Texts: Mark 8.27-end, James 3.1-12
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me... will save it.”
What does it mean for us to take up our cross and follow Christ? Let's explore the context for the teaching: Peter has just confessed Jesus as the Messiah. One might think that this was a commendable action – indeed, in the parallel passage to this in Matthew's gospel, this is where Jesus says 'on this rock' he will build his church.
Yet instantly, Jesus begins to teach the disciples what being the Messiah means, and Peter takes him to one side and says 'surely this must not happen to you' – this is what leads to Jesus' strong words. What has happened is that Peter has confused his understanding of the Messiah with God's understanding of the Messiah. Specifically, he has confused the things of men with the things of God.
What are these things of men being referred to? Well, think about what the cross represents. We have become more accustomed to it, and so the sense of shock associated with a crucifixion has been lost. The cross was not simply the death penalty, not just an execution. That would be bad enough, and it would express the condemnation of the community. No, the point about crucifixion was that it was intended to be thoroughly humiliating as well as excruciating painful, it was meant to represent the absolute stripping away of any honour or self-respect. We still find this difficult to address completely – for example, Jesus was almost certainly entirely naked on the cross, as that would have completed the process of humiliation – and yet, as with our cross here, Jesus' still has some modesty preserved. Crucifixion is the absolute repudiation of a person by society. It was the way in which society chose to obliterate a person, to leave nothing left.
This is what is meant by 'the things of men' – for the things of men are the realm of social approval. Peter wants Jesus to be popular, to be welcomed and accepted. Jesus knows that this is not his path, that he must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed. In order for the way of God to be established, the difference between God's way and the human way must be made absolutely explicit – Jesus will have to be lifted up and turned into an object of scorn and derision. Only in this way will it become possible for people to be set free from that social realm.
For the social realm is a trap. Our reading from the Epistle of James is highly relevant to this. Beginning with the rather frightening teaching – for me that is – that 'we who teach will be judged more strictly', James goes on to talk about the evil of gossip, of the immense harm that an unbridled tongue can do to both an individual and to a community at large. 'Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.' One might say that the realm of the tongue is precisely that social realm which Jesus is trying to get us to move away from. By this I mean anything to do with social approval; anything to do with social currency, The Biblical teaching about gossip is not that the problem with gossip is that it is untrue. Gossip can be perfectly true and still be evil. Gossip is any conversation that has as its main purpose an evaluation of social status, a sharing of scandal or celebrity, any conversation about who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out – these are the things which the world is concerned with, and these are the things which we are not to be concerned with.
So, given this, what does it mean for us to take up our cross? I am very fond of this pithy summary of the gospel: “if you don't love, you die, if you do love they'll kill you.” The cross is different for each and every one of us, but whatever form the cross takes for each of us, it will have one thing in common. Our cross will be whatever form social pressure takes when we embark upon the way of love. If we seek to follow Jesus, the one who was despised and rejected by the great and the good then we can expect that in our turn, whatever our particular context is, we too will be despised and rejected by the great and the good. It is unlikely in this country that people will actually try to kill us for being a Christian, but the level of social hostility is now quite strong and likely to get stronger for quite some time.
So that is our cross. How then can we respond to this social pressure? What are we to do when we are faced, as Jesus was, with people who are sincere and well-intentioned and who, for the good of the community, see that it is right for one man to die for the people?
We are, of course, to do as Jesus did. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. It is forgiveness that overcomes the things of men, and how is this? Well, let us go back to consider what the things of men are. It is everything to do with social approval, social respectability. In particular – and this was absolutely true in the culture of Jesus' time – what we have here is the whole concept of 'face', as in 'saving face'. In this context, think what the way of forgiveness means – it is an abandonment of any desire to save face. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all sorts of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
In other words, we must abandon any sense that we need to defend a position of social respectability. Just abandon it, give it up. It means nothing to God, let it mean nothing to us. And so any damage to that social position can and must be forgiven. For forgiveness is the way of God over and against, in opposition to, the things of men. Forgiveness says that there are more important things in human relationships than social respectability, and the church as a community is to be marked out against the wider society by being the community that models forgiveness as the way to relate to each other. This is why it is so essential to hold on tight to the teaching that we are all sinners. If we are all sinners then none of us have any face to save. We are each and every one a mess, deserving to be scorned. We have no rights in the situation.
All we have is the one thing that I haven't mentioned so far. Jesus says that he must be despised and rejected and killed – but he also says that he must, after three days, rise again. The only grounds that we have for walking in the path of forgiveness, the only resource and strength that can sustain us and enable us to carry our cross, is the knowledge that we have been forgiven first. That whilst we were still sinners, Christ died for us, to set us free from this process. It is the resurrection, and it is only the resurrection, that feeds us with the Holy Spirit, our counsellor and defender, the one who meets and overcomes all the accusations levelled against us.
May we each be given the grace and confidence to walk in the light of the resurrection, abandoning the snares of social respectability, finding instead the way of forgiveness, which leads us into eternal life – the life for which our Lord Jesus Christ took up his cross, and suffered and died... that we might live. Amen.