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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 19B/21

Mark 8: 27-38

The Cross of Christ 

This morning we find Jesus and his disciples on the way to Caesarea Philippi, a Greco-Roman city in the northern most part of Israel. It is here, where Jews were forbidden to go, so counter was this pagan outpost to their faith, that Jesus brings his disciples to ask of them: who do people say I am? Who do you say I am? For the first time in Mark’s gospel Jesus’ identity as Messiah is finally revealed. But no sooner does Jesus begin to speak openly of the great suffering and rejection he must undergo, and of this death and rising again. Then he calls to the crowd with the disciples: If anyone wants to be my follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of either messiahship or discipleship, which is why Peter so vehemently objects. Yet Jesus’ invitation to follow him is simple: Do you want to know who I am? Follow me. Do you want to be my disciple? Follow me. Do you want to save your life? Follow me.  

During Epiphany of this year, I preached a sermon about following Jesus, using a handy acronym: to “follow” Jesus is to be faithful, open, to listen, love, obey, and watch. Shortly after, during Lent then, I preached on this very text from Mark, and the two questions it provokes: who is Jesus? and who am I in Christ? 

So now, during the long liturgical season of Ordinary Time, which can be a bit of a trudge, post Labor Day and the summer, when school has started and life has taken on a busier rhythm, when business’ are ramping up, Halloween decorations already for sale, and the feast of Christ’s resurrection, Easter, is but a distant memory, where is our gospel today calling us to focus or refocus if you will? 

To follow Jesus means to go in the same direction as he does and to walk the same road as he does, which this morning is to Caesarea Philippi, where the disciples were very much “out of place” and out of their comfort zone. Are we willing to follow Jesus to such places and people? In doing so, what are we being asked to give, or give up? What might our hesitation and resistance be? 

While I might be called to follow Jesus here, and you might be called to follow him there, as disciples, we are always heading in the same direction. To follow Jesus is to ultimately end up at the foot of the cross. Do you want to know who I am, he asks? Follow me to the cross. Do you want to be my disciple? Follow me to the cross. Do you want to save your life? Follow me to the cross.

For Christians, the Cross of the Christ is the primary symbol and sign of our holy covenant with God and its boundary and promise; the cross stands at the center of our faith. But as a figure of existential crossroads spanning history and time, the cross has also long been a dominant symbol in the world. Crosses are found around the globe in all shapes, sizes, and materials. They are raised inside and out, overlooking harbors and homes, cities and villages, and are graffitied and tattooed on buildings and bodies, hanging on our walls and around our necks. Growing up I wore a very small gold cross, nearly without ever taking it off, until one day when I was about twelve years old the necklace broke off and was lost. I was bereft, feeling lost myself without it.  

Our worship begins as the cross is held high and carried down the center isle, our heads bowing in humility to its power. We sing songs about the cross, and cross ourselves often, remembering and proclaiming Christ crucified. Yet so ubiquitous is the cross in our faith and lives that it becomes peripheral. Though it is “everywhere” it is nowhere when we don’t see it. And when we don’t see it, it is harder to follow in love. Thus Jesus calls us to follow him now, day by day, in time, not theory. He calls us to awareness, now, day by day, in time, not theory. He calls us to take up our cross, now, day by day, in time, not theory. 

It’s not that we accept just any cross, “putting up” with burdens and trials in a stoic if not faithful way or with false cheerfulness, but that we are prepared to participate fully in the life of Christ as much as we can and by grace, and stake our lives on the life and gospel of Jesus, sharing in the fate of the one whom we follow, and disarming our hearts of violence, hatred, bias and bitterness, inertia and indifference, and denying evil in all its insidious forms. Bearing our cross means that as individuals, and the church, we take on our thoughts, words and deeds and become one-hundred percent responsible for all of them, so that we cease to blame, shame, project, and scapegoat others, dying to victimhood with the crucified Jesus; forgive them Father, for they know not what they do, he said on the cross. 

Taking up our cross and following Jesus is the embarrassing and dishonorable acknowledgement that we do not have the power to save and redeem our souls, let alone the world. Though a job well done, a meaningful relationship, good and creative works, social and artistic are all a measure towards happiness and progress, too often these human things become an end unto themselves and idols of our misdirected hopes, dreams, and desires.

The cross transfigures what is only human into what is always divine: from fear and domination to freedom and inexhaustible love, an instrument of torture and crucifixion becomes an instrument of transformation and new life.  Through its power of vulnerability it reveals the presence of an embracing and suffering God with us.  In baptism, we are marked as Christ’s own forever, buried with Jesus in his death, and sharing in his resurrection. Following Christ is to initiate and suffer deep transformation in this pattern of death and resurrection. 

From the Christian author and blogger Rachel Held Evans: Our God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if we want in on God’s business, we better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in our own hearts—because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens. There’s no ladder to holiness to climb, no self-improvement plan to follow. It’s just death and resurrection, over and over again, day after day, as God reaches down into our deepest graves and with the same power that raised Jesus from dead wrests us from our pride, our apathy, our fear, our prejudice, our anger, our hurt, and our despair.

Taking up our cross is a commitment to this pattern—to the denial of who we presume to be—to the awakening of true life in Christ. 

I’d like to share with you just a few passages from an astonishing and ancient poem called The Dream of the Rood. It is the earliest dream-vision poem in the English language, authorship unknown, which was found carved into what is now called the Ruthwell Cross from the 8th century. The word rood means cross or crucifix; in the poem, the rood or cross has come to life and recounts its vision and story in being chosen, chopped down and hewn into the cross that then bears and crucifies Christ. There are many translations of the poem, and this morning, I’ve chosen a fairly modern one.  

It was long past—I still remember it—

That I was cut down from the edge of the forest, 

Removed from my root. Strong enemies there took me,

Told me to hold aloft their criminals, 

Made of me a spectacle, and set me on a hill . . . 

 . . . And then I saw the Lord of all mankind

Hasten with eager zeal that He might mount

Upon me. I dare not against God's word

Bend down or break, when I saw tremble all

The surface of the earth . . . 

He climbed onto the lofty gallows-tree,

Bold in the sight of many watching men,

When He intended to redeem mankind.

I trembled as the warrior embraced me.

But still I dared not bend down to the earth,

Fall to the ground. Upright I had to stand.

A rood I was raised up; and I held high 

The noble King, the Lord of heaven above.

 . . . I saw the God of hosts stretched grimly out.

Darkness covered the Ruler's corpse with clouds

His shining beauty; shadows passed across,

Black in the darkness. All creation wept,

Bewailed the King's death; Christ was on the cross. . .

The time is now come

that mankind over the earth and all this illustrious creation

far and wide honor me,

they pray to this sign. On me, God’s son

suffered a time. Therefore, now I rise up

glorious under the heavens, and I am able to heal

each one of those who hold me in awe.

 . . . through the cross, each soul must seek

the kingdom from the earthly way,

those who intend to dwell with the Lord.

The collect for Holy Cross Day, a major feast of the Church observed this Tuesday, September 14th, recalls that Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world unto himself, and prays that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him. 

Let it be so. Amen, and Alleluia. 

Amen, and Alleluia!