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Second Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2015

When I came to the dinner table and saw spinach, my heart sank. I would be expected to eat the awful, stringy stuff because it was good for me. Even the topping of hard boiled eggs and the fact that it gave me iron to keep me strong didn’t make me feel any better. It tasted really bad, and its texture was enough to make me gag. Now I am older, and I know there are alternatives to maintain and improve my physical health that are not as terrible as cooked spinach. I even eat raw spinach quite happily.

But there is no alternative to spiritual health as a Christian disciple than the cross. That stark instrument of torture is the only way to life for the followers of Jesus. Jesus makes this so plain in his teaching that we all find ourselves cringing right along with the disciples and the crowds.

Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. On top of the world, he waits for Jesus to talk about what he will do as the savior of the Jews. Jewish expectations were that the Messiah would be a Davidic king who would go into battle and overthrow the Roman oppressors. But those were not the words that came out of Jesus’ mouth. Jesus tells them that the Son of Man must be rejected by the chief priests and elders and scribes, suffer and be killed and on the third day rise again. This can’t be true Peter thinks. What does God think God is doing? This is a really bad plan, a vulnerable king who doesn’t triumph but dies, and I don’t want any part of it. I am going to call Jesus on this. And Peter does. He takes him aside and has very strong words with him about the holes in this plan. But Peter in turn is rebuked for his brashness. It was not the business of a disciple to question a master’s teaching. And Jesus was feeling tempted, oh so tempted, to join Peter’s team. This scene is the first time he has spoken the words about his passion aloud and they are scary words, to him as well as the disciples. That is why he refers to Peter as Satan, remembering Satan’s temptations in the wilderness.

According to Jesus, Peter is setting his mind on human things and not divine things. I know I would too. If I had been a disciple of Jesus and had seen him heal and exorcise demons and feed the multitudes and walk on water, I would be expecting a better end to the story than what Jesus predicts. I would expect glory for Jesus and reflected glory for me too as one of his closest friends. Human things, Peter thinks. I thought these were the divine things, the plan that God promised us, the plan that would make us strong and independent. This supposedly divine plan is just awful, like stringy spinach, and those mysterious words about rising after three days are incomprehensible and no more helpful than the hard boiled eggs were to make the spinach edible.

After Jesus talks to his disciples, he talks to the crowd. The cross is front and center in Jesus’ explanation of discipleship. Jesus has not yet said that is how he is going to die, but the crowd knows that the cross is a Roman instrument of torture and gruesome death and that those condemned carry their crosses on their backs. What Jesus is telling them is more than they are ready to hear. If they want to follow him, they must be willing to suffer and die for the sake of the gospel. And their following has spiritual consequences. If they try to save their lives themselves they will lose them when Jesus comes again. If they are willing to lose their lives, they will gain eternal life when Jesus comes again. Neither alternative is a really good one for the crowd. They certainly don’t want to suffer and die and yet that promise of eternal life is way off in the future and they do not really trust it. Yet there it is, says Jesus clearly. You can’t sail through discipleship without any trouble. Jesus is not at the end a miracle worker or a moral teacher or a nice guy who welcomes everyone. Jesus is a Messiah whose central mission is to suffer and die for the sake of the world to reconcile human beings to God.

How would we define discipleship? What does picking up our crosses mean? First, being a disciple means following. It is about doing the hard stuff Jesus does, not just listening to what Jesus says, experiencing Jesus’ miracles or basking in his reflected glory. Being a disciple means being vulnerable, not strong. It means acknowledging weakness and powerlessness in a culture that values power and strength. That makes you a victim right there because those in charge go after those who cannot challenge them. Being a disciple means self-denial rather than self-interest. It means trading following our own will for following God’s will for our lives. It means emptying ourselves and allowing God to direct us, no matter what the consequences. At the end of Jesus prediction, there is victory, so being a disciple means experiencing victory even though it is through suffering. It is about experiencing the mini-resurrections that get us through life until the final resurrection (Thomas B. Slater).

We are called to be disciples of Jesus too – to follow where he leads. It is a hard thing to give our lives to God. Too often we do not trust God to come up with a good plan for us, even though God promises us in Jeremiah that God’s plans for us are for hope and a future. But if our path behind Jesus means following the way of suffering, that means that there is no easy way to that hope and that future. It is hard to set ourselves aside, to deny ourselves, because we have we have brains and emotions that are made to make plans. We have free will, and it is hard to choose to give up our free will to go with God’s direction.

Some people say that our difficulties in life are our crosses to bear. Maybe that is true to some extent, but Jesus says bearing the cross is about standing up for what you believe in, for what God has put in your heart. The struggles in India to win independence from British rule, the U.S. civil rights movement and the work to do away with apartheid in South Africa were all non-violent actions that saw many innocent people imprisoned and killed for standing up for what they believed in, for standing up for what they saw as bringing in God’s kingdom. We must stand up for the ones who are crucified today by poverty, oppression, degradation and terrorism.

The cross is the central symbol of the Christian life. How can you pick up your cross and follow Jesus? How can you get yourself out of the way and let God rule your minds and hearts. Think back on the times you have experienced death and mini-resurrections to new life and remember how you felt. Were you dragged kicking and screaming into suffering or did you accept it as part of your life as a disciple. How did you feel when you came through your suffering and entered your new life?

The cross is the focal point of our worship spaces. We wear them around our necks and hang them on our rearview mirrors. We make palm crosses on Palm Sunday. Look at the cross this Lent. Remember that Jesus suffered and died for us and that we are his followers. We don’t need to look for suffering; it will come, but to be a disciple is to bear it knowing God is with us in it and will bring us out to new life on the other side.

AMEN

     - Rev. Ann Barker

Works Cited: Thomas B. Slater, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark 8:31-33, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 246