The disciples were filled with such hope and expectation. What an exciting couple of days they've just had! Jesus has fed a crowd of over 4,000 people with just 7 loaves and a few fish. He put the powerful Pharisees in their place when they tried to confront and stop him. He healed a blind man, not once but twice, so that now the blind man saw clearly.
So when Jesus asks them who people say that he is -- the disciples dare to compare him to the great men of the day and the great prophets of old -- John the Baptist -- Elijah. But then Peter dares to say what had been on his mind -- the possibility that Jesus was the greatest person ever sent by God -- that he was the Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus doesn't deny the truth of what Peter says, but he does seem to let the air out of his balloon. Instead of being happy that the disciples got the answer right he sternly tells them to tell no one. And then he goes on to tell them that the son of man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
It's hard not to get stuck on the suffering and rejection and being killed parts, and it's easy not even to hear the "rise again" part.
So it is understandable that Peter would rebuke Jesus. He was so hopeful -- he was so excited. This was the one -- this was the one who would restore the nation of Israel to its former glory. This was the one the nation had been waiting for since the time of King David. Peter had said it -- you are the Messiah -- the one God has anointed to save the people.
Peter was not expecting a Messiah that would be defeated -- even if God would raise him up on the third day. Peter was looking for a savior who was stronger than anything -- who would never be defeated -- who would take care of all the threats and who would overpower all opposition -- someone who would rescue him and the nation of Israel from the mess they were in. To put it in modern terms -- Peter was looking for a bailout
He desperately rebukes Jesus for talking crazy... suffering and rejection and being killed. That was not a part of Peter's plan for the Messiah. And Jesus rebukes Peter, whose mind is set on human things, not on divine things.
Jesus goes on to talk about what this divine plan is -- and gathers the crowds together now with the disciples and says to all of them: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
What Jesus is talking about is not a bailout -- it's not a one shot deal that makes up for everything the people of Israel had done in the past. What God is doing in Jesus is creating a new people -- a new way of being -- a new movement that will make a difference to the future, as those who follow Jesus continue to do the work that Jesus began.
Jesus is saying this part openly -- this part is not a secret...after many of the miracles in Mark and after Peter acknowledges Jesus as the Messiah, they are sternly ordered to tell no one. But this part--this part's not a secret! Jesus is very clear that the kingdom will come through the cross -- and those who will join in the movement of the coming of the kingdom will take up their cross to follow Jesus.
So what does this mean -- to take up one's cross and follow Jesus?
First of all we need to understand what the cross means. It was an instrument of death, and a particularly cruel form of death -- because it was slow and agonizing. The one hanging from the cross died of suffocation.
The cross was also an instrument of oppression and power. It was a method that those who had power used to communicate that they had power over anyone who would go against them. On the cross, the victim was utterly powerless.
Those who were put up on the cross did not survive. The cross meant the end -- the end of their ability to determine their own future, the end of their power to control their destiny, the end of whatever they thought they would be able to accomplish on their own.
To take up your cross means that we face squarely our limitations.
To take up your cross means that we realize in the face of sin we are powerless.
To take up your cross means that we come to terms with our inability to control, finally, and we face our powerlessness.
Jesus says to take up your cross and follow him. Where did Jesus go when he took up his cross? He, too, faced the limits of human power. He, too, demonstrated that human evil is indeed powerful -- so powerful that it can put a person as good as Jesus to death; so powerful that it can oppress a movement of healing and wholeness like the one Jesus had started. On the cross, Jesus' ability to change the world by himself was put to death. But if we continue to follow Jesus we see that the cross is not the end of the journey. Three days after the cross God raised him up -- and proved that no power is greater than God, not even death. The cross means, alone, we are powerless.
To follow Jesus through the cross to the resurrection -- from Good Friday to Easter morning -- is to participate in the power of God to bring life out of death. To take up our cross and follow Jesus means that God can take our sinful selves, our diseased bodies, our impotent will and infuse it with the power to accomplish God's will on earth.
James Richard Lahman tells the story of a young woman he met by the name of Ann. Ann was a bright and articulate physician, 30 something, from Australia. She had grown up in a working-class Catholic family -- not poor but they certainly did not consider themselves rich, as her father had to work two jobs to put food on the table. Her parents were able to give her one year of college, but after that she was on her own to finance the rest of her education.
Upon finishing medical school she could easily have made a decision to make a fairly decent living for herself. Instead, she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny, a French order of about thirty thousand members. She was working in the West African country of Gambia. Every morning when she went to the clinic she would discover 10 to 12 women who had given birth during the night. Since the clinic had only 8 beds, sometimes new mothers would have to rest together on one bed. In some instances, new mothers even had to rest on the floor, for there was no other place for them, even at two to a bed. Eight hours was the maximum limit for their clinic stay after delivery.
Lahman continued his story:
"That young physician told me that each day after leaving the maternity ward she would treat two hundred children who had malaria. In that remote area, this was the only medical facility. Ann was the only physician. Her staff consisted of some native nurses. Her lab contained only a microscope. She had only one drug to treat all of the various stages of malaria.
"I asked her ‘Why?” he continued. “Why had she given up the prestige, the privilege, the money and the power of a ‘regular physician’ among ordinary people? Why had she become a nun after she was already a physician?
“Sister Ann smiled and said: ‘After medical school, I began to look at all the sadness, pain and suffering in the world. Once I started contemplating all of the brokenness that needed healing, I knew that, if I was ever going to be adequate to do my share of the healing work, I would first of all need to be a whole person myself. I needed a strength from beyond myself. I also knew that I would need the support of a caring and loving community of faith.’”
Jesus said, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."
When faced with overwhelming odds -- or just with our own limitations, those who take up their cross and follow Jesus do not loose heart -- because we know that there is -- as Sister Ann said --
a power beyond --
a power beyond the cross --
a power beyond our sin --
a power beyond our limitations, our helplessness our weakness.
It is the power of God to bring life from death, to bring healing from disease, to bring wholeness from our brokenness.
We take up our cross when we embrace our sinful selves, accept our limitations and follow Christ beyond them.
I would like to close with this prayer by Reinhold Neibuhr known to many as the serenity prayer
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.