Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Text: Mark 8:34-36
Jesus called the crowd and his disciples to him. “If any of you want to come with me," he told them, "you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me."

Cross bearers

I’m sure Jesus left a lot of people confused and dumbfounded that day when he spoke about his own suffering and dying and then went on to say that if anyone wants to truly follow him they must forget their own ideas and plans, carry a cross and lose their own life in order to save it. 

The idea of carrying cross must have seemed crazy.  A cross was only for criminals.  It was a death sentence.  It was cruel and brutal.  What is Jesus really talking about when he says that to be a disciple a person must carry a cross and lose his life?

And what about the people in Rome who read Mark’s Gospel about 25 years later?  How did they respond to his account of Jesus’ life, especially this radical demand about carrying a cross and losing one’s life? Mark’s readers had the obvious advantage of hindsight and knew about Jesus’ death on a cross.  What is more, they had eyewitnesses who could tell them exactly what happened that Friday in Jerusalem.  Mark’s readers knew Alexander and Rufus. 

If you don’t know who Alexander and Rufus are, I don’t blame you.  Maybe this will help.  Mark tells the Good Friday story like this, “Then they led Jesus out to crucify him. On the way they met a man named Simon, who was coming into the city from the country, and the soldiers forced him to carry Jesus' cross. (Simon was from Cyrene and was the father of Alexander and Rufus)” (Mark 15:20, 21).

Jesus is in agony, staggering along the road, his body raw and bleeding from the beating, the roughness of the cross rubbing and digging into his wounds; he fell on the hard road under its weight.  Mark’s brief mention of Alexander and Rufus in the middle of all this seems a bit irrelevant.  Normally Mark isn’t interested in giving trivial details, but he does make this exception.

We don’t know for sure but Alexander and Rufus might have been there that day with their father and mother on their way to the temple in Jerusalem.  Perhaps they witnessed their father, Simon, carry the cross for Jesus, or if they weren’t there, they would have heard many times over, their father’s account of the day he met Jesus all bloodied and bruised and was forced to carry his cross.

Mark is telling his readers, “Jesus was too weak so Simon from Cyrene was ordered to carry the cross for him.  You know Simon’s boys – Rufus and Alexander – they’re members of your church in Rome. And if you want to see two people whose lives have been changed by the events of that day, have a chat with those two blokes.” 

Alexander and Rufus would have told how cruel and barbaric the cross was.  It was an instrument of torture and death.  There was no escape.  They would have heard their father Simon talk about Jesus’ death and they would have witnessed the cruel nature of the cross a thousand times over as they observed the enemies of Rome crucified along the roads to the city. 

Following Jesus is not easy but it’s life changing.  Jesus says, “If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). 

Sometimes we talk about the unpleasant things in life as being “the cross” that we have to bear.   
That cross might be poor health,
caring for someone on a long term basis,
an unfulfilling job,
a disability, and so on. 
These “crosses” are unpleasant.  We have no choice whether we carry this cross or not. 
In many ways these types of crosses leave us battered and bruised;
test our commitment;
leave us wondering just Jesus did, “Lord if there were some other way ….” and sometimes we just want to ask, “Why?” 
These crosses might test our trust in God;
our confidence in God’s love to the extent that we question whether he really does care what is happening in our lives.  Yes, these are crosses that are difficult and painful.

But we need to go further.  When Simon got up that morning he didn’t plan to get involved in any of this.  He was happy to be a bystander; to stand back and simply watch what was going on. 

What if bearing a cross means being dragged out of the plans we have for the day (as Simon was) – even plans we have for the whole of our lives – and we are suddenly drawn completely into the moment when God, in his grace, calls us to walk with Jesus and to follow the harder path that calls for endurance and commitment as we face up to being his disciples in our world today?

What if bearing a cross means we are drawn away from our own plans at the most inconvenient time (like Simon who was on a family trip to Jerusalem) to help others with their crosses and bring God's grace into the lives of the people we connect with in our corner of the world?

