The following is a reflection on Mark 8:31-38, the Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For us, living after the crucifixion and resurrection, this text makes sense. We probably don’t even flinch.
For those of us who are, perhaps, already thinking about our Good Friday liturgies and sermons, this text has clear meaning. And, I think it had the same clear meaning for Mark’s first audience: Just as Jesus bore his cross, the trajectory of our lives of faith must be similar.
We have our cross to bear too. And when we bear that cross, we become more and more like the One who bore the cross on Calvary. And, that is the point of a life of faith.
However, just because we get it—and because Mark’s audience around 70 AD got it—does that mean that Jesus’ first listeners got it?
Did the people standing around hearing Jesus start to talk about his death and suffering have any clue that he would die on such a horrific instrument of tortuous death? Could they even conceive that this teacher, rabbi, healer, preacher, exorcist, and Godly man would meet such a grisly end?
Of course not.
And so, before they could even begin to wrap their heads around his death, Jesus tells THEM that they have to “take up their cross.” When Jesus says this here, a long time before Golgotha, these words would have had to sting and confuse the ears of his listeners.
Take up our cross? What cross? Oh, you mean a cross of crucifixion? The instrument of death for a slave?
There are some who clearly want to toss this passage in the historical-Jesus-didn’t-say-this bin. They may be right. This verse hardly makes sense pre-crucifixion.
And yet…we could argue about that…or, we could imagine the sheer linguisitic power that he was conjuring up to make his real point here:
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.
When you follow Jesus it means putting your own self-survival in the backseat. The first act of following Jesus is totally re-ordering your priorities and principles to the way of the Kingdom. It’s no longer about saving your life.
Following Jesus means that your priority is to lose your life.
And, what better way to talk about that than the cross. It’s an instrument where not only are you condemned to a tortuous death, but you’re also succumbing to a dishonorable death. A slave’s death. A death that even the Hebrew Bible calls “accursed.”
On the cross you don’t just lose your life, but you do so in a wholly unfashionable way.
You lose everything. Life. Honor. Pride.
But, Jesus says that in such a loss everything is, in fact, gained.
And, just in case Jesus’ first audience didn’t get it—because they were scandalized at the thought of dropping those last few pitiful rungs on the societal ladder—Jesus himself follows this up with showing them how it’s done.
How to lose. And how to triumph. For God and His Kingdom.