“Take Up Your Cross?” Oh, That’s Hard!

~ Mark 8:27-38 ~

Here is a story about a couple of the lesser-known disciples, Thaddaeus, and his pal, Bartholomew who was hard of hearing.

The weary followers of Jesus have been all over the map. In past weeks they traveled way north to Tyre then south to the region west of the Sea of Galilee known as the Decapolis. Then they came to Bethsaida on the north side of the sea. Now they find themselves on the way again this time north to the city of Caesarea Philippi, named by the tetrarch Herod Philip in honor of the Roman Caesar and, of course, himself. Thaddaeus and Bartholomew bring up the rear as they make their way along.

“Why can’t we just stay in one place for awhile, Thaddaeus? Being on the road everyday is killing my feet. My sandals are almost worn out.”

“I know what you mean, Bartholomew. The Master seems to have an impatient spirit that is driving him. He acts like he is on a mission. I just wish I could figure out what it is.”

“Yeah, Thaddaeus, he keeps telling us that we don’t understand. And he’s right! I don’t understand. I guess I’ll just keep following him until I do figure it out.”

“Shh, Bartholomew, I think Jesus just ask us all a question. Let’s catch up and see what’s going on.”

“What did he say, Thaddaeus?”

“He said, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ Now this should be interesting.” “Yeah, that’s right. That’s what we’ve heard”

‘What, Thaddaeus? What have we heard?”

“Oh, Bartholomew, you know. Some say he is John the Baptist come back from the dead. Some say he is Elijah incarnate. Some say he is one of the other prophets. People have all kinds of ideas…Wait! Jesus is asking another question.”

“Come on, Thaddaeus, tell me what he said.”

“He said, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Well now we’re getting to it! Maybe will get some answers to our questions, Bartholomew.”

“Right on, Peter! That’s what we want to hear. That’s what we all know. You are the Messiah! You are the Christ! Yeah, right!

[Now those of us listening to this story already know that this is the correct answer. You see the storyteller, Mark, told us this in the introduction to his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God.” So we could say with Thaddaeus: “Right on, Peter!” But wait…]

“Bartholomew, what is going on here? Why is Jesus upset? Why is he telling us all to shut up? Why is he telling us so sternly to not tell anyone about him?”

“I know, Thaddaeus. We want everyone to know that Jesus is the one all of Israel has been waiting for, hoping for, these many years. Finally, the one who will run the Romans out of town and restore Israel and the temple to its ultimate glory. The Messiah, the champion of Israel – That is who we are following, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, you’re right, Bartholomew. I just don’t understand this man. Glory is ours to be had and he’s telling us to shut up. Look, he’s sitting down. Let’s get closer so we can get the real scoop.”

[And so as they got closer, Jesus began to tell them the real scoop. It is not what they expected to hear, nor is it what they wanted to hear.]

“Bartholomew, did you hear that? He’s using that Son of Man title again. I know Son of Man is an honorable title, coming from the prophet Daniel and all, but it’s as if he is rejecting the title of Messiah. Oh, no! What is he saying? He says he necessarily must undergo great suffering. He says he is going to be rejected by the temple authorities, the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. Now I don’t like those guys anymore than the next guy. They are so arrogant. They’re power mongers if you ask me. And certainly Jesus has had his run-ins with them, but Jesus is supposed to be triumphant, not suffer…. Bartholomew, he just said he’s going to be killed by them! That can’t be! Not to our Messiah.”

[Now we know that Jesus also said he would rise again after three days. But given the shocking statement about being killed, I don’t think Thaddaeus, nor any of the others, heard that. Let’s continue…]

“He is saying this so matter of fact, like it’s inevitable. Look at how openly he says this for anyone to hear. And now look. Peter is taking him aside. Maybe Peter can straighten him out. This talk is scaring us all. Look! Peter is really getting in his face. This is incredible.”

“Bartholomew, now Jesus is really upset. Wait! He is going to say something to all of us”

“Thaddaeus, you don’t have to tell me what Jesus just said, I heard well enough for myself. He just called Peter Satan and told him to go away.”

“That’s what he said, Bartholomew. He’s making Peter out to be worse than those temple scribes we despise so much. Peter is Satan? I’m glad I didn’t tell Jesus what I thought of what he said. Jesus is claiming that Peter has the wrong agenda based on human thinking and not on Godly thinking. Hey, I thought we were on God’s side! Man, this is confusing! I just don’t get it!”

In their great confusion, the disciples along with everyone else who happened to be there heard what Jesus’ agenda really was. As part of Mark’s story, we have arrived at the center of the issue. Jesus says he is going to get arrested and be executed. And being executed by the Romans meant only one thing –  the cross, a most cruel and torturous way to die. And it was the Roman practice that the condemned would carry their own cross to the place of execution.

