(The gospel for this Sunday is Mark 8:31-38, in which Jesus predicts his torture and crucifixion, tells his listeners that if they wish to follow him they will follow him to crucifixion, and then calls the current generation “adulterous and sinful.” This sermon begins on the heels of that reading.)
Yay! This sounds terrible. I don’t think we can just get rid of this passage, though. I can hear the voices of some of my elders when I was in seminary, explaining to me, then in my early twenties, that the only way someone my age would come to church was if we got rid of difficult passages like this one and focused on happier stuff. Terrible that this passage sounds, I would reply, “What about us seminary students who are in our early 20’s, who came from thriving campus ministries where we read passages like this, and who are plainly going to church?” Any of you who were ever in your early twenties and asked such a question know what followed: I was told I was too young and naïve to have an opinion. I was just going to have to accept that I was invisible, irrelevant, and in the way of more important people. No one said the phrase, “This is just the cross you must bear, Timothy.” But they were thinking it loudly.
I had it easy. Some people are in abusive relationships and told to stay in them, for this is their cross to bear. Some have no realistic chance for earning a decent living no matter how hard they work and are told this is their cross to bear. Some are subject to harassment due to their sex organs, and a significant portion of the population believing that they have rights to people with said sex organs—their cross to bear. Some live in grinding poverty from which there is no escape and in which my own culture keeps them for the sake of low prices—their cross. Some fled war and illness and famine, only to be demonized in their place of refuge, and sent back into terror—their cross. Some were trained to take lives to protect mine, did what they were told, and came home to find no support, no help for what they now faced. Their cross.
We cannot get rid of this passage. Jesus predicts his crucifixion three times in Mark. A guy repeats himself that much, he wants us to notice it. Yet the God who frees us from sin, promises us eternal life, and in the meantime makes all things new—this God does not dole out those disgusting crosses I just named. We ask, then, what we always ask: What does Jesus mean, and what does it mean to us?
The first thing we should note is that Jesus is not talking about his mortality. Everyone had to assume he would die eventually. A third of all live births were dead before age six, two thirds before age sixteen, three quarters before age twenty-six. On the one hand, everyone knew death happened; it was not hidden like we try to hide it. On the other hand, these early deaths came about from malnutrition, poor living conditions, warfare, violence—systemic injustice. Violent and untimely deaths really bothered folks. That’s the kind of death Jesus predicts he will suffer. Jesus will die violently and unjustly at the hands of the legitimate powers of his day. That is what Peter does not want to hear. Jesus just gets more graphic: “anyone who has the will to follow me will pick up their cross and follow me.”
Everyone in Jesus’ world knew what a cross meant. It was Rome’s ultimate punishment for non-Romans and slaves who committed violent robberies and murders, or who rebelled. Condemned persons were first beaten until their inner organs were bruised and struggling, next forced to carry their crosses and signs that explained their crimes, then affixed to their crosses in a public place and left hanging until their bodies could not function under the strain. It’s overkill. If we’re just removing a dangerous person we can do it a lot easier. Such punishment is for show. It is meant as a spectacular display of how much more powerful the Emperor and his government are than the one dying.
Peter may complain that Jesus has not done anything to deserve this. He is not a murderer or violent robber, and he is not advocating the armed overthrow of the government. As the great Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx writes, “The Gospel of Mark is the account of a crime.” Jesus is murdered. Mark teaches us who he is and why he was murdered. Jesus is a threat. He is a threat to Rome’s arrangement of things, where Rome’s spectacular power guarantees peace and prosperity. Society has safely cordoned off those with unclean spirits—Jesus talks to the spirits. Society has safely cut off the sick—Jesus goes to them. Society has safely cut off those with disabilities. Remember that story where they rip the roof off the house, so they can lower the guy in? Jesus makes himself ADA compliant. Society has safely divided itself into competing ethnic groups—Jesus goes to all of them. Society has safely broken into unequal gender divisions—Jesus crosses them. Society has left many hungry—Jesus feeds them.
That’s more than enough from Jesus to get a response from the elders, the priests, the scribes, and from Rome. That’s a challenge to Rome’s claim that everything depends on Rome being incalculably, invincibly strong, and that the world has peace and prosperity because Rome uses its strength to keep everything arranged just so. Jesus keeps challenging all of those arrangements. Yacob Tesafi writes that the cross is “the end result of a…life that challenges the systems…of oppression…in solidarity with…those who live on the periphery.” The cross isn’t an accident. Jesus lives with and for those kept on the bottom so others can stand atop them. Jesus lives with and for those kept on the margins so others can occupy the center. Jesus expects he will be crucified. It’s divine foreknowledge; it is also common sense. It is a consequence of his life. The cross is the consequence of a life lived in covenant with God, a life lived with and for those kept on the margins and at the bottom. By the power of God the Holy Spirit and for the sake of God in the faces of our neighbors, we are with each other in our suffering.
The cross is not something I can assign to others. All those people who had society tell them this is your cross to bear—those weren’t crosses from God. God does not say, shut up and keep being hit, keep being poor, keep being sick, keep being traumatized, keep being treated as a subhuman, keep being the one at whose expense others have more, or feel powerful, or feel healthy, or feel more human. Jesus does not say, “If you are willing to be my disciple, dole out crosses to people as you see fit. I’m sure you’ll do a good job.” Jesus knows better. I can’t assign them. I also cannot carry someone else’s cross for them. I was at Gary Airport on Friday to witness another installment of the deportation of tax-paying immigrants and refugees. I cannot be them. I can be there for them. I can bear witness to what I saw. I can use what I have to try to change things. I cannot be anything other than who I am; I can make sure that I am with those on the bottom and at the margins. That’s what Luther calls “participation in the cross,” what Mary Solberg calls “the incarnated mystery of solidarity.”
If I have a cross to bear, a cross to take up and follow if I wish to be Jesus’ disciple, my cross will expose the injustice and violence of the world, as Jesus did on his cross. If I have a cross that is actually from God, it will be a cross I bear by living with and for those on the margins and at the bottom as Jesus did.
And it is Easter, the completion of this Lenten season, that makes me do it. As I said before, everyone had to assume Jesus would die eventually. Death was known. What happened next? Not everyone agreed, but there was a widespread belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead. At some point (that God had not revealed) God would bring us all back and judge the world in righteousness. God will raise the dead, eventually. What happened on the Sunday morning after Jesus’ crucifixion was that God raised Jesus from the dead, now. In theology we sometimes refer to this as God’s “vindication” of Jesus. Jesus crosses all our boundaries and loves the world recklessly and gives of himself; this challenges the powers, his own people and the Romans, so they kill him; three days later God raises Jesus so everyone can see that was God at work. By raising Christ on Easter, God says, “I function that way. I am what Jesus did.”
We gather in this season of Lent, heeding the call to return to God with all our heart; we gather on a Sunday, the festival of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we want to return to God, we return to the one God vindicated. We return to the one who lived a life that challenged the systems of oppression, who lived in loving solidarity with those kept on the periphery. We do it because God says, “That’s God.”