What if bearing a cross means we are pulled out of the shadows and given an uncomfortable load (as crosses tend to be) that we prefer not to carry – made to stand out and be different because our values are different to those of the world or we are given a task that we think others can do better?

What if bearing a cross means doing something that I don’t particularly want to do or it frightens me (as Simon experienced) – ministry and service to others will confront us and challenge us and stretch us beyond what we call ‘normal’.

It’s this cross of grace and unselfish love that we find the hardest to carry.

Make no mistake about it, Jesus is saying to his followers, “Becoming a disciple is a radical step; being a disciple involves the cross of dedication.  Carrying a cross and being a disciple is tough work”.  The cross Jesus carried was no walk in the park, and he is saying that carrying the cross of discipleship is no different for us today.

We live in a world today that has a different understanding of what commitment means.  It can be expressed this way, “Commitment is okay so long as it doesn’t upset me, ask too much of me, and expect me to give up too much for the sake of others”. 

If that’s the kind of commitment Jesus had, then he would not have carried the cross to Calvary.  The cross places us in a head-on collision with the “me-first” attitude of the world and our own sinful selfish human nature.  Sacrifice and discipleship, commitment and the gospel go together, even today.  Discipleship will, and I emphasise the word “will”, discipleship will collide with the values and attitudes of the world.  The cross will cause us pain.

Who knows what carrying the cross and following Jesus will mean for us in the future?  Where will this journey take you and me in the next five, ten or twenty years? 

Where will it take the church, this congregation?
When we, the church, take up our cross of commitment to the mission and ministry that God has given us, it’s a painful experience.  Crosses were never made to be comfortable in the past and neither will they be comfortable in the future.

Let's look at what this might mean for us.
It might mean re-evaluating and maybe stepping outside customs and traditions and structures that have lost their meaning and have become roadblocks to people even considering the importance of the Gospel for their salvation.  In order to connect with people, things might need to change and with change there comes pain. 

Sometimes the church has to look again at why it exists in a particular area and check out how effective it is.  Cutting back on what isn’t working can be a painful thing and introducing new things – all this is part of the cross that a congregation must bear.
Finding out how great the spiritual needs of the people that pass this church every day might overwhelm us and frighten us because so much of what we have assumed, might have to go out the window if we want to touch the lives of these people. The cross is never easy to bear.

A congregation might have plans for the future but in reality are they God’s plans?  It’s a painful process to admit that we have been going down our own track to satisfy our own needs and not considered the mission God has given us.

It’s a painful thing to realise that there are no bystanders (as Simon found out) when it comes to carrying the cross of discipleship. 
It’s painful to give up time and money and energy if we are too forget ourselves, carry our cross, and follow Jesus.
There is no such thing as leaving it to someone else. (That Good Friday Simon would have preferred to be left alone).

All this might fill us with some anxiety (the cross certainly worried Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane) but it also opens up new possibilities (Jesus cross certainly has done that)!

Bearing the cross will not only change the people around us, it will change us too.  Just as the lives of Rufus and Alexander were changed and shaped by their cross-bearing father, likewise we too will be transformed as we share the love of Christ in an active and positive way. The Holy Spirit will use us to shape the next generation to know the loving will of God, his forgiveness and the eternal life the offers and that will bless us no end.

As cross-bearers we will support our fellow cross-bearers – pastors, leaders, principal and teachers in our school, staff at our Aged Care Village, those involved in music, the stewards, the sound and projection operators, the youth leaders, those visiting the sick and house bound and we will join in prayer for the hundreds of people who daily come to this place.  We will have a place in shaping this community and passing on the love of Jesus and in some way change lives so that they too become cross-bearers.

Alexander and Rufus are mentioned by Mark for one reason only – they were sons of the cross-bearer and became cross-bearers themselves as leaders of the church in Rome and supporters of the spread of the gospel.  May God grant us as individuals and as a congregation the grace and wisdom and the faith to be loyal cross-bearers.

“If any of you want to come with me, you must forget yourself, carry your cross, and follow me”.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
1st March 2015

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