The Centrality of the Cross (A Sermon)

The Cross at the Center (Mark 9:2-13; OT reading, 2 Kings 2:1-12)

Thomas Tewell, the Pastor of Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church in NY City, tells about visiting a large church in another part of the world. He said it was a great worship experience and he was blessed by the service, but as he looked around, on the inside, outside, in their church literature, he couldn’t find a cross. Afterwards, he went to see one of the pastors. He said, “I love your worship, I love what’s going on here. But I’m missing the cross. Is there a cross in here anywhere?” The pastor whispered to him, “The cross doesn’t market well in this culture, so we don’t say a lot about it.” That evening Pastor Tewell wrote in his journal, “Am I into marketing or ministry?”

In the conversation down the mountain Jesus links mystical experience to costly discipleship. This brief glimpse of glory on the mountain of transfiguration is inseparably connected to Jesus’ suffering and death. In Luke’s version, the subject of discussion on the mountain is Jesus’ death. These two scenes—Jesus’ announcement of his death and the experience on the mountain—form a pair.

In the scene prior to the mountain revelation, it is clear that the disciples are not ready to hear about Jesus’ suffering and death. Peter, no doubt speaking on behalf of the group, rebukes Jesus for bringing up the subject. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Then Jesus tells them that if they are to be his disciples, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. He tells them that they will have to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel.

But the disciples cannot hear it. They are in denial. So Jesus takes three of them, Peter, James, and John, upon the mountain and is transfigured before them. Perhaps Jesus sensed that if any of the twelve could understand, then these three might.

A cloud overshadows them and Jesus appears in dazzling radiance. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, are there to bear witness to Jesus, who occupies the center stage. No new information is imparted. The Voice declares, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him!” The Voice is telling them to open their minds and hearts, to hear what Jesus has just told them about the inevitability of his death and the necessity of walking in the way of the cross.

Do they listen? Do they get it? A little later Jesus announces his death once again. And as soon as he tells them a second time that he is going to suffer and die, the disciples get in an argument over who is the greatest. Then, a little later Jesus announces a third time that he will be rejected and killed, and shortly thereafter James and John, two of the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration, ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right when he brings in the kingdom. 

How did they not get it? How could they not understand? The same way we don’t get it. The same way that our minds and hearts are drawn after other things.

A group was touring the Leader Dogs for the Blind Institute in Rochester, Michigan. They were shown the dogs and taken through the process of how blind people are matched with dogs to help them manage and get along in life. Someone asked their guide if it was difficult to train people to rely on the dog. He said it sometimes was. He said that the most difficult people to train for the Seeing Eye dogs are people who have limited vision. They may be legally blind, but they have some vision. And because they see a little bit, they rely on the little bit they see rather than on the dog trained to be their eyes. They want to trust themselves rather than the dog.

I wonder if one of the reasons we have such a difficult time accepting and pursuing the way of the cross is because we want to trust and pursue what we see and know, what is familiar to us. So we keep trying to frame the gospel around our picture of life, around our terms and conditions shaped by our culture. The message of the cross, the message of suffering, surrender, and death, is a hard message to accept, let alone market to the spiritual public. No wonder the church that Rev. Tewell visited removed all signs of the cross.

The message of the cross and Jesus’ radical call to discipleship sounds so anti-American. It sounds like a message for losers. It’s so anti-establishment, so anti-capitalistic, so anti-imperialistic, so anti-individualistic. And when you do see it; when you do get it, it’s a terrible thorn in the flesh. There are days, sisters and brothers, when I wish I hadn’t got it. There are days when I say, “My God, I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to live this way.” If a person has never struggled with this, then it’s not likely they understand the gospel of the cross.

Jesus said that you have to lose your life in order to save it. I don’t want to lose my life, do you? I don’t want to suffer. I don’t want to deny myself the right to claim honor or power or prestige. I don’t want to give up the desire for recognition and applause. I surely don’t want to bear the wrath of the powers that be. I don’t want to challenge the egotism and legalism and elitism of the establishment. I don’t want to give up my stuff or give away my stuff; I want to keep my stuff and get more stuff, don’t you? The pastor was right: the cross doesn’t sell; it’s not very marketable.

It’s no wonder we have turned the gospel into something more palatable and appealing. It’s no wonder the gospel of success and prosperity is so popular. We want the gospel to be about the good life, about self-fulfillment, not self-denial, about success, not surrender, about bigness and greatness and glory. When the church industry was booming in this country it was all about bigger budgets, bigger buildings, bigger and  bigger.

No wonder Peter wanted to build shelters on top of the mountain. He wanted to stay there basking in the glory. He didn’t want to have to think about suffering, self-denial, and death. We want to live on the mountain. We want our spirituality, our Christianity, our faith to be about the glory. If not the glory of this life, then at least the glory of the afterlife, about the sweet by-and-by, the glory of being caught up and carried away to a heavenly land beyond this world.

