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Sunday, September 16, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
The Cross and the Way
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
With all kinds of opportunities to tell people what to think, Jesus instead told them what to do. Wash feet. Give your stuff away. Share your food. Favor reprobates. Pray for those who are out to get you. Be the first to say “I’m sorry.”
Barbara Brown Taylor
There was nothing religious about the cross. In the time when Jesus, Peter, and the other disciples lived, the cross had no veneer of redemption, no hint of life, no connection with the divine. There was nothing religious about it. Rather, there was only one purpose for a cross in the time of the Roman empire—the purpose of execution. It was Rome’s version of the electric chair or the strap-covered gurney sitting by the lethal injection machine. It was the primary punishment those in power imposed on rebels and troublemakers who challenged things as they were (Justo Gonzales, Mark: The Belief Series, p. 117). In those days, the cross had no veneer of redemption, no hint of life, and absolutely no connection with the divine. It was only an instrument of suffering and death for those hung upon it, as well as an instrument of fear and intimidation for everyone else.
According to historians, it was not uncommon for the road to Jerusalem to be lined with crosses, each one of them bearing a body (Barbara Brown Taylor in God in Pain, Ronald Allen ed., p. 59). Scholar Ched Myers writes, “By the public display of a naked victim at a prominent place—at a crossroads, in the theatre, on high ground, at the place of his crime—crucifixion represented his uttermost humiliation,” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 246). Clearly those public displays of violence and humiliation were also meant to scare the daylights out of everyone else, children and adults alike—everyone who passed them by as they went from their home to the market, or from the market to temple, or over to the house of a friend for a visit. You could not escape their looming shadows as the sun rose on a new day or as it set behind the horizon.
After a while, that pressure of fear and intimidation, that constant proclamation of death, would inevitably take its toll on their spirits. Having to walk down a road lined with crosses directly affected their ability to fully live or to fully love or to fully hope. We know from psychological studies in our time the way that repeated exposure to violence can severely damage one’s mental and emotional health (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, www.nctsn.org). Doctors here in Chicago talk often about the life-altering effects of repeated trauma due to gun violence that many of our neighbors experience, especially the effects it has on children and young people. The pressures of fear and intimidation can take a serious toll on your body and your spirit, which was exactly the point for those at the top of the Roman Empire.
They put up cross after cross, with person after person, in places of public life in order to inflict a serious toll, in order to make sure that all those who walked by knew who and what ruled over them, in order to try to destroy any agency regular people might feel they had in their own lives. Day after day, all who walked those cross-lined roads, including Jesus and his disciples, had to fight against all those sermons of the empire that those crosses continuously preached to them.
Certainly Peter found himself fighting that battle. All those sermons of empire had indoctrinated his spirit with fear and struggle. That fear and struggle show clearly throughout this exchange with Jesus in today’s reading. But before we look at the what, let us notice the where.
Jesus and his disciples are now on the way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. As one biblical historian puts it, “Caesarea Philippi was a capital built by Philip to honor the emperor who had given him this area to rule. It was famous for a temple to the pagan god Pan, the worship of Baal, the cult of emperor worship. In other words, it was a city built to celebrate worldly power, [the] Washington, D.C., of Palestine” (Leonard Vander Zee, Mark 8:27–38, Center for Excellence in Preaching, cep.calvinseminary.edu).
It was precisely in that place of idolizing worldly top-down, power-over where Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” In response, they gave Jesus the answers they were hearing on the streets: rumors that he was John the Baptist come back to life, or Elijah the prophet, or another powerful prophet who had emerged. Yet none of their answers satisfied Jesus. In truth, he did not just want to know what they were hearing about him. Rather, he wanted to know what they, themselves, were starting to trust about him.
Jesus wanted to know what they had decided after months and months of experiencing Jesus’ sermons proclaimed in both word and deed. Sermons of life and fullness that offered a direct counter-testimony to the empire’s sermons of death and emptiness. Jesus wanted to know if, through his teachings and through his healings, the disciples had heard anything different than what those crosses proclaimed about who and whose they were. Or did fear and death still dominate their spirits and clip their imaginations? So Jesus asked them point-blank: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered without hesitation, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” Now, whereas the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus praising Peter for this insight, this Gospel of Mark shows us no such interaction. Rather, Jesus responds with a stern admonition not to tell anyone about that truth, and we might find that odd. Why didn’t Jesus rejoice that Peter had finally heard some of Jesus’ sermons of life? Why didn’t Jesus throw a party for Peter and the disciples, shouting, “You finally get it!” Why did Jesus respond so sternly to Peter’s confession of faith?
Perhaps Jesus’ stern admonition was a reaction to what Messiah/Christ implied for Peter. The title Messiah, or “anointed one,” had a long history with the people Israel. According to Jewish New Testament Scholar AJ Levine, though Jewish messianic speculation was diverse, there was consensus that the coming of the messiah would manifestly change the world (Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, p. 127). Furthermore, some ancient Jewish people believed that the messiah would be the one who would finally politically triumph over the Romans and restore the collective honor of Israel. For them, the messiah was not about just change in the religious sphere of life but in the political one, as well.
Given that history, it is not difficult to imagine that those desires are indeed what undergirded Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, as the Christ. He might very well have expected that since that was who Jesus is, the day was quickly coming when all those crosses that lined the road to Jerusalem would hold Roman leaders for a change. And when that day finally came, all would see who really held the power of life and of death, and those who did not currently rank in Rome’s world would finally be put in charge, in their rightful place.
