17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018
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.
I shared this story a few years ago, but think it’s worth mentioning again.
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 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 many more amazing places over the course of 3 weeks, but what I remember most were the underground cities in Cappadocia, as well as 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 fascinated 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 high up on the sides 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. 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 (this 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 yet understand what Jesus is saying, and why should he? This is the first time Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection in the Gospel of Mark. So Jesus calls his disciples and all who will listen to him and says something absolutely scandalous: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
What does Jesus mean by this?
Jesus is trying to help us let go of our own self-preservation, and get us to understand that there are some things in this life that are worth suffering for, some things that are even worth dying for.
This is not suffering for the sake of suffering like when we get sick, or smash our finger with a hammer, or when we endure abuse, or suffer because of our own poor decisions. This kind of suffering is a result of simply living in the world.
What Jesus is talking about is something different, and is for the sake of God’s mission to bring healing and wholeness to the world.
Elisabeth Johnson, a professor of theology in Cameroon writes:
Taking up our cross means being willing to suffer the consequences of following Jesus faithfully, whatever those consequences might be. It means putting Jesus’ priorities and purposes ahead of our own comfort or security. It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ (www.workingpreacher.org).
A good question for us as people of faith is: What does it mean to follow Jesus in the world in which we live?
I was particularly challenged, moved, and intrigued by a story I came across this week. I read it in the Christian Century Magazine.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in 1957. Its origins can be traced back to the Montgomery Bus Boycott when Rosa Parks refused to stand and give up her seat for a white person. This organization has been essential in the Civil Rights Movement and the desegregation of the United States.
There was one white person among all African Americans at this conference by the name of Will Campbell. He believed in equality and supported the Civil Rights movement, working tirelessly for racial justice at great risk to his own personal safety.
Even though this was true, he “scandalized many of his friends when he provided pastoral care for members of the Ku Klux Klan. When a reporter asked why he attended the trial of one parishioner, a former KKK,” member “who killed a grocer for selling food to African Americans, Campbell responded, “Because I’m a Christian!” Campbell was known for saying and living out the belief that ‘if you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all (Aug. 29, 2018, p.18).”
This is what it looked like in 1957 for Will Campbell to follow Jesus, to pick up his cross no matter what the cost. So what does it look like to follow Jesus in your own lives?
I think of many of you who have been in relationship and mentored youth here at YCC for years. Following Jesus looks like continuing to be committed to supporting people who are released from corrections no matter how many times they bail on you.
I think of those of you here on campus at YCC. Following Jesus may look like deleting your facebook page or instagram account in order that you can truly move forward with your life and stay sober. I know people who have left YCC and been contacted by old friends. One of the first questions they ask is: “Are you using?” If their friend says yes, then they say, “I care about you, but until you are sober I can’t talk with you.” This takes incredible courage, and it’s painful for sure because many have lost all of their friends in some cases; yet what is gained is sobriety and a chance at life they never thought they had.
I think of the arrival of our new deacon intern, Alex. Following Jesus looks like picking up and moving your whole life to Bismarck/Mandan, where you know no one and have never to been before, to do a 6-month internship at Heart River Lutheran Church. Alex, we are so glad you are here as we all try our best to follow Jesus together.
My brothers and sisters, following Jesus looks like showing up to Hope Chapel for worship on September 16, 2018.
We come to worship and hear that God is not distant, that God is touched by the pain of the world, even our own pain, and chooses to enter into it. We know this because Jesus died on the cross in order that we may know that God is willing to go to every length to communicate God’s love for you and the world.
This is what the cross symbolized and meant for those early Christians hiding out in caves and underground cities. The cross was love, and hope, and joy, and life, and they engraved it everywhere to be reminded of what Jesus had done for them.
Eventually, Jesus’ disciples, even Peter, who rebuked him, risked everything for their witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus. They all picked up their cross and died for the simple, and yet profoundly powerful message that God loves the world and everyone in it. Some things are worth losing your life for.