Monday, February 26, 2024

The Crux


Mark 8:31-38

Lent 2 / Year B

A police officer notices a car weaving in and out of traffic.  The driver appears to be highly agitated, screaming at other cars and making crude gestures with her hands and fingers.  The office turns on his lights and pulls over the car.  Asking for title and registration he asks, “Do you know why I stopped you?”  “I have no idea,” the driver replies.  “Well,” says the officer,” I noticed your bumper sticker says ‘Jesus is my Co-Pilot’ and based on your actions and behavior, I was worried the car is stolen.”

When people learn we profess faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior they will have certain expectations about who we are and how you behave.  Sometimes they say more about the other person than they do about us.  If, for example, they know a lot of judgmental and hypocritical Christians, they might just assume you are the same.  If they know Christians who are kind, loving, and trustworthy, they will be stunned if you go around gossiping behind the backs of other people.

I can’t tell you how many times, upon learning what I do in life, a person, caught off guard, has said, “You’re a priest!?!”  I suppose there are a myriad of ways I don’t conform to some folk’s preconceived ideas of what an ordained person looks like and does.  At the church I served in Iowa, someone once said to me, “You aren’t like Father Greg (my predecessor).”  “How so,” I asked.  “Well, he used to mow the lawn wearing his clergy collar.” 

This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Mark draws our attention to Jesus’ identity and to our expectations of him, or at least it used to.  For reasons unknown, the assigned lectionary passage has been shorted by a few verses.  Gone are the days when we heard Jesus ask his followers, “Who do people say I am?” and “Who do you say I am?”  These are questions about identity.  Peter, this time at least, aces the test: “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus then goes on to teach the Messiah must go to Jerusalem to suffer, be rejected, and killed only to rise again on the third day.  This, in no way, conforms to Peter’s expectations.  He, and the other disciples, seem to believe the Messiah will deliver Israel from Roman occupation and then reign from the throne of King David.  They suppose they will be given positions of power and even argue about who among them will sit at his right and left hand.  This is their expectation for the Messiah, the Son of God.

We expect rock stars to trash hotel rooms, politicians to speak out of both sides of their mouth, Hollywood actors to be self-absorbed, clergy not to smoke a cigar (ask T.D. Mottley for the backstory on why I was dubbed ‘the Godman’), and we expect the Messiah to triumph over every obstacle and evil.  That this is a very tempting option for Jesus to choose is made clear in his response to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It is always tempting (a good Lenten word) to live into what other people expect of you, rather than to be who God calls you to be and to do what God calls you to do.  Now, I am not suggesting you show up to a wedding wearing pajamas because people expect you to be in a suit and tie.  I am saying you are to strive for God’s expectations of you.

Listen again to how Jesus describes it:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  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, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 

“Take up your cross and follow me.”  Most often we associate this phrase with some kind of sickness, sadness, or suffering we must endure cheerfully and bravely.  And, to be sure, each of us faces challenges like this and how we engage them can be a powerful witness to our faith and faithfulness.  But I think Jesus is getting at something different here when he instructs us to take up our cross and follow.

The word cross comes to us from the Latin root crux.  From this root we get such words as crucifix, crucifixion, crusade, and excruciate.  It also gives us the word crucial, the crux of the matter.  To pick up your crux and follow is to determine what is the most crucial thing you need to be about.  In its root usage, the word crux describes two things that cross, like a crossroads or the vertical and horizontal pieces of wood which make up a cross.  I think to take up your cross means to merge your God-given identity with God’s expectation of what you are to do given who you are.

Some people fast from eating meat on Fridays in Lent, and this is well and good, but is it crux?  Is it critical?  Absolutely not.  Now, it may be a helpful devotional aid as you ponder what is crux, but (like so many rituals and practices) it is a spiritual launching point and never an end unto itself.  Jesus’ call to pick up your cross and follow is an invitation to discern what is critical in your life and to pray over how you are to put it into the service of the work of the gospel.

What is your crux?  Honestly, I don’t expect you to have a coherent answer for this question.  I am not sure I do either.  However, I invite all of us to come before our Lord, Savior, and Guide seeking an answer.  The alternative, Jesus says, is to gain perhaps the whole world, but in the process forfeit your life… to live for something less… much less… than the crux.

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