But all of Peter’s assumptions ignited a strong reaction in Jesus, and Jesus quickly began to reframe for Peter and the others just how he was going to be the Messiah, the Christ. It was not going to go how they expected it to go. He was not going to do what they expected him to do. There would be no battle. There would be no political victory. There would be no attempt at redemptive violence. There would be no replacements of the bodies on the crosses. Well, at least no large-scale systematic replacement.
Rather, Jesus told them that he, the Messiah, the Christ, was going to be rejected, suffer, and end up on the cross himself. His ministry of life was too threatening to the powers of death. His counter-testimony against the empire was too dangerous for those currently in charge. They would have to kill him. That is what the powers do whenever someone so radically threatens the way things are. Jesus knew it, and so he told them. Jesus, their rabbi, their Christ, was going to join all of those other people whose own lives had ended with violence and public humiliation. He would be right up there with them.
Though Jesus kept going, speaking of what would then happen on the third day, Peter apparently stopped listening. He stopped listening as soon as he heard the words “be killed.” That did not make any sense to him. It was impossible to fathom. Had Jesus lost his mind? Why on earth would he say that he was going to end up on one of those horrible crosses? Because if something like that could happen to Jesus, to the Messiah, then Peter knew it could happen to any of them (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain). The truth was that none of them had signed up for a discipleship marked primarily by defeat. None of them had signed up for rejection. None of them had signed up for suffering. None of them had signed up for death, especially death on a cross. No, they had signed up for a kind of victory, for a different way of life, for a sense of power even. Some of them had signed up so they would never be the ones on the cross again. Jesus needed to get it straight.
Peter being Peter could not stop himself from saying so. So he took Jesus aside and rebuked him, as if he were exorcising a demon from the one he had just called the Christ. But Jesus responded to Peter just as intensely: “Get behind me Satan!” And with his words our minds are driven back to the wilderness, to the time when, after his baptism, Jesus wrestled with the tempter. Wrestled over who he was as Son of God, as Emmanuel. Wrestled over how he was going to go about his ministry and his life. Wrestled over how vulnerable or invulnerable he was going to be, how little or how much power he would exert on his own behalf. Jesus’ use of the title “Satan” for Peter signals that, as Peter spoke, Jesus again heard clearly the slithering sounds of a different voice, the tempter’s voice, trying yet again to gain control.
It was in that moment of renewed temptation that Jesus decided the time had come to assert his counter-testimony of life and gospel again, but this time not just to the disciples, but to the entire crowd. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
More than likely most of those who heard his words had the same reaction Peter had. They stopped listening as soon as Jesus said “cross.” And I can understand why, can’t you? Like Peter and the others, all of them had also lived their lives walking down that Jerusalem road. All of them had lived their lives trying to forget the empire’s testimony that fear and death were the only powers that could define them. All of them had had to respond to their children the first time those little voices asked why those people were up there and if that was going to happen to them, too. It made no sense to them that the One whom they had grown to trust was telling them to deny themselves and to take up a cross. The cross was the tool of the empire. The ultimate expression of power over. There was nothing religious about the cross—no veneer of redemption, no hint of life, no connection with the divine.
Yet Jesus, this one whom they loved, this Jesus was telling them to stop giving the fear of the cross so much power, to stop letting death determine their every move. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said, “and stop worshiping fear as your god. Take up that cross as a sign that you believe more deeply in the life-giving power of God than you believe in the death-dealing power of fear. In the middle of the Washington, D.C., of Palestine, in the middle of the Gold Coast of Chicago, take up your cross as a reminder of who you are and what really matters. Take up your cross and follow me.”
For God is the one who holds your life, not the empire, not the politicians, not the marketplace. God is the one who will walk with you through death, not the empire, not your 401(k), not your partisan cable news. God is the only one under whose reign and under whose power you live and move and have your being, not the empire, not the economy, not your addiction, not your wealth, not your poverty, not your security, not your status, and not even your family. Only God. Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says on this September Sunday, and show those slithering voices of death and fear, scarcity and powerlessness, once and for all whose we truly are.
Yet as we do so, we must make sure our eyes are wide open. This may not be a popular thing to say in the beginning of a new year, on the Sunday when we receive new members in worship, a couple of weeks before we kick off the fall giving campaign, but carrying that cross, being a disciple, is not an easy way to live. The road is not smooth. Discipleship is demanding. It means being intentional about trying to stop always needing to be center stage in your own life. It means caring about what happens to people you don’t even know. It means being honest about the power of money in your life and how you do or do not counteract that with acts of generosity.
It means doing what Barbara Brown Taylor once preached: washing feet; giving your stuff away; sharing your food; favoring reprobates; praying for those who are out to get you; being the first to say “I’m sorry.” Discipleship means, as Kierkegaard wrote, stopping being admirers of Jesus in order to become followers of Jesus, for “an admirer of Jesus Christ is one who keeps himself or herself personally detached, . . . [one who is only] all too willing to serve [or to follow] Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, . . . those who refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand” (Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard).
Because, as we heard Jesus say again today, it is. But it is a demanding life that is also, at the same time, truer, fuller, deeper, more beautiful, more full of love, more full of possibility, more real than anything else we could imagine. And Jesus promises us that if we are willing to walk along this hard way together, we will find our life. A life that begins, ends, and begins again only and always in the light of God’s care and reign and never in the captive shadow of empire or any other voices that try to claim you, again. May we walk that way together. Amen.
I am indebted to different sources for this sermon: my own theological wrestling match with the doctrine of atonement and feminist/womanist contributions to that dialogue; Walter Wink’s theology of the principalities and powers, as well as his helpful articulation of the myth of redemptive violence; Walter Bruggemann’s language of counter-testimony; Ched Myers’ excellent book on the Gospel of Mark, Binding the Strong Man.