09/30/2018


Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
September 30, 2018

Shouldering Our Crosses
Mark 8: 31-38

Whatever else Jesus was doing in his ministry that continues to impact history and souls, he was not trying to ingratiate himself to the majority of us by telling us what we want to hear. This morning’s passage is a prime example of that. Peter represents all of us I think when he rebukes Jesus for telling his followers that he is destined to suffer, be rejected, and be killed before rising again on the third day. That kind of fate does not sound good to Peter, and it doesn’t sound appetizing to us either. We were attracted to Jesus because of his promise of living in a better way, and lots of suffering does not sound a bit to us like part of doing that.

Plus, Jesus’ rebuke of Peter occurs just after Peter has just gone “all in” for Jesus. During a discussion among Jesus and his followers in which they have run through possible identities of Jesus, Jesus asks Peter who Peter thinks he is. Peter doesn’t hesitate. You are the messiah, the anointed one of God. You are the King as God defines one, in other words, and, therefore, we can infer from Peter’s statement, you are the one to whom I want to attach myself. Don’t we all know that the way to make money is to work close to those who have it and that the way to get power is to cozy up to it? Peter wasn’t stupid. If Jesus was going to exalted places by God’s power then Peter was going to go right along with him.

Well, that, precisely at that moment of critical decision about to whom Jesus is going to trust his future, is when Jesus lets Peter, and us through him, have it. It hardly seems fair, we might protest, Peter is the one that just gave you a shout-out, your Lordship, as have we who have come out Sunday after Sunday on your behalf. And, yet, yet, here you are calling him, and all of us who get squeamish at the prospect of lots of suffering, Satan, the ultimate adversary?! Isn’t that a bit much? After all, we’re out here slogging with you now, right? Can you blame us for not being thrilled that the way to Life with a capital L, even if the capital L just only referred to living more fully and completely in this world, goes through a cross?

It appears that Jesus can, and does blame us, in the straw person of Peter, for that. But, not because of the fact that we aren’t excited about suffering for its own sake I don’t think. I think Jesus makes it clear in Mark and other places that he is not advocating suffering for suffering’s own sake. The one who sent Jesus is not, after all, asking Jesus to suffer on the cross for the fun of it. He is asking Jesus to suffer on the cross in order to save human souls. It does matter after all what it is we give up our lives for. And there is a huge difference between giving up our lives for Jesus’ sake and giving them up because we simply “don’t find life worth living.” Jesus is not rebuking us for our distaste for suffering. Jesus is rebuking us because he knows that our desire to avoid suffering may prevent us from embracing our love for God and others, our love of true freedom and our love of love itself, which, of course, are what abundant life is made of. But we will get to that in a minute.

In 1931 Briton Aldous Huxley wrote the dystopian novel called Brave New World. That novel tells the story of a society in which the leadership, represented in the character of Mustafa Mond, has decided that the greatest good is to minimize the number of negative emotions and feelings through minimizing negative experiences. In other words, the goal of this society becomes, not to live well, but to minimize any possibility of having to live through a negative experience. Thus, in this world, anytime someone in the society threatens to destabilize it by expressing unhappiness, or just obviously feeling it, they are given a gram of soma, a narcotic drug that puts them into a state of euphoria, followed by unfeeling unconsciousness. After their sleep their brief brush with “hardship” fades from their memory and they can “go on not worrying and being happy” with no obstacles to doing that.

Until John Savage, the love child of Supreme Commander of this totalitarian, if happy, society Mustafa Mond and a woman from that society who defected to an Indian Reservation, challenges the leader’s decision to make good feelings the ultimate goal. After John has been indicted for challenging the totalitarian government, he ends up in the office of his father, who knows it is dangerous to acknowledge his son because this will lead to him having feelings of attachment to him. So, instead of daring love, which requires vulnerability and the possibility of tragedy if the love we want to give would be rejected, Mustafa Mond and John Savage, father and unacknowledged son, in one of the most powerful literary passages I have ever had the privilege to read, begin arguing over the meaning of life and the pursuit of happiness.

Mond responds to John’s accusations that the people are enslaved to soma against their wills by insisting that, by the standards of a society that operates on the assumption that good and easy feelings are the greatest good, each member of his society is happy and perfect as he or she is. Stoned, so to speak, out of tragedy or suffering of any kind. As the discussion continues, Mustapha condemns self-denial as bad for his country’s consumer economy and opposed to his society’s version of happiness. He condemns chastity as only leading to passion, which causes tension and instability. Mustapha understands nobility and heroics as only existing where instability, struggle and tension reign. And all of those things, the dark side of the freedom to care deeply, he says, are totally unnecessary. The climax of the argument comes when Mustapha says to John that by claiming his human right to poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness and the possibility of sin, John is claiming his right to unhappiness. John says, “then I claim them all.” Mustapha merely shrugs with indifference, as if John is a fool, to this sort of acceptance of true humanity as that is fully represented by Jesus, and says without emotion, “You’re welcome.”

Jesus, my friends, in rebuking Peter for his unwillingness to embrace Jesus’ vulnerability, the possibility that Jesus will suffer, much less the possibility that Peter himself might suffer, is taking a stand for the full, glorious, complete and abundant life free people in Him get to live by the grace of God. He is not unnecessarily nailing all of us to crosses. Instead, he is taking the cross into himself, and inviting us to embrace it too, not in order to give the cross power but to give God’s love, God’s sovereignty, God’s freedom to be with and for us, ultimate power over darkness. We don’t suffer for suffering’s sake. We suffer because suffering at times is a consequence of us giving goodness and love ultimate sovereignty over our lives. We risk the possibility of suffering not because we like the darkness, but, on the contrary because we love the light. And by grace have learned to trust that on the other side of every difficulty, every cross, is another God empowered resurrection. May that be so for you and for me.

Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
Louisville, KY
September 30, 2018