I have no doubt that there is glory ahead, that the life that awaits us will be glorious, though I have no idea what that will entail. And I suspect that in a secondary sense the transfiguration offers a preview of the resurrection and the coming of the Son of Man in glory. But that is not what the gospel of Jesus is about. Jesus’ resurrection was as much about vindication of his death as it was about any kind of preview of life to come. There can be no glory without the cross. Jesus had to go through Good Friday to get to Easter, and so do we. That is the journey of discipleship, of losing life in order to find life.

Even those of us who talk about the cross have a real tough time living it. I can bear witness, sisters and brothers, it’s a lot easier to preach the cross than live the cross.

There is a scene in Huckleberry Finn when Huck comes to live with the Grangerfords for a while. At the time, the Grangerfords are feuding with the Shepherdsons. The two families had been fighting each other for thirty years and they go to the same church. To leave the church, I guess, would be to admit defeat, so they go to the same church. The men of the two families take their guns into the church building and stand them between their knees or prop them against the wall within convenient reach.

The sermon that day is about brotherly love. Huck says it was pretty “ornery preaching,” all that preaching about brotherly love. On the way home, Huck observes how everybody talked about how the sermon “had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordination” and a bunch of other stuff that Huck didn’t understand. Yet, come Monday morning, everyone went back to fussing and feuding and fighting. It’s difficult to sustain a gospel lifestyle that is oriented around brotherly and sisterly love, let alone a lifestyle centered on the cross.

In the transfiguration scene, this is the second time Jesus is revealed to the readers of Mark’s Gospel as the Son of God. The first occurs at Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens part, the dove descends, and the heavenly Voice says to Jesus, “You are my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Here at the Transfiguration, the Voice affirms a second time, “This is my Beloved Son. Listen to him.” The third time that Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God is at the cross. But at the cross there is no Voice from heaven. The heavens do not part, there is no heavenly cloud, no descending dove, no Moses or Elijah, and no dazzling radiance.

At the cross the Voice of God speaks through a Roman centurion, who was responsible for carrying out the crucifixion. When Jesus finally breathes his last breath, the Roman centurion declares, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.” Mark opens his gospel by saying, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And here at the end comes a final witness by the man responsible for carrying out the execution 

This final revelation is the most difficult to believe and accept: That Jesus reveals himself to be God’s Son by surrendering to the cross. It’s no wonder that so many Christians have turned the cross into some kind of cosmic transaction of judicial forgiveness whereby God’s wrath or holiness is satisfied or propitiated. It’s no wonder we have made it some sort of legal transaction about the payment of a debt.

Why was Jesus killed? Jesus’ devotion to the reign of God on earth made the cross inevitable. Jesus’ embodiment of radical grace and his call for radical discipleship, his table fellowship with outcasts and commitment to human need over ritual purity, his identification with the poor and call for justice and liberation for the oppressed, his teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation, his call to die to the ego and be clothed with humility and compassion, his demand that we love our enemies——all of that and more exposed and provoked the wrath of the powers that be. It sparked their fear, exposed their falsehood, and ignited their animosity and hate.

According to Mark’s presentation of the good news, there is no gospel, there is no salvation, there is no conversion without the cross. The cross is at the center. The main purpose of mountain top encounters with glory, of mystical experiences of the Divine, if we are fortunate enough to have one, is to help us accept the path of discipleship that leads to the cross.

The Apostle Paul clearly understood this. This is why he said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the cross is to Jews a scandal and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those of us being saved by the cross, being changed by the cross, it is the power and wisdom of God (1:24). In writing to the Philippians, Paul says that his passion, his goal, is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection through sharing in his sufferings and being conformed to his death (Phil 3:10). Paul clearly understood that the only was to enter into the transformative power of the resurrection is by way of the cross, by sharing in Christ’s sufferings and being conformed to his death. I don’t think that message will ever draw big crowds; it will never be very marketable, but that is certainly the message of the gospel according to Mark.

In the Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 2, Elisha wanted to experience the power and presence of the spirit of Elijah. He so wanted it that he refused to leave Elijah’s side. How much do we want to share in the Spirit of Christ? Are we willing to stay with Jesus all the way to the cross? I probably needed this sermon as much as anyone, and the question I keep asking myself is, “How far am I willing to go?”

Gracious God, help us to understand that the gospel of glory and the gospel of the cross are one and the same; that in the spiritual world, the real world, there is no glory without the cross. The struggle that was going in Mark’s church about following Jesus in the way of the cross is our struggle too. We wrestle with it the way Jesus did in Gethsemane. We don’t want to drink that cup, and yet we know that it is the path of discipleship, the path that leads to life. We know that we have to lose our lives in order to find our lives, but we don’t want to lose our lives. Maybe we can give up something for Lent, but lose are whole lives for your cause, for your kingdom’s sake——that’s too much for us, Lord. Be patient with us. Guide us through this struggle. Give us grace to fight the good fight of faith, the fight that is going on within us this very moment at the prospect of taking up our cross and following Jesus. Help us to overcome. Give us the grace to say “Yes” to both our Lord’s invitation to enter the world of unconditional love and to accept our Lord’s radical call to discipleship. Amen. 


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