Mark 8:31-28

The Rubber Hits the Road

You know, sometimes Jesus says some uncomfortable things and this morning’s reading from Mark’s eyewitness account of Jesus’ life has to contain some of his most uncomfortable teaching. We are just about exactly half way through Mark’s book, and this is the turning point. Up to now we’ve seen Jesus teaching, healing, and performing miracles but now the focus changes, and it changes in three episodes. Firstly, in the passage just before the one we had read this morning, Jesus has a conversation with his friends and asks who the people are saying he is. Some say, John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets. But Peter says, “You are the Messiah”. That is, you are God’s chosen one, sent to save God’s people. The next section describes a journey up a mountain that Jesus took with three of his closest friends. At the top of the mountain Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah and something happens that makes him shine like a star, and a voice speaks over him from heaven, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him.”

So, this turning point in the whole story of Jesus’ life on earth is begun and ended by declarations, one from earth and one from heaven, of who Jesus is. Jesus is God’s chosen one, sent to save the world. Jesus is God’s Son, loved by God and given authority to speak on God’s behalf.

I think this is important to remember as we look in more detail at what Jesus says in the section that we are focussing on this morning. The one speaking to us is God’s Son – chosen by God to save us and God has told us to listen to him.

It’s important to remember this because what Jesus says is absolutely shocking. His friends and followers were completely side swiped by this new teaching that Jesus begins to share with them. He starts telling them that part of the rescue plan, for which he has been chosen, is that he must be rejected, he must die, and that he will return to life. For those of us who have been Christians for some time it can be difficult to recapture the shock of this, we’ve heard it so many times, but I wonder if you can recall the first time you heard it. I wonder if you can imagine what it would have been like to hear it for the first time. The Teacher that you’ve left home and family to follow suddenly starts talking about death and suffering. One of his closest followers, Peter, is so shocked by this that he takes Jesus off to one side and starts telling him off! But Jesus is not having it. “Get behind me, Satan”. Jesus will not be deflected from the path that he knows God has set before him, however hard it’s going to be to walk it.

The shocks just keep on coming for the disciples though. Not only does Jesus start talking about his own suffering and death, he starts saying that his followers are going to suffer and die as well. In fact, he says that they must choose to suffer and die, and if they don’t, then they cannot be rescued. This is the first mention of the cross in the gospel narrative, and it is not Jesus talking about himself, it is Jesus talking about us. Again, it’s difficult to recapture the depth of outrage and shock this would have been to those hearing it. The cross was a punishment of shame, of pain, of degradation. The only people who took up a cross were those cursed by God and committed to the worst of deaths.

Jesus is not talking about the perseverance needed to put up with the annoyances and trials of normal life, he is talking about the deliberate choice to do things that are going to bring us pain, suffering, and shame because they are the things God is calling us to do.

As I said earlier, these are pretty uncomfortable words. But they are not purposeless or illogical. They might challenge our value systems, how we see the world, but once we shift our perspective they make complete sense. And in fact we don’t have to shift our perspective very far.

If I offered you £1,000,000 in return for permission to take your life who here would take me up on the deal? No, as Jesus says, “what does it profit you to gain the whole world and yet forfeit your life?” This is the logical foundation of Jesus’ teaching. If we take the long view of our life then we have a choice. That choice is basically about whether we trust Jesus with our long term future. He says that our lives can be saved, we can live with him for ever. But for that to happen we have to trust him and give up the things that he tells us to give up. If we try and hold on to things, or save our own lives then we will die. And so, the question is, do we trust him enough to let go, to sacrifice, to take up our cross?

And it seems to me that this brings us back to the status of the person who is talking to us. Imagine you’re 16, and have shown some talent for running. You’re taking part in a inter-school sporting event and have just won your race. You are approached afterwards by someone who says that she thinks you could be really good, even win an Olympic medal and she’d like to offer to coach you. She lays out a 4 year plan, with hours of training and work involved. It will mean sacrificing a normal life for a young person – no late nights, no lie-ins, full on dedication. As you’re weighing this up it occurs to you to ask the coach what experience she has, who she trains already, what success she’s had with other athletes. What kind of answer is going to make you more likely to be willing to make those sacrifices? Answers that demonstrate that she knows what she’s talking about.

Who is speaking to us about taking up our cross? The one speaking to us is God’s Son – chosen by God to save us and God has told us to listen to him. More than this, it is he who has shown us the way of the cross by walking it himself, taking the worst of it on himself, and proving that it leads to resurrection. He knows what he’s talking about.

So, what does it mean for us today? We don’t live in Roman occupied Palestine. Crucifixion no longer happens in our country. What aspects of painful, shameful, suffering are we being called to take up in our lives?

Perhaps it is to do with money. If a stranger were to look at our bank statements would they see evidence of our sacrificial giving that echoes the generosity of God to us? Is what we would like to spend money on constrained by our decision to give our money away? Do we ever feel embarrassed about our clothes, our car, our house, our garden, because we can’t spend as much on them as our neighbours, because we have given the money away?

Maybe it’s in the area of relationships. Is there a relative that we find particularly difficult, or who has hurt us, that God is asking us to forgive and to love? Are we finding it painful not to be married, or to be faithful in a difficult marriage? How do we deal with the shameful situations when we know that we’ve done something wrong and need to ask for forgiveness from someone?

What about control and power. Can we choose to show grace and hope when we feel like we are losing control over areas of our life? Are we willing to give up our control over situations so that other people have opportunities to grow and be fruitful? Will we choose to give up status and influence so that others may share in leadership?

I don’t know exactly what the Holy Spirit is working in your heart at the moment, it might be in these areas, it might be in others. I know that the Holy Spirit points out different things to different people at different points of their Christian life, and that process is never complete until we reach home. I also know that I am challenged by these questions, they are not easy ones to engage with. Having them brought up like this can be like having a bucket of cold water thrown over us. I’m pretty sure that’s how Jesus’ friends felt when he said it the first time. In the end, however, they saw Jesus raised from the dead, as he said he would be, and trusted him enough to follow the way of the cross, knowing that it leads to resurrection. Are we willing to do the same?

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