Sermon from Sunday 25 February

How do we deny ourselves in order to take up our own cross?


Reading(s): Mark 8:31-38. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.

When living in Germany many years ago we took a couple of holidays in Bavaria and visited the famous castles and went up a few mountains. We also visited the village of Oberammergau where the famous Passion Play takes place every ten years. The play has been performed for nearly 400 years after the village was spared from the bubonic plaque in the early 1600s. We weren’t there when the play was performed but we did go for a tour to see where it is held and where all the costumes were hanging ready for the next performance, and I remember seeing the cross of crucifixion, prominently on display.

There is a story told of an American visitor who was fortunate enough to watch the passion play, at one point he sprang into action when the actor portraying Jesus fell whilst carrying the cross toward the crucifixion scene. The tourist was caught up in the emotion of the moment and wanted to lift the cross from the back of ‘Jesus’ expecting it to be a prop, he reached down with one hand but found that he could not move the heavy wooden cross. After the play was over, he met with the actor who told him, “I found that I cannot look like Christ without carrying a real cross”

Today’s Gospel reading compels us to picture Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, calling his friends to take up their own crosses and to walk with him. In Jesus’s time a cross didn’t have any religious meaning; over the centuries we have made crosses into beautiful items especially jewellery but a cross then was an instrument of torture and death, something the Roman government used to keep people in line. To intimidate people, the officials would sometimes put the crosses alongside the roads that led to Jerusalem, each one with a body hanging from it, which they thought would deter anyone from going against their authority. The people were certainly in fear of their Roman rulers.

Jesus was popular and successful in his ministry, and everywhere he went, at least in the Galilee, people wanted more. But resistance to him was also growing; rumours about him being a rabble-rouser were intensifying and some said he was claiming an authority that belonged to God alone. For his own part, Jesus knew that he had to proceed to Jerusalem, to get away from what was safe and relatively secure, and to face even more resistance. In the Gospel reading Mark puts it plainly, “Jesus began to teach the disciples 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 understandable that the disciples didn’t want to hear those words, so Peter pulls Jesus aside and says, “God forbid it, Lord. Why are you saying this? Have you taken leave of your senses? Things are good right now. We don’t need to head into town, there’s trouble there. You’re the Messiah, God’s anointed, and suffering and death aren’t part of the equation.” It’s almost as if Peter is saying, “If we can focus on a good strategic plan with clear objectives, and keep building on our success, we’ll be fine.” Peter was also frightened, just as we are sometimes when loved ones talk about their deaths, it’s not a conversation we want to take part in, it’s too final. Peter loved Jesus, and didn’t want him to die, and of course, if Jesus was vulnerable to torture and death, then so were the rest of his band of followers. That’s when Jesus turns and blasts him, saying, “Get behind me Satan!” which was extremely harsh. Then he said what neither they nor we want to hear: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the Gospel will save it.”

It’s very easy to focus on the words “take up your cross” and miss out “deny yourself”. Denying oneself involves recognizing that our own desires and plans may not align with God’s will. It requires a willingness to let go of our own agenda and trust in God’s plan for our lives. This can be a difficult process, as it often involves sacrificing things that we hold dear, such as personal ambitions, material possessions, or even relationships that are not in line with God’s principles. However, denying oneself is an essential part of taking up one’s cross. When we surrender our own desires and seek to please God, we become better equipped to serve Him and others. We are no longer held back by our own selfish ambitions and can instead focus on living a life that imitates Christ’s selfless love. A life of compassion and understanding towards our fellow human beings.

Very importantly Jesus didn’t say, “take up my cross,” He says, “take up your cross,” the one that’s already in your life waiting for you to take on. So, what about the “cross” or “crosses” in our lives? Situations or people that cause us to have a heavy burden on our shoulders and often we may ask the question why me? All of us have our own crosses, big or small, but we have them. For some, it is an unexpected or long-drawn-out lack of physical or emotional well-being. Whilst for others it is a problematic child or adult in the family that is causing pain and heartbreak, for others it may be the place where they work that is terribly unhealthy such an unfair boss, or a place where there is bullying. Money troubles or caring for an elderly relative without the proper support or help, the list goes on – all of us have our own crosses to bear, some we share with others whilst there may be internal crosses, worries or guilt that we are unable to share and known by God alone.

To take up a cross as Jesus did is also to stand in the centre of the world’s pain and show compassion and care. Taking up the cross means recognizing Christ crucified in every suffering soul and body that surrounds us and pouring our energies and our lives into alleviating that pain - no matter what it costs. Jesus says “for those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, will save it.” How shall we die in order to live? How shall we lose in order to save?

One of the huge values of Lent is that it reminds us in no uncertain terms that being a follower of Christ is not all about personal fulfilment without cost or effort. It is a season in which we think about the wilderness in which our faith is tried and in which we take up our own crosses and follow Jesus to Good Friday. It is a time to revalue our own lives and those around us, knowing that Easter will come, in the meantime we offer to God our fears and worries and place them in his hands.