by Justin Eller
We are a bunch of idol-worshiping people. We are idolatrous Christians who worship the idol reflected in the mirror of pride and self-interests. This mirror arrests our focus so that we're only aware of our selves, our lives, our visions of ministry and missing the radical freedom of God's plan here and now. We want to be faithful, but we're captivated by our reflection and our gaze is locked somewhere other than facing the cross. The very nature of the mirror is that it comes between us and Jesus.
Take for example, Peter's sporadic rebuke after Jesus delivered his first death and resurrection prophesy. No sooner had the words plainly left Jesus' lips that Peter yanked him aside and sternly ordered: "STOP IT! Do... do you know what you just said? What possessed you to say such a thing in front of everybody so nonchalantly?" With one hand cemented on the mirror and the other hand out stretched, trying to keep Jesus from following the will of God, all Peter wanted to think about was how things were, not how things were going to be. In one swift turn on his heels, Jesus lurched his arm out of Peter's grip and seeing his disciples, rebuked Peter with a harsh dose of grace and reality-check: "Your focus is not on God's interests, but your own reflection!" Calling to the crowds, Jesus quite plainly spelled out the new understanding of what it means to follow behind him: deny, renounce, put yourself aside and take up your cross
Too often we ignore or feel imprisoned by these tough words. But this doesn't have to be so because Jesus offers them to us as invitations to witness God's rule, God's plan playing out in the misery and hope of the cross. But even before we can accept the realities of renouncing ourselves and bearing the cross, we recognize we are never forced, nor expected to follow. Jesus reiterates our freedom: "IF ANY WANT TO BE MY FOLLOWERS... if any choose to follow after me you are choosing my call, which includes suffering with me for God's mission, drinking from my cup of rejection, and possibly losing your life for my sake... my call includes turning back to God and bearing the weight of your cross."
But it's that faithful idol-worshiper deep within us who struggles to be put aside, screaming out: "wait...I want to follow you Jesus, but I don't want all the suffering of being a Christian. I want to follow you, but I don't want to say anything when I see injustice. I want to follow you, but I don't want to forgive those who've publicly humiliated me and hurt my family. I want to follow you, but I don't want to commit to being part of a community who might challenge me with love. I want to follow you, but I got to tell you if your mission ain't like my ministry... I don't know if I can do it."
Jesus hears our rebuttals to putting ourselves aside and simply says, "I know. Get back behind me, for your mind is not on divine things, but on human things." Lord knows we can't deny our own self because we're captivated by our reflection in the mirror. He knows denying ourselves is a process that happens over time, not overnight. And he rebukes our shaky rebuttals by shattering our idol-mirror with his weakness and grace and comes even closer to us, asking us to bear the cross with him.
From the earliest disciples to us here today, we still find it tough to accept Jesus' invitation to denial, and while we're not forced, the undeniable reality of following Jesus is that we suffer for his cross. IF we have responded to God's call, we have been given this cross condition. Brother Bonhoeffer, who knew first-hand what it meant to suffer the cross of Christ and yet kept following, echoing from history that "the cross is not suffering that stems from natural existence, but rather it is suffering that comes from being a Christian. The cross is suffering with Christ," he proclaims, "whenever Jesus calls us, his call leads to death."
A friend of mine slowly recognized the reality of his Christian cross when he heard those fateful words: "Pastor, there's some things we think you should know. Over the past couple of years we believe the synod has been led astray and we strongly disagree with what's going on in the greater church. We're tired of you encouraging us to do those studies and talk about what we don't need to talk about, you know that homosexuality issue. We think you should know that some of us from council and other concerned parishioners have been meeting privately and we've decided it's time for you to leave. We'll wait for your resignation." As this strong, faithful pastor sat in front of me recounting his story through tears, he was reduced to the weakness of a rejected child. He was beside himself with grief because he had tried to make plain God's reconciling love by just getting his congregation to talk. And now he bears his rejected cross and death of his call because he remained faithful to Christ's radical love for all people.
The cross is not suffering that stems from natural existence, but rather it is suffering that comes from being a Christian. The cross terrifies us and we tremble as rejection rips through our body, leaving spiritual and emotional pain. The cross is taking up Jesus' cause, knowing full well that we are not alone and we bear the suffering of the cross as a community! Think for a moment about what makes you want to flee the coming rejection, humiliation, and possible death resulting from your vocation or ministry? What is it that causes you to run the other way when Jesus calls your name? For that very well may be your cross.
Lent is the time we pause and hear God calling our name again; when we slow down enough to feel the weight of our cross. Maybe our cross is the end a life we once knew when God calls us to the far edges of the world to minister in a new context. Maybe it's the disillusionment that grows as budgets are cut and finances are strained. Maybe it's when a congregation doesn't accept us because we preach the good news and not a message of hate or a prosperity gospel. Maybe the cross is hopelessness when God's redemption is hidden in a lost job and God whispers in our heart: "I know... I still love you...I'm here under this cross with you...and this is not the end of our story!"
The sweet taste of resurrection comes to us when we've tasted the sour depths of self-denial and the bitterness of bearing our cross. Only when God's face over powers our idol reflection can you do the unthinkable of totally trusting in God's plan, only then can you place one foot in front of the other and hold fast to Christ. But it came to the disciples and it comes every time to us, the fragrant aroma of the Jesus' purest love that counters the dusty stench of dragging our cross and brings renewed strength to our trembling discipleship. The prediction that Jesus will rise again after three days comes to us as the promise of new life. Because our lives will be saved if they're lost for Christ's sake and the sake of the gospel, we indeed have hope; we indeed have the promise of resurrection. The promise is that in the freedom of putting ourselves aside and the task of suffering with Christ, we will see the birth of a new day, a new plan and we will arise from our Lenten crawl and stand upright in the dawn of life abundant. From there, we shall see the gift of the cross road: resurrection.
Mark 8: 31-35