Ashamed of the cross

Posted: February 25, 2018 in Uncategorized

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

It’s said that every political career ends in failure
Certainly that’s true in a democracy
A career ends when the electorate or your own MPs or your party members in the constituencies turn against you
When the pressures of the latest crisis, the latest policy mistake, the latest scandal tip the balance against survival

One moment, Margaret Thatcher was saying “ten more years”; the next, she was gone
Winston Churchill, revered as a wartime leader, could not survive in the politics of peacetime

Nehemiah sounds like the name of a prophet
He had a strong sense of God’s calling to do the work he did

But he was also a politician; a high official in Artaxerxes’ court
Who was sent to the province of Judah as its governor (though we are not told this until much later)
Like every politician, he had his opponents and he had his enemies

When we studied a passage from Nehemiah earlier, we heard about some of the struggles he had to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls
Why was it so important to rebuild the walls?
Because God had chosen the city of Jerusalem to be the place of his special presence on earth
The city at the heart of the Promised Land

The Jews had believed Jerusalem could never be destroyed
Right up until the moment the Babylonians marched up and destroyed it
And then marched all the richer inhabitants off into exile

The destruction of the city was God’s punishment for the Jewish nation’s sin
So for Nehemiah, to rebuild the walls and repopulate the city is to remove the signs of their humiliation
To tell the whole world, you cannot mock us or triumph over us any longer – God has restored us

He says to the people, Come, let us build the wall, that we may no longer suffer derision (Nehemiah 2.17)
When he prays, he says, Hear, O our God, for we are despised (Nehemiah 4.4)

Shame is also the theme of our gospel reading today
Jesus says, to the crowd and his disciples, 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 (Mark 8.38)

Who is Jesus speaking to?
You could say, he’s speaking to every individual in the crowd
It’s an invitation to leave the crowd behind, to ignore what other people say, and come to him

You could say, he’s speaking to the disciples
He’s saying, my teachings are hard for people to accept, and opposition is only going to increase
Heed my warning, because I know you’ll be tempted to desert me

But mostly, Jesus is speaking to one person – Peter
Because Peter is the only one in this passage who actually tries to silence Jesus

Peter rebukes Jesus, and in turn is rebuked
What is it that Jesus says that day, that Peter finds so hard to accept?

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 (Mark 8.31)
In other places where Jesus prophesies his death he speaks only to his disciples, and he warns them to keep silent
But in this scene, in the presence of a crowd, he says these things
quite openly (Mark 8.32)

Why does Peter rebuke Jesus? Because he thinks Jesus has lost the plot – literally
Jesus is talking in a way that does not fit the story Peter has been telling himself
He is talking what sounds like nonsense

What story has Peter been telling himself?
It’s a story that never quite comes to the crunch

In Peter’s version, perhaps the disciples and Jesus go on travelling around the country together
Jesus goes on teaching and working miracles
There is opposition and suspicion from the authorities, but not too much

But now Jesus says quite openly that his story is about to reach a crisis
He also tells the people around him if they want to be accepted, they must go all the way with him
They must take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8.34)

It’s an ultimatum – that’s obvious – but it’s not clear what Jesus is actually asking
He demands a commitment, from people who can hardly begin to guess what that commitment might be

With Nehemiah, it looks quite simple
Nehemiah tries to remove his nation’s disgrace by rebuilding a city
It’s a difficult task, but people know what it involves
Taking up your cross and following Jesus is much harder to understand

But one thing is very clear – the end Jesus prophesies for himself looks very much like defeat
To be arrested, to be tortured, to be hung on a cross like a traitor or a rebel, is nothing like the end Peter was hoping for
It seems like nothing heroic – nothing but humiliation, and indescribable pain

Peter is ashamed – and so he deserves the warning Jesus gives
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 (Mark 8.38)

To Nehemiah, restoration is rebuilding, obliterating the signs of disgrace, putting things back as they were
Jesus offers something every different
Jesus tells anyone who wants to follow him, salvation means letting go of everything
It means suffering the ultimate defeat, the ultimate disgrace
You won’t even know if it was worth it, until the very end – until a point beyond the end, until the resurrection

Anyone can believe in the cross, if by the cross we mean two pieces of wood nailed together and erected by a roadside or on a hill
Crucifixion is the most brutal fact of Roman justice, exhibited in plain sight to every passer-by

To believe in the resurrection, before the fact, is much more difficult
In fact, almost impossible
No one around Jesus, at that moment, is capable of that faith
That’s why at the climactic moment, as Jesus is arrested, they make their escape

To believe in Jesus, you must take up your cross
The only way you will know the meaning of the cross is by living it

You have to go all the way with Jesus – all the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, to get to the resurrection
You can’t stop short, you can’t go round – not even to save yourself

It sounds like madness, and Paul admits the difficulty in 1 Corinthians:
we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1Co 1.23)

The lesson of the Easter story is that one fine day, faith comes to a crunch
There is a moment we have to commit to the truth of the gospel
That Jesus was obedient to the Father, to the point of death on a cross – however crazy that seems

He calls us to walk that same path, of willing sacrifice
To own Christ and all his blessings, we have to own the cross

The world would like us to deny Jesus
They would like us to deny the defeat and the humiliation, as well as the loaves and the fishes and the miracles of healing
The first step in denying Jesus is to deny the cross

If we deny the truth of the story of the cross, then we deny the resurrection
If we deny the resurrection, we deny the need for the resurrection
Which means, we deny the problem of sin – the reason Jesus came

If there was no sin, if no one needed forgiveness, Jesus didn’t need to come at all – we don’t need a Saviour
And if we don’t need a Saviour, because there’s no sin, then there’s no God

In other words, if we deny the cross, we deny everything
But we preach Christ crucified – as Paul did
And in everything we do as a church, especially in Lent and over Easter, we preach the need to take up our own cross, and follow Jesus faithfully, to the end

25 February 2018, St Cuthbert’s, Heaton

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