So, when Jesus says that if you want to follow me you must take up your cross, that is exactly what his befuddled disciples pictured in their minds. Thaddaeus and Bartholomew, and all the rest of the disciples really had a hard time with all of this. As Mark tells it, they spend the rest of the story “not getting it” despite Jesus’ efforts to explain it to them several times.

And, sadly, the church ever since has continued to just ‘not get it’. No, it’s worse than that. (Here I ask that you listen carefully as you may not have encountered this idea before.) The idea of the cross has devolved into a theology of suffering to justify oppression and abuse. Jesus’ call of “taking up one’s cross” has been used by oppressors throughout history to compel oppressed people to passively and patiently endure abuse and violence rather than resist. People in power have too readily used this rhetoric to maintain the oppressive status quo.

It impacts intimate relationships as well. When abuse occurs in spousal relationships, how often have Christian ministers counseled the abused spouse to “bear their cross,” be “like Jesus,” as if passive acceptance of the abuse might turn the abuser around. The abused are told to suffer “like Jesus.”

In other words, traditional Christian theology has turned the cross into a theology of suffering that is not redemptive, not life-giving. Because Jesus died on a cross and because Jesus calls us also to “take up our cross” the teaching has enforced and reinforced an acceptance of suffering at the hands of oppressors as what Jesus would want us to do. Let me tell you: I reject such a theology, such a practice of Christian faith.

Rather, influenced by feminist and womanist scholars, I have come to believe that “taking up one’s cross” is not a call to passive, patient endurance of violence, be it culturally systemic or intimately relational oppression and abuse. Instead, it is a call to take hold of life and stand up against injustice even if there is a threat for doing so. “Taking up one’s cross” is not a call to passively suffer, but to protest even if the powers that be, the status quo, threaten to do you harm if you do protest, if you do speak out.

I think it is fair to say that when Jesus told his disciples he was going to Jerusalem and there be executed and then told them to take up their crosses, he was inviting them to participate in his journey. However, I don’t believe that suffering on a cross was intrinsic to following him. Suffering only enters the story because one is willing to confront and protest the threat imposed by those in power. In this case, the Romans and the leaders of the temple who were complicit with the Romans. Suffering only enters the story because to follow Jesus’ new vision, his new “Kingdom of God” vision, meant challenging oppressors and the status quo. His was not a call to be passive in the face of suffering, but a call to protest and resist even in the face of being threatened with a cross.

In the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship, “taking up one’s cross” means being willing to endure the results of disrupting, confronting, resisting, and protesting injustice. Make no mistake about it, the cross in Jesus’ story is a symbol of state violence, used to threaten protestors to scare them into being passive and accept their suffering.

Womanist scholars, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, in their essay, God So Loved the World?, put it this way: “It is not acceptance of suffering that gives life; it is commitment to life that gives life. The question, moreover, is not, Am I willing to suffer? but Do I desire to fully live?”

The question isn’t how much am I willing to suffer, but how badly to I want to live! If those in power threaten you with a cross, then and only then does it become necessary for you to “take up a cross” to stand up against injustice. Implicit in Jesus’ call is the idea that protesting does not necessarily mean suffering at the hands of those in power, but if it does, protest anyway!

The goal is not to suffer, but to refuse to let go of life. I think “taking up one’s cross” has significant implications for survivors of relational violence and for all who are engaged in the work of social justice. When those in power who might feel threatened try to intimidate or silence your voice through fear of a “cross,” Jesus tells us to count the cost and refuse to let go of life. Don’t be silenced!

At the end of this story we are still not sure Thaddaeus, Bartholomew, and the rest of the disciples ever understood what Jesus was all about. Of course, they eventually did get it. The Christians in Mark’s church are a result of the disciples finally getting it, after all was said and done, after Jesus’ predicted death and resurrection.

Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am.” In the end the answer to this question is not one so much of making the most correct orthodox confession of who Jesus is. Rather the question is a question of discipleship to all of us. Do we dare follow Jesus in taking up our cross that protests and even confronts, the power structures of our world?

I’ll admit it’s a somewhat scary proposition. It is a way that appears to be fraught with all kinds of political implications, let alone spiritual. But in some way every generation of Christians has to deal with Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” And we might very much be like the disciples who had a real hard time understanding what Jesus meant. But despite our confusion the call of discipleship is the call to keep on keeping on even as did Bartholomew and Thaddaeus all the way to Jerusalem. May we not grow weary. Indeed, may we grab life that we may fully live. Amen.


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