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The Duvet or the Cross?

February 25, 2018

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Preached by the The Ven Dr Paul Moore, Archdeacon for Mission and Development, Winchester Diocese, using Mark 8:31-38 at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 25th February 2018, the Second Sunday of Lent.

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.”

If you are sitting comfortably, I’m sorry. Today’s Gospel is uncomfortable.

Jesus, leading his followers along the road, tells them plainly for the first time that the path he’s on will lead to his rejection, suffering and death. Peter, horrified,  takes Jesus to the side of the road. ‘A moment ago I said, “You are the Messiah.” Why are you talking about suffering and death? It makes no sense!’

Jesus looks back at the other disciples following behind, and says to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Get back in line as a disciple, stop leading me astray with your ungodly thoughts.

Mark’s Gospel is often described as an apologia for the cross, addressing how a Messiah who ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ and died a shameful death, can truly be God’s anointed. As St Paul notes, this was a huge barrier for Jews and total nonsense to Gentiles.

The earliest depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion is a cartoon crudely scratched onto a wall in Rome around 200AD. It shows a crucified figure with a donkey’s head and  another figure standing with one arm raised in homage. The caption reads ‘Alexamenos worships his God.’ What fools these Christians are to worship a hero who died on a cross!

But this is the road the Christ must follow to open for us the way to life in all its fullness.

The second half of our reading brings more discomfort.

Jesus gathers the crowd and speaks to all would be disciples. ‘If anyone wants to become a follower of me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.’

If we weren’t so familiar with this verse, we’d find it deeply shocking. Remember that Jesus hasn’t told them how he will die. There’s no mention of a ‘cross’ until now. The road all followers of Jesus must travel (all – with no exceptions, not just the most saintly) is one of self-denial, giving/losing your life for Jesus’ cause in order to gain/win life with him. And the startling image Jesus uses for every disciple is a condemned criminal shouldering the cross-beam on the way to execution.

To many listening this would have been a familiar and terrible sight. In AD 6, Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Romans, which was mercilessly crushed. The crosses on which the rebels were killed were said to have lined the road out of Nazareth as far as the eye could see.

If you saw someone carrying a cross, you knew they were finished, heading one way, without any alternative. This is how Jesus depicts the self-denial and commitment of anyone who wants to follow him, seeking God’s Kingdom of God.

Doesn’t this sound rather extreme, if not extremist? Christian discipleship as a process of radicalization, albeit for a peaceful revolution.

Perhaps Jesus is exaggerating for rhetorical effect, like when he says you must hate your family to be his follower, and you should cut off your hand if it causes you to sin. Possibly, but Jesus knew he was heading for a real not a metaphorical cross. The way of self-sacrifice and suffering that our Teacher takes is the road all followers of Jesus must also follow. Give your all to gain the treasure.

I wonder how our discipleship measures up to this standard?

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, chaplain to the troops in the trenches during the First World  War, wrote about how we prefer to replace the cross of Christianity with a cushion. We expect to receive comfort for ourselves from our faith, not strength to endure hardship and suffering.

In the years leading up to the Second World War, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote prophetically in The Cost of Discipleship about the Church’s tendency towards ‘cheap grace’, ‘grace without discipleship, without the cross’ which renders the Church ineffective, ‘accommodating the demands of obedience to Jesus to the requirements of society.’

Not taking up the cross. Taking up your duvet.

Are you sitting uncomfortably? It’s time for some good news from this Gospel. I find huge comfort and encouragement in the way Peter is depicted without any air-brushing. He’s an example both of how to be a disciple and how not to be a disciple. He misunderstands, impulsively says the wrong thing, his faith wobbles when tested, he can be violent and, of course, he denies Jesus three times. On the other hand he speaks truly that Jesus is the Messiah. He responds to Jesus’ call and genuinely wants to follow and serve him faithfully to the end, but in practice finds he’s weak and lacking.

Yet, by the grace of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter, with all his faults and failures, grows as a disciple and disciple maker who followed Jesus even to death. If God can make a disciple of someone like Peter, he can do the same with you and me.

And let me recommend a way in which we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit’s work of making us more like Jesus. Many Christians value having a Rule of Life, a pattern for daily discipleship that helps us form holy and healthy habits of worship, prayer, service and  rest. If you don’t have a Rule of Life, I recommend you explore our Diocesan Rule of Life, called ‘Sharing God’s life.’ Resources for adults, youth and families are on the Diocesan website.

Jesus did not say: ‘Please yourself, take up your duvet and go wherever you wish.’

Jesus said, ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.’

This is basic discipleship, following our suffering Messiah in the way of the cross: ‘Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps’ (1 Peter 2:21).

So what will we choose today, tomorrow, for the rest of our lives – the comfort of the duvet or the discomfort of the cross?