26th February 2024

The Second Sunday of Lent: ­Take up your cross

Sunday 25 February 2024, The Second Sunday of Lent, 10:30.

­Take up your cross.

A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham.

Genesis 17:1-7,15-16 and Mark 8:31-end

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.

Jesus’ words, from that Gospel reading we’ve just heard, don’t make for easy reading.  If we’d been in any doubt, up to this point, that we’d fully entered into the season of Lent, we certainly aren’t now.  “Take up your cross”: Jesus’ words are uncompromising.  He invites us, as he invited his first followers, to take up once again a journey of self-discipline and self-examination that will culminate, in 5 weeks or so, in our recollection liturgically of his Passion and death in Holy Week, his personal and agonising journey to the cross.

In Jesus’s time, crosses were a daily sight.  They reminded people who was in charge in Roman Palestine, and of what the cost was of offering any kind of challenge to the occupying power.  To pick up your cross and follow Jesus was an act of rebellion, an act that, one way or another, would cost you your life.

Now, two thousand years later, the phrase has lost something of its original force.  Crosses are no longer mainly seen on roadsides with actual people hanging on them, but in churches, or as an adornment, as jewellery.  “Take up your cross” now means “put up with your minor discomforts” or- at most- “Be sure that you do something to show God you take him seriously by making yourself uncomfortable in some way.”  The phrase “We all have our crosses to bear” means that we must all demonstrate perseverance in circumstances we don’t fully control (see Rowan Williams, The Cross in the 21st Century, in Seven Words for the 21st Century, DLT, 2022).

But in the first century, when Mark’s Gospel was written, the cross represented things that were about as far as we can imagine from religion.  It was shocking to associate crucifixion with God, a punishment of the most degrading kind, associated with the worst of criminals, as Paul attests when he talks in his letters about the cross of Christ being a “stumbling block” to people.  But as in the rest of his Gospel, in today’s passage Mark makes it clear that God’s kingdom is not what we expect it to be, and nor is Jesus.  This is a message that it’s hard for Peter and the other disciples to accept or understand.

For Jesus, it seems, is to be found not among the rich and successful, but among the poor and outcast in society, not in the centre but on the margins; not at the heart of religion, but among those whom religion shuns.  Even the dominion and glory and kingship which he will receive is turned on its head, since he receives it on the cross.  It’s a dominion which is found in the giving up of his rights; a glory which is embraced fully in suffering, and a kingship that is enthroned on the cross.

To walk the way of the cross, as we reflect on this phrase this Lent, is to deliberately place ourselves alongside those who are powerless, alongside those who have no rights, or are not treated as equal citizens.  In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been shocked to learn of the death of the Russian journalist and opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote prison camp.  This is someone who very deliberately- and bravely- chose to place himself alongside those downtrodden by absolute power, returning to his homeland to face certain arrest, imprisonment and now death so that he could more powerfully stand alongside his fellow citizens who were being oppressed, many of whom, more anonymously, helplessly and without a voice, must surely have suffered the same fate as he did.

Few of us would be capable of such bravery, but there have also been reports this week of ordinary church members in Russia who, though fearing for their safety if they spoke out, commemorated Navalny in prayers and messages on social media- risking holding “private liturgies” for him, despite quote “every possible preventive effort” by their bishops (Church Times, 23 February 2024).  And Christians across the world have joined with others this weekend to lament not just this death but also the horror and indignity of many deaths caused by the war in Ukraine on the 2 year anniversary of the war, using our freedom to take a stand for peace and to weep alongside members of the Ukrainian community who have lost so much, and to pray, with hope, for peace and an end to the suffering.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man.”  This is the one title in the Gospel that he uses of himself.  All of the others- such as “Son of God” or “Messiah” or “Christ” are used by other people of or to him.  In the Old Testament, “Son of Man” is used to describe human beings (eg Numbers 23:19) or in Daniel, the one who would go to the Ancient of Days “with the clouds” and who then received “dominion and glory and kingship,” (Daniel 7:13-14), a human being but one with a future quasi-divine messianic role which is pre-eminent before God.  But when Jesus uses this phrase of himself, it shows us something important about who is he is.  Whenever he uses it, it’s always in prophecies of his future suffering and death, like the one this morning- at the beginning of this section of Mark’s Gospel- that turns our attention to the way of the Cross.   The “dominion and glory and kingship” that he, as the Son of Man, will receive, will involve suffering as well as triumph, death as well as victory.

To take up our cross is not to engage in displays of competitive suffering, or necessarily to take on the extreme or heroic cause of a martyr.  To pick up the cross, this Lent, is simply to place ourselves alongside the helpless, those downtrodden and oppressed, and to stand with them in their suffering.

This is a way of life that calls us to daily loyalty to God, to a way of life that is both risky and challenging, costly but ultimately rewarding.  To follow Christ to the cross is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable- open to the taunts of the crowd.  To walk the way of the cross is to feel passion in our lives as disciples- to be vibrant and lively about our faith- not to be lukewarm in response to the generous gift of life we have received from God.

The way to self-fulfilment is the way of self-denial, losing one’s life in order to save it.  The significance of today’s Gospel lies in its paradoxes: I learn who I am by discovering who Jesus is.  As one commentator on this passage puts it: “Not all who have understood are giants or martyrs.  The woman who devotes her life to raising children in need of a home, the man whose faithful devotion to a mentally ill wife is quiet and steady… these are among countless thousands, who through the centuries, and in many contexts, have interpreted the text by their lives” (Lamar Williamson, Interpretation of Mark, John Knox Press, 1983, p.156-7).

The life of a disciple is a demanding one, to which Jesus invites us to commit ourselves fully.  The cross has the power to change the world.  And we, Christ’s disciples now, are invited to be the living embodiment of that transformation, as we take up our own cross in imitation of our Saviour and walk with it in our daily lives.

The cross is the altar throne of God on which the sacrifice is made, the powerful sign that stands between heaven and earth.  The cross is the emblem of the divine love, that tells the story of the way in which God has delivered us from death to life, and continues to do so.  The cross converts something that looks like defeat into victory.  The wood of the cross becomes the wood of the altar.  And as we draw near to this altar to receive the sacrament, the cross casts its shadow over us, as Jesus calls us to eat in remembrance of him and live, as we live out our calling to grow as disciples and take up the cross in Lent, Easter and beyond.