“Follow, Carry the Cross”
Mark 8:31-38 (8:34) – February 25, 2018
When you imagine children at play, what do you think of? Children in a schoolyard, out at recess or out at lunch break? I am not sure what children play now, but when I was in school, school children played all kinds of games. Besides hopscotch and jumping rope, there were games of Red Rover Red Rover, Mother May I?, Duck Duck Goose, and Simon Says. And, Follow the Leader in the playground among the play equipment.
When we compare children’s games today with the words of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel reading, we are looking at two very different things. When Jesus said, “Follow Me!” He was not talking about a fun thing like a children’s game. He spoke about something quite serious.
The background of these words is critically important for us to understand exactly what Jesus was getting at. What was the history, the backstory? Here we are at the center of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had healed, taught, cast out demons, and performed other signs of power, but often in secret. And, people had questioned who this upstart Rabbi was, but with little answer. Up until this time, Mark had only mentioned the term “the Christ” once, in the opening verse at the very beginning of the book, until here in today’s reading, in Chapter 8.
Just before this scripture reading today, the Rabbi Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do other people say I am?” Great question! We are familiar with the responses. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah or another prophet, but you and I know better. We know different. We know the end of the story. The thing is, these disciples do not.
Jesus has been asking the disciples to follow Him ever since the first chapter of Mark. When He called James and John, Simon and Andrew, Levi and all the rest, Jesus said simply, “Follow Me!” And, they did! They left everything, in fact. Commentator Matt Skinner said “Jesus isn’t so much about gathering pupils or making sure everyone understands him. He calls followers. Want to see who he really is? Join him.”  Which is exactly what many people did.
Today, we are following Jesus step by step on His journey to Jerusalem and the Cross during the next weeks, throughout Lent. Similar to these early followers of the Rabbi Jesus, we are taking this following thing one step at a time. We focus on one facet of the journey each Sunday. This Sunday we look at what Jesus said about taking up the cross when we follow Him. What on earth does that mean?
Here we can see that Jesus knew where He was going, and what He was going to do. Others probably did not, and even would call Jesus crazy or somehow deluded. “What do You mean, Jesus? How can You say that?”
Didn’t Peter just say that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen One of God? I suspect the disciples were thinking, what kind of mixed messages are coming from Jesus now?
Jesus not only mentioned that the disciples ought to follow Him, but He also wanted them to take up their cross. Jesus even made some mention of a person being willing to give up their life. The only comparison I can figure is that of police officers and firefighters. They “make the decision to put themselves in danger, risking their lives to save another person. They measure their lives not by length, but by depth and quality.”  That sounds very similar to the sort of thing Jesus said in our reading today.
There is a problem. I can hear some people today saying, “Wait a minute, Jesus! I didn’t know that following You meant the possibility of giving up my life! I didn’t know that there was such danger and risk involved in being a Christian.”
Except, giving up one’s life was what the apostle Paul talked about over and over again in his letters to the churches in the New Testament. And, that’s what Jesus starts telling His disciples quite plainly, starting in today’s Gospel reading. Listen to Jesus: “If any of you want to come with Me,” He told them, “you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow Me. 35 For if you want to save your own life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for Me and for the gospel, you will save it. 36 Do you gain anything if you win the whole world but lose your life? Of course not!”
What is more, Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him He—Jesus—was wrong, and for trying to keep Jesus from walking the journey to Jerusalem and the Cross. Preventing Jesus from facing the Passion and sure death. At this point, Peter did not understand the full meaning of Jesus being the Messiah, the Christ. Plus, I suspect Peter and the other disciples were not clear on what taking up their own cross and following Jesus meant, either. But, they would find out, in the months and years to come.
Yes, sometimes it is difficult to follow Jesus. And, who in their right mind would want to shoulder the difficult burden of carrying a cross?
When we consider police officers or firefighters and what challenges they face on a regular basis, sometimes we call them heroes. Yet, Jesus calls all of His followers to face any number of difficulties and challenges, too. Except, not quite like running into a burning building or running down perpetrators, but still just as challenging.
Imagine someone you know, or someone you’re related to, bearing different crosses during their life. Crosses can be burdens we carry, difficulties we face. Some crosses involve physical pain and suffering. Other crosses can be financial, relational, or mental. What are the problems you or your family are dealing with today? Last month? Next year?
This might be the cross Jesus calls for us to bear, whether dealing with a devastating disease, accident, handicap, or disability. (Seen or unseen.) On the positive side, taking up our cross might assist us as we journey with Jesus toward Jerusalem. Lutheran pastor Edward Markquart reminds us:
-To take up our cross daily means to be open and flexible to God’s plan.
-To take up our cross daily means to focus on God daily.
-To take up our cross daily means that we can fail. That is, we do not do it.
-To take up our cross daily means to try to be loving every day.
-To take up our cross daily means to go the extra mile to do our jobs in life well.
-To take up our cross daily means to work on my relationship with my relatives and with people I do not like. 
Like I told the children earlier, we need to live like Jesus. We have to love God every day and love the people around us even when it gets hard. Yes, Jesus tells us clearly what it is like to follow Him. It is simple, yes. But easy, not necessarily so. May we pray for the grace, strength and perseverance to continue to follow Jesus, and to take up our own crosses.
And at the end of our lives, when we stand before Christ, what does the apostle Paul say? In Romans 8, “If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?” Praise God, we are indeed accepted by the Messiah Jesus. We are loved by our Beloved, Jesus Christ. Amen, and amen!
“Jesus Faces Death: Taking Up the Cross,” Mother Anne Emry, Sacred Story, 2012.
“Peter: The Stumbling Block and the Way of the Cross,” Gospel Analysis, Sermons from Seattle, Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.