Brief synopsis of the readings: Near the end of the book of Isaiah we read him saying he made no resistance to those who struck him, tore at his beard, and spit on him. The Lord will protect him and he will experience victory in the end. In Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus asking his disciples who he is. Peter responded by telling him that he is the Christ and Jesus ordered them not to tell this to anyone. He went on to say that the Son of Man would suffer rejection by those in power before being put to death only to rise on the third day. Peter then criticized Jesus and Jesus rebuked him. He then instructed his followers that to follow him they will need to take up his own cross. “For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In the course of reading Scripture we sometimes see passages that made perfect sense to Jesus’ immediate followers but horrify us. Exhibit A: Paul’s letter to the Ephesians where Paul instructs wives to submit to their husbands. At other times we read passages that barely register with us that must have horrified those who heard Jesus’ words.
When Jesus told his disciples that anyone who follows him must “take up his cross” I can only imagine the looks of horror he must have seen. Here in the 2000 years after Jesus many of us wear crosses as jewelry and speak easily of the suffering in terms of “carrying your cross.”
But Christians didn’t use the cross as a symbol until the early 400s, nearly a century after the Roman Empire outlawed crucifixion as a form of execution. Crucifixion wasn’t simply a method of putting someone to death: it was reserved for the worst offenses by the lowest of classes and was meant to terrify those who considered similar crimes. And the Romans of Jesus’ time crucified Jesus to ensure that none of his followers said what he said or did what he did. Jesus’ demand to follow him to the cross must have terrified them, particularly when many of them saw Jesus as a route to the good life.
On that subject, several years ago I had the opportunity to volunteer as a prison chaplain at a maximum security state prison. Inmates there felt great pressure to join a gang based on their race, otherwise they felt unprotected from random violence. I spoke with a young, white inmate who felt the pressure to join a white supremacist gang though he didn’t want to. Instead he told the other inmates that he decided to become a Christian instead. The gang members accepted his decision but told him that they were watching him. He needed to prove to them that he was sincere and any deviation from his conversion would cost him. They made it clear that he needed not only to “talk the talk” but he also needed to “walk the walk.”
As you can imagine I celebrated his decision and promised my support. The next time I saw him he looked depressed. When I asked him about it he told me that, without sharing the details, he had a tough week. He didn’t understand this because “I gave my life to Jesus and I expected him to protect me.” It took a while but I was able to explain to him that choosing to become Christian didn’t mean that his life going forward would be devoid of suffering. Instead I was able to talk with him that his suffering would be accompanied by strength given to him by God and he needed to see suffering in that light.
I’ve thought about him often and one day I came to a new understanding in my life as a hospice chaplain. I came into my role expecting to care for people at the end of their lives when they didn’t want to die. I expected that much of my ministry would center on helping people accept their diagnosis and fate.
I was wrong. With few exceptions I found that my patients were more than ready to die, and were in fact tired of waiting for it to happen. Most of the time they were simply sick and tired of being sick and tired. They hated the fact that simple tasks were either difficult or impossible, and while they didn’t know what awaited them they were ready.
They taught me an important lesson. When faced with an uncertain future they were given the strength to face it with an increase in grace and courage. Of the many lessons I learned, I learned not to fear the end of my life.
So many times I’ve written that our choice to follow Christ calls us to act with courage and I do believe that. But that doesn’t mean that we face these decisions alone and can only hope that God will approve of our courage after the fact. We need to understand that we can rely on God’s help during tough times.
These readings call us to recognize that our call to discipleship doesn’t mean that we are alone. God’s support may come to us through the support of another person, or through a strong feeling of love, or through a random good event. I once felt I needed to make a statement at a meeting that I knew wouldn’t be heard well. I spent a few minutes asking myself “what would Gandhi do?” I thought of the times Gandhi stood up, even when his voice quavered, and spoke his truth and that gave me the courage to speak mine. I’d like to tell you that my voice won the day and everyone agreed with me. But it got the attention of a few people on the committee who, in subsequent meetings, treated me with an increased respect. And, more to the point, my words didn’t make me an outcast.
The call to discipleship doesn’t mean our lives will be easy or that our call will always be heard. But it does mean that we never stand alone.