Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
February 28, 2021
“Losing My Religion”
Mark 8: 31-38 – New Revised Standard Version
31 Then he began to teach 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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,[a] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[b] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Will Willimon said, “The American church often presents the gospel as the solution to our problems, a technique for better marriages and smarter kids, a way to make nice people nicer, and successful people even more successful. You hear a lot of, ‘My life was a mess but then I met Jesus and now everything’s fixed.’” That’s great! The problem is, actually meeting Jesus is messy and would probably scare the be-jesus out of us!
In today’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and killed. And after three days, rise again. That last part would be great if we could skip all the suffering, rejection, and death. Peter agreed, because when he heard this, he took Jesus aside privately and rebuked him, a pretty strong word. This must not happen to you – because… well, maybe because Peter loved Jesus too much to see him suffer. Maybe because Peter had just minutes before declared Jesus the Messiah, and such things do not happen to messiahs. What kind of messiah gets killed? Or…maybe because, I’m just looking to be a nicer and more successful person.
But, in response to Peter’s private scolding, Jesus turned and publicly rebuked Peter. And if that wasn’t embarrassing enough, Jesus called Peter “Satan” because Jesus said he was putting human things, like avoiding pain and conflict, in front of divine things. This is the “easier” part of today’s text. The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, rejection, and death. Then, Jesus called out to the crowd, “And if any of you want to become my followers…”
Those crowds had just kept growing. Despite telling people to keep things quiet, more and more people followed Jesus. And why not? He was the best show in town. Free food and entertainment. Imagine watching demons scream as they’re called out of the possessed. Healings of one kind after another – the blind, the lame, the diseased. He walked on water. Calmed a storm. Dared to argue with Pharisees. One day, he fed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. And just a couple of verses before today’s reading, he fed another 4,000 people with 7 loaves of bread, with 7 loaves leftover. And yet, after all that, Jesus said to the disciples, “And you still don’t understand?” So, Jesus made the first of three attempts to make it crystal clear. Understand this: “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
I want to sit with this for a minute. He didn’t say, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must love God and love your neighbors as yourself. And love your enemies. And forgive 70 times 7. Be more compassionate, etc.” Those things are all true. And feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Those things are all true, as well. But it’s not the love thing that makes following Jesus difficult. It’s the whole “deny yourself and take up your cross” thing.
On Thursday, once again, we had a powerful conversation about this text at our Lunch and Lectionary on Zoom. By the way, you’re invited to join us. Among the things we discussed was an observation by Phil that “only those with a self can deny their self.” Wow. And with SafeHouse Denver as our mission partner this month, that’s even more obvious. For survivors of domestic violence, it’s not that they don’t have a “self,” but many have been told that they should simply accept their abuse as “their cross to bear,” tragically often by pastors or family members. If only they loved their spouses more, they would stop being abused. Let me be clear: This is outrageous, and this is false. And if that is what your religion tells you, run. Run like hell and rebuke it as you go. That is truly the logic of Satan.
Again, Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Now, what is “denying yourself?” It’s more than not having a second cookie, or a second glass of wine, or a house with a bigger back yard. It’s not a Lenten discipline. That’s too small. Jesus pairs this line with “and take up your cross.”
So, we might think of “taking up your cross” as a personal burden. Something that is uniquely your struggle. Yes, but not really. At least, not here. It is not a difficulty or a particular weight on your shoulders. That’s not to dismiss your own personal struggles and burdens. It’s just not the meaning of this text. Perhaps we should ask: When Jesus spoke of crosses, what did the crowd hear? Take up your cross?
Crosses littered the landscape. The cross wasn’t unique to Jesus. The Roman Empire crucified thousands of people. In fact, when Jesus was just a boy, Romans crucified 2,000 Galileans at once. “Romans put up crosses like billboards advertising Caesar’s supremacy and the fate of any who dared to challenge it.” In that way, the cross is very much like the lynching tree, as Dr. James Cone writes. “In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community.”
Black men, women, and children were lynched, hung from trees, for no reason at all – for looking in the “wrong” direction. The point wasn’t the infraction. It was the terror. Like confederate flags, statues of Robert E. Lee, and militarized police forces in places like Ferguson, Missouri. And the whole debacle at the US capitol. They’re all warnings meant to terrorize.
Terror was the point for Rome too. Crosses were used as instruments of a torturous death against anyone whom they deemed a threat. The cross was a weapon and a message for anyone who dared to question Rome’s occupation. Of all things, why would Jesus tell people to pick up a cross?
We sing sentimental songs about old rugged crosses, but the cross, like a lynching tree, like the executioner’s chair on death row, would have sent nice potential followers fleeing. In fact, I wonder how many followers he had at the end of that day? I can picture one person after another slipping away from the back. Running for their lives. It should make us seriously question whether we want anything to do with this Jesus movement. But, then again, what good is a religion that only asks you, politely, to be nice?
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “any religion that professes concern for the souls of men and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”
Jesus does give one compelling reason why they should, why we should, stay. He asks, “What good is gaining the whole world but losing your soul?” Perhaps we could say, you can have your soul or you can have your stuff. But, not really, because that’s too small, too individualistic.
Perhaps a more appropriate question (among others) is: what good is having everything you want if you’ve sold everyone out to get it? With Jesus, there’s always a collective impact to consider. For example, Jesus didn’t just heal individuals. He healed individuals so they could be reunited and heal their communities.
That part is hard to fully comprehend because Americans, white Americans, make things about the individual – almost like our civil religion. The whole mask thing baffles me. It’s my right to choose not to wear a mask. What kind of religion would go along with putting the whole community at risk of infection because it’s my “right” to do so? It’s our right to hold super-spreader events? But on behalf of 524,670 dead people, as of this morning and counting, I ask, “What good is gaining the whole world but losing your soul?” Of course, I have the same question of Jerry Falwell and company, especially as they bow at the religion of a literal golden calf Trump sculpture this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, google it.
Jesus said, “If any of you want to become my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” The cross. This thing used as an instrument of suffering and death, of terror and oppression.
Dr. Cone has been asked many times how the truth of the black experience of lynching and the cross of Christianity can be reconciled. He said, “Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.” They are transformed “symbols that represent both death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope.” A religion that is real because, like today’s gospel says, there is no rising on the third day without transforming the human experience of suffering, rejection, and death.
I don’t know why Jesus said the Son of Man “must” suffer, but he certainly understands that all humans do. To be human is to know rejection. And death. And so, to be in solidarity with suffering humanity, he must experience life as we do. But Jesus shows how following him transforms it. And how the cross represents hope.
Just like Dr. Cone said, “God took the evil of the cross and the lynching tree and transformed them both into the triumphant beauty of the divine.”
And if the followers of Jesus would actually, truly and finally confront the evil and terrorism of white supremacy with repentance and reparation, we could be, we will be, a triumphantly beautiful nation. But, nice won’t do it. Nice isn’t enough. We must deny ourselves and take up our cross. And if your religion doesn’t ask that of you, lose it. And take up the cross of Jesus instead.
 Lectionary Sermon Resource, Year B, Part 1, Abingdon Press, 2017
 Mark 8:17
 W. Hulitt Gloer, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, page 73
 Learn more at eji.org
 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/ February 28, 2021
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