Mark 8:31 – 38 : Romans 4:13 – 25
I was never a specially daring child, though I’ve had my share of bumps and scrapes. One thing I remember trying several times, though, is walking along a see-saw. You start at the end on the ground, you inch your way up, up hill, towards the middle where you know that, any minute now you’ll reach the point at which the whole thing tips the other way and you can run down the other side & off, preferably without breaking any bones!
We’re at that point in Mark’s gospel today, the tipping point, the dangerous bit where one end flies up and the other down and then it’s down-hill all the way for Jesus.
Up until this point, Jesus has gone about healing and teaching and constantly people have been asking themselves ‘who is this?’. Now, here at Caesarea Philippi – Peter has finally answered the question “You are the Messiah”.
Jesus immediately tells the disciples to hush – and then goes on to say what we have heard today, so that they will understand just what sort of Messiah he is.
Jesus doesn’t want them to get carried away with thoughts of political power or violent rebellion. He says ‘the Son of Man must suffer and die’. He makes them stop with everything in the balance and listen to what is ahead of them, before they rush down the second half of the see-saw.
And poor Peter, who just moments before got it so right, now gets it so wrong ‘not you, not this?’ - he rebukes Jesus for being so gloomy, at which Jesus says to him “get behind me Satan, you think as men think, not as God thinks.”
Jesus doesn’t say that he might suffer, or that he fears he will suffer, he is emphatic – he MUST suffer and die.
There has already been enough opposition to Jesus for him to see that at this point either he has to give up any attempt to demonstrate the coming of God’s kingdom – give up the healing and teaching and return to the life of a quiet carpenter from Nazareth, or he has to continue past the tipping point of the see-saw and face the consequential crash down that will come as the religious authorities of the day move to have him silenced for good.
Jesus must suffer and die – only by facing up to the worst that could be done to him and carrying on through death to resurrection could the ultimate power of God be demonstrated.
But then Jesus says something even more shocking to his disciples – “Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self; he must take up his cross and follow me”.
Jesus is warning his followers that faith in him is not a spectator sport, it is something in which they have to get up and get involved. Just as Paul describes the faith of Abraham as all-important, so Jesus demands faith in him.
And Abraham’s faith wasn’t a ‘sit by the fireside and tell old stories’ kind of faith – it was a faith which led him to leave his home in Ur and travel to Haran; a faith that made him leave his new home of Haran & travel into the desert – a faith of such trust in God that the impossible became possible, yet a faith that demanded trust in action from Abraham.
Jesus demands this kind of faith in action from his disciples.
And not just any action – being prepared to take up the cross – being prepared to stand with Jesus Christ and shoulder the burden of suffering and pain. Whilst he is totally dedicated to the work of the kingdom of God, Jesus is clear-sighted about the suffering that will follow for him and the suffering his followers might also suffer. Until the kingdom comes finally and in power, Jesus is reminding his followers that they will not be immune from suffering when they follow him – in fact the very act of discipleship will bring suffering and death to some.
So what does it mean to us to take up the cross and follow Jesus?
I think it means many things:
It means being prepared to lay down our lives, to give ourselves completely to God, to ask first in any decision ‘what is God’s will?’ and not simply to follow our own inclinations.
It means being realistic about the fact that our faith will not make us immune to the suffering of the world around us – that just because all things are possible with God we cannot expect an easy ride. Following Jesus may not be impossible but sometimes it can be, as a friend said recently, “bloomin’ hard”.
Ask the young person who is made fun of by their class-mates or work-mates because they confess their Christian faith;
or ask the very able woman who has to decide whether to opt for personal happiness or service of Christ;
or ask the elderly widow or widower who is hanging onto faith when life is incredibly difficult and everyone around thinks they’re lonely and deluded…
Taking up our cross means actively seeking the way Christ calls us to follow, even if that way is difficult – and living with the consequences of knowing we could just have opted to stay where we were and stay comfortable.
I don’t know what taking up the cross might mean for each one of us here – and yet Jesus clearly tells us to take up the cross and follow.
Yet, if all that seems a gloomy message – remember the last part ‘take up your cross...and follow me’. The road may be difficult but we walk it with Jesus – beyond every tipping point he is there to catch us, for each journey he is the guide and the goal.
So have faith, take up your cross, and follow him.