    We have only to pick it up.    There is no need to go look for a cross for oneself, no need to deliberately run after suffering.    Jesus says that every Christian has their own cross waiting for them, a cross destined and appointed by God.’     And if we pause to think about it, even Jesus went to the cross in ‘self-denial.’     Not because he had done anything to deserve death, but because this was God’s will for him, according to scripture.     Throughout his entire life, Jesus denied himself the temptation to avoid the cross.    In truth, he denied himself in order to give himself for us.   

No doubt, that very same principle applies to Jesus’ followers as well.   

If we wonder just who Jesus could be talking to…as in, “…are you talkin’ to me?”  How then are we to answer knowing that we are both saint and sinner at the same time?     On the one hand, the cross is God’s given measure of the value of our true self, since Christ loved us and died for us.     On the other hand, the cross is also the God-given model for the denial of our false self, since we are to nail it to the cross (daily Luke would add)…putting it to death.   

Or…more simply put, standing before the cross as we always do during worship…we are able to see both:  our worth because of the greatness of His love in dying for us.   And our unworthiness, because of the greatness of our sin in causing him to die.     It is a vision of reality that still calls for passionate worship.     Thanks be to God…beneath the cross of Jesus…we are blessed to take our stand.      Amen