We hate to lose. From the earliest times on the playground or the soccer field, we absolutely hate to lose. We hate to associate with losers. If we’re on a losing team, we want to be traded; if you’re a loser on a winning team, they want to trade you. The “grown-up” kids aren’t any better. Winners like to hang with winners. In business it’s profit and market share. In investments it’s return and dividend. In church it’s crowds and programs ablaze with glory. We want to see ourselves as winners not losers.
Along comes Jesus, who has definitely been a winner when it comes to kicking around demons and diseases. He turns to His disciples and says, “Guess what? I’m about to become the biggest loser the religious world has ever seen. I’m going to suffer at the hands of the religious, the people who should have welcomed me with open arms – the elders, the chief priests, the teachers of Torah (or as I like to call them, “the bureaucrats, the clergy, and theologians”). I’m going to be rejected and killed. And in three days, I’m going to rise again. And you know what else? If you’re going to join me in this losing venture, you’re going to become a loser just like me!”
Jesus said it boldly, plainly, straight-up. No parables, no off-center questions, no poetic phrases loaded with double meanings. And He said it by way of necessity. This wasn’t an option, one possible road among several. He must suffer, die, and rise. It was necessary for these things to happen.
This didn’t square well with Peter. Peter had just made the “great confession” – “you are the Christ” – but as with most things, Peter didn’t fully understand what that little word “Christ” meant. “Christ” to Peter meant messianic muscle, power, glory, dominion, demon busting, disease curing, leper cleansing, hypocrite rebuking dynamite. The fun stuff. The first half of Mark’s version of the Gospel is filled with it. That’s what Peter had in mind when he said “Christ.”
It’s curious, and I believe intentional, that the episode just prior to this is Jesus’ healing of a blind man at Bethsaida. The miracle takes place in two parts. First, Jesus spits in the blind man’s eyes and puts His hands on him. Then Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?” (Testing one, two, three.) The man looks around and says “I see men but they look like walking trees.” 20/2000 on the eye charts. Not blind, but not exactly seeing yet, and please don’t let him drive. So Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, and then his sight was restored to perfect 20/20 clarity. This was Jesus’ last miracle prior to our Gospel reading.
I think Mark is setting us up to see the disciples in terms of this blind man after the first part of his healing, the spit part. Seeing but not clearly, nor even really enough to be useful. Peter “sees” who Jesus is – the Christ, the Messiah – but he doesn’t “see” in the sense of comprehend what exactly that means. You won’t clearly see Jesus as the Christ until you see Him hanging dead on a cross and rise from the dead. Until then, it’s spiritual nearsightedness; Jesus may as well be a walking tree.
Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Jesus. “No, that’s not the program. Enough of this loser talk. We didn’t leave the fishing business for this. We thought we were in on the ground floor of the kingdom. Suffering and dying aren’t part of the kingdom building agenda.”
That wasn’t Peter talking. That was the diabolical voice last heard in the wilderness, tempting Jesus not to be the suffering Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus through one of His own, the chief of His disciples. “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind God things but man things.”
A cross-less Christ. That’s what the devil wants. No suffering servant stuff. No bloody sacrifice. No vicarious atonement. Power and glory and fame and celebrity. That’s the satanic way. It’s also man’s way. Our way. The way of the winners. Not the cross. Crosses are shameful. Losers hang on crosses. Resurrections are cool, but there’s a catch: you have to die first. No Easter without Good Friday, not matter how hard some Christians try to have it that way.
A cross-less church. The devil couldn’t be happier. And I don’t mean a church without a cross symbol or a crucifix, though the absence does make you wonder a bit. I mean a church that can go on as if Jesus hadn’t suffered for the sin of the world. That’s what I mean by a “crossless church.”
Why do you think people want to rid the world of the symbol of the cross? Why do you think a crucifix is so offensive, even to some Christians? It really isn’t political, though it often gets political. The cross is the big scandal of Christianity. It’s what makes Christianity the great non-religion in the world of religion. God-in-the-flesh hung on this shameful instrument of torture to offer up His life to save a world that didn’t ask to be saved.
Look at what’s happening in the church today, even in some of our own Lutheran churches. The focus is on purpose, prosperity, peace, programs designed to fire us up so we can be winners, transform society, improve the self-image. Put your cross detectors on and take a reading. Do modern hymns fix your eyes on Jesus, on His death and resurrection, on His body and blood? Do our sermons preach Christ crucified or some other gospel which is not good news at all? Can we say and do what we say and do even if Jesus never died and rose from the dead? If we can, then it isn’t uniquely Christian, no matter how piously purpose-driven it might be.
