Second Sunday in Lent
March 16, 2003
The Gospel: Mark 8:31-38
Sermon: "What Does it Mean to Deny One's Self and Pick up One's Cross"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "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? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
What Does it Mean to Deny One's Self and Pick up One's Cross
Second Sunday in Lent - March 16, 2003
The time was February of 1976. The Roman Catholic priest was appointed to be the Archbishop of the country by the ruling class of fourteen families. He was not appointed because he was a great preacher. He was not appointed because he was great spiritual leader. He was appointed by these families because they believed he would not make waves. He was thought of as a solid, doctrinal priest. He would hold the status quo.
The status quo was determined by these fourteen leading and ruling families. The military and the police worked for them. Anything or anybody that threatened their system was removed and removed hard. The archbishop ran headlong into these fourteen families. At first, he did not know what was happening. Then one day his best friend, a fellow priest, was assassinated on his way to say Mass. His friend was organizing the people to protest their living and working conditions. As a result of the death of his friend, the archbishop began moving among the people. He found out that his people were oppressed economically and physically. He would be arrested. He would be beaten. He would even be thrown out of a church by the police.
In March of 1980, he called on the members of the military and the police to treat the people with respect and dignity. He called on their common humanity and their common religious beliefs to stop the oppression. As a result on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated while accepting and offering the offertory during a Mass. He was killed because he loved the poor.
The story of Oscar Romero screams at us the message of today' s gospel. What does it mean to deny one's self, to take up one's cross, and to follow Jesus? To deny one's self does not mean to give up chocolate or coffee for Lent. To deny one's self means to put the other first. To deny one's self means to put our own agendas and our own desires aside. To deny one's self means to look for God and do one's best to follow God's will in our lives.
Peter ran headlong into trouble in denying himself in the gospel lesson. Peter doesn't want Jesus to go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die. He wants the Messiah according to his wishes. He wants Jesus to arrive triumphant in Jerusalem and restore Israel. In Peter's agenda there is no room for a suffering Messiah who cares diligently for the poor and the oppressed.
In our own world we get caught like Peter. We do not often deny ourselves in order to put the other first. Our agendas and our schedules come first in our daily lives. Our plans and our needs are more important than the others. Once our plans are set we don't want to change them. If we do we upset the status quo. We can't upset others because if we upset others then we aren't being Christian.
Yet, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and our own agendas. Let's make no mistake about denying ourselves. Denying our own self-gratifying agendas is a conscious decision. It isn't done happenstance. Putting the needs of others first is a conscious decision that has to be made daily. Denying one's self will mean our own agendas, our wants and our desires come last. If we are truly honest with ourselves we don't want our desires last. We want them first. Yet, the Gospel message, the message of Christ, is that the true Christian denies themselves continually and picks up their cross to follow him.
What does Jesus mean we have to pick up our cross and follow him? We have a misconception in this world about being a Christian. We tend to think that once we accept Jesus everything in our lives will be fine. The world will be idyllic with flowers and butterflies. There will be no problems because as long as God is on our side problems will not bother us. Some people teach or have been taught that once Jesus comes into your life everything in the world is yours for the asking. Money, wellness and a host of other things will no longer be a problem. In fact, once a person accepts Jesus all of their needs will be met. In other words once we have accepted Jesus then our agendas come first.
Yet, this teaching is contrary to the words of Christ to deny ourselves. When Jesus tells us we are to take up our cross, Jesus means we are to follow in his way. We are to follow his path. On his path he was accepted by many. He was hailed as a teacher, preacher, prophet and as the Messiah. He was also ridiculed, beaten, mocked, betrayed and killed. Taking up one's cross and following Jesus means both acceptance and rejection, joy and sorrow, healing and suffering.
The reason it means both is because while we are joyful in following the way of God, the world will reject us. The world does not believe in placing the other first. The world does not believe in sacrificing one's own time, abilities or resources to help the other. The world does not want to go into the dark places of the world because we just might see ourselves. We might find ourselves saying, "There but for the grace of God, goes I." When we realize it is only God's grace that has saved us then we know, not feel, we know we are called to respond. Then when we see someone in need we respond out of love and we don't care about the consequences. And yet, thinking about the consequences is what makes us uncomfortable. We don't want to be rejected or ridiculed. We want to be accepted by all. Yet, we know deep inside full acceptance by all is not possible.
Now, I know most of what has been said makes us uncomfortable. I know this concept sounds demanding. Truthfully, it is. If we are bold enough to call ourselves Christians then we are asked by Christ to be bold enough to carry our cross. Yet, there is also great comfort. The comfort comes from knowing that our loving God goes before us. Jesus has been down this road already and prepared the way for us. No matter what happens as we carry our cross Christ is with us. Jesus is with us in our joys and laughter. Jesus is with us in the times of celebration. Jesus is also present in the times of sorrow and pain. Jesus carries us in the times of suffering. Jesus is always present with his disciples. The presence of God always with us is Jesus' promise.
Our cross is probably not as well defined as Archbishop Romero's. He was truly confronted with the needs of an oppressed people. The path was well defined and the end of his life could almost be predicted. We are called to be Christ's disciples right where we are. The calling is to deny ourselves, to carry our crosses and to follow Jesus. The promise is that Jesus will be with us every step of the way. The question we have before us on this second Sunday of Lent is do we trust God enough to follow Jesus? AMEN