Etched on walls, etched on our foreheads

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16th Sunday after Pentecost; Year B; Sept. 13, 2015

Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 116.1-9; James 3.1-12; Mark 8.27-38

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace and peace to you from the One who invites us to pick up our cross and follow, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In 2007, while I was in seminary, I went to the country of Turkey with a number of classmates to learn more about the early church. We toured the ruins of Greek and Roman temples to their gods and went to ancient theaters. We saw the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, massive structures of worship for Christians and Muslims throughout history.

We visited ancient Byzantine churches with mosaics made out of gold depicting the stories of Jesus. We went underground to the cistern Constantinople built (a massive structure that holds tons of water), just in case the city would have ever been under siege for months at a time.

We went many more amazing places over the course of 3 weeks, but what I remember most were the underground cities in Cappadocia and the caves that were the homes to so many people who followed Jesus in the first couple centuries after his death, resurrection, and ascension.

I was struck so much by the underground cities and the caves because they were essentially hiding places. These cities went hundreds of feet into the ground and the caves were on the side of cliffs. People lived in them for years at a time, not because they were comfortable places or because they couldn’t afford anything else. People lived there because if they did not they would have likely been killed for believing in and following Jesus.

In every cave we went in there were crosses etched into the walls and the ceiling. Carved by a stone or a fingernail, crosses were everywhere. Clearly, the cross was a powerful and sustaining symbol for these people whose lives were threatened daily. They knew what it meant to forfeit their physical life for the sake of Jesus and the message he carried (the message of healing and new life for the world). They took up their cross and followed no matter what the cost.

In our Gospel reading Jesus and his disciples find themselves in Caesarea Philippi, a small detail we can take for granted. Caesarea Philippi was the center of worship of the Roman emperor and the Greek god, Pan. The temple would not have been in ruins like the temples I saw in Turkey, but rather a fully functioning center of Roman occupation.

Perhaps as they walked to the village, the road may even have had people being crucified on crosses along the way. To scare people and keep in power, the Romans would use their form of execution by hanging people on a cross to die, to basically suffocate. They would line roads with crosses and crucify people in public places for all to see, as a reminder of who was in charge.

The disciples would have had this image stamped in their minds when Jesus speaks to them about the suffering he would undergo, and eventually his death. They would clearly see the cross as Jesus speaks of it, a symbol that to them at that time would only mean a horrific death.

Peter tries to pull Jesus aside and say, “Are you crazy saying that kind of stuff in this place! You are going to get yourself and all of us killed right here, right now!”

But Peter doesn’t understand death and resurrection quite yet, and why should he? This is the first time Jesus speaks of it in the Gospel of Mark. So Jesus calls his disciples and all who will listen to him…the crowds…maybe there are Roman soldiers in the crowds, maybe there are children and mothers and fathers and grandparents.

He calls everyone together where all things around the place communicates that power and wealth and military have the say in this world and Jesus says something absolutely scandalous: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Basically, Jesus says, “Follow me and you will surely die. I’m going to the cross and anyone who wants to follow me will end up there too.”

Who really wants to follow Jesus if suffering and death are what happens?

Do you? Do I? Jesus asks his disciples and each one of us: “But who do you say that I am?” Who is Jesus to you?…for you? What is he asking of you? These are important questions for all of us to think about and then live like the answers are true and that they matter.

Erica Gibson-Even says, “Taking up our cross and following means, most basically, acknowledging that we are powerless to save our own lives—powerless in the face of our own sin, in the face of the brokenness of the world, in the face of death (Sundays and Seasons Preaching Year B 2015; p. 240).”

You and I cannot save ourselves. What does it mean that even the Son of God does not escape death and chose not to save himself but gave up his life for you and for me?

Jesus says, “What can you give in return for your life?” The answer is nothing. The cross is a needed truth teller in our lives that we will all die and we cannot save ourselves.

Every follower of Jesus receives the sign of the cross on their forehead in their baptism.

I was in worship once when a pastor gave a children’s sermon. He called the children up to the front where the baptism font was located. He pointed to it and said to the kid’s: “Did you know that you died in there?” A two or three year old named Dylan did not hesitate at all when he confidently said, “Yep!”

In the waters of baptism we die…die to ourselves in order to live for God and for others, die to selfishness, die to addiction, die to all the ways that draw us away from God. The cross on our forehead marks this death and also the physical death that is inevitable no matter who we follow.

But the cross and baptism do not end in death. We are not left beneath the waters to drown. We are not left in the grave to stay for all eternity.

Another small detail we may miss in the Gospel reading is that yes, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be killed, but he follows it up with: “and after three days rise again.” When Jesus eventually was hanging on the cross his disciples forgot that part. But they didn’t forget it when Jesus stood before them in his old/new body after being raised from the dead.

What is incredible about the cross is that it was originally meant to be a symbol of death and because of Jesus it is now a symbol that also and ultimately means life. And all who are marked with it and carry it and follow Jesus walk intimately with God.

What gives me any confidence to mark people with the cross in baptism other than this promise from God to raise people to new life now and in the life to come? I know and trust and believe that the cross ultimately means life for those who bear it. I know that Jesus’ death on the cross was God addressing deeply-rooted evil and defeating it in order that we may have wholeness and fullness of life.

How can I bring the most precious person in my life, my son, Gabriel, to the waters of baptism to be marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever?

Because even though the cross is about dying, it is also a reminder of God’s love, a reminder that Jesus will never abandon him or us. It is a reminder that when Gabriel breathes his last in this world that Jesus will walk with him and raise him into the next. Besides life itself, Christ is the greatest gift from God to each of us.

The cross reminds us that death does not win. Jesus has conquered death and now in and through death we have life. The early Christians who would not deny Christ, who were forced to go into hiding in underground cities and caves understood this. They etched the symbol of the cross that was placed on their foreheads in their baptism onto every wall and into every nook and cranny they could find in their dark, damp home.

The cross meant hope, the cross meant life, the cross reminded them of their Lord Jesus who died for them and loved them.

I suppose an appropriate question to end on is this: Who wouldn’t want to follow Jesus if life and resurrection is what happens?