Jesus would say the same to the church today as He said to Peter: You are not “Theocentric” (God-centered); you are “anthropocentric” (man-centered). That’s the self-centered religion of old Adam in us who would like nothing more than to get rid of that bloody Jesus on a cross and show some slides of pretty flowers and sunsets and smiling children so we can all “feel good about ourselves.” That’s not Christ’s church; that’s the devil’s church.
A cross-less church cannot bear suffering. It can barely suffer an ingrown toenail. Did you hear the apostle Paul this morning? We rejoice in our sufferings! Huh? What kind of people rejoice in suffering? We have pills for that. What sort of people embrace suffering as a way of growth and life? Cross-centered people do. People who have been baptized into the death of Jesus and who have been given to follow Him through death to life.
Suffering makes sense only in Jesus, only in His death and resurrection. Take away the cross, and suffering is a puzzle, a mystery, a glitch in the “intelligent design” of the universe. Why does an all-powerful, loving God permit suffering? You don’t ask those sorts of questions at the foot of the cross. Instead you thank God for the privilege of being chosen to suffer, trusting that you are justified nonetheless, trusting that you have peace with God in Christ, knowing that your suffering is producing perseverance, character, and hope and there’s no other way to produce perseverance, character, and hope except through suffering.
That’s the big big reason the church is in the shape she’s in, especially in our midst. She’s fat, complacent, comfortable, like the church of Laodicea in the Revelation. Lukewarm Laodicia, rich yet poor, complacent in her comforts. We fight “worship wars” and worry about meeting the corporate bottom line. Look where there is a vigorous and vital Christianity emerging today. It’s precisely where Christians suffer for their confession – in Africa, in communist China, in Siberia. In our Thursday Bible study we’ve been reading the book of Acts. Do you know when the Word of the Lord increased and the church grew? When it suffered persecution and martyrdom.
I went to a one day pastor’s retreat this past Monday at a monastery near Sacramento. Our teacher was a noted Lutheran historian of the liturgy, Frank Senn. He’s written what we lovingly call the “Fat Book” on Christian worship. Pr. Senn made a great comment comparing “homegrown” contemporary creeds to the three great creeds of Christendom – the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. He said, “I won’t confess a creed written by a church who hasn’t suffered for confessing it.”
“If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The cross is the way of Jesus the Christ, and of all who would follow Him. There’s no other way. The cross is the narrow door that many seek but few find and our sinful selves want nothing to do with. Who wants to be a loser when you can be a winner?
Deny yourself. We’re not talking about giving up chocolate or coffee for Lent, people. We’re talking dying to your self, denying that inner brat who wants everything his or her way 24/7. Dying to sin and self. That kind of denial.
Take up your cross. This is not some piece of self-chosen suffering, as though you could go to the cross catalog and pick one that matches your Sunday outfit. “Here’s a pretty one. This will be my cross.” Crosses are laid on you, and you are nailed to them. Crosses don’t inconvenience you or hurt you a little bit like a hang nail or a sprained ankle. Crosses kill. They were a form of capital punishment in a day when they didn’t care if punishment was cruel or unusual. In fact, the crueler and more unusual the better.
To put it plainly, your cross is your death. You can’t choose your death (except for suicide, I suppose). Your death something given you. Jesus tells His disciples, and us, the plain truth about our lives. To save our lives we must lose them in Jesus. To live we must die, not just once, but daily in our Baptisms.
To rise with the winners we must take our place on the cross with the biggest Loser of them all, the One who lost His life to save you, the One who denied Himself to embrace you, the One who exchanged His perfect life for your miserable sin and death, the One who was not ashamed to bear your shame in nakedness, to become your sin in His own sinless flesh so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God and be justified and have peace with God.
The world doesn’t understand this. We have to teach them. We have to show them. Lift high that shameful cross, with crucified Jesus hanging on it, and do not be ashamed of it. Eat the bread that is His Body and drink the cup that is His blood and so proclaim His death until He comes.
The world of winners will think you’ve lost your mind. And you have, along with your heart and soul and strength and all that you are. You’ve lost it all in Jesus; and losing it all in Him, you have gained it all forever.
In the name of Jesus,