Summary: An Ash Wednesday sermon reminding us of this "messy business" of our call to share in the suffering of Christ by taking up his cross and following.
Perhaps you have noticed in our modern world an unhealthy preoccupation with beauty. Of course, there are the obvious signs; like the fact that already pictures of seemingly beautiful models are touched up and airbrushed before they go to print so that the models are not just beautiful, but perfectly beautiful. Then there’s this tendency to not even be content with the clothes that we wear (which of course must be the latest and greatest in fashion trends), but we must “accessorize” as well with tasteful sunglasses or an oversized purse or expensive jewelry. And speaking of jewelry, how about the cross; those beautiful diamond-studded cross necklaces that so many of us wear? Or perhaps some of us have a cross hanging on our charm bracelets. Now think of all the crosses that we have around our churches. In my office alone, I have seven depictions of the cross. We have shiny brass crosses and wooden crosses that are simple yet beautiful. One of the crosses on my desk is a Waterford crystal cross that a distant relative gave to me when I was Ordained several months ago.
The cross is the defining symbol of Christianity, recognized by people around the world in connection with Jesus Christ. And the cross is a reminder to us of God’s love as shown in the sacrifice of his Son. But we have made even the cross a solely beautiful thing; focusing on the sign of love, and forgetting about the symbolism of great sacrifice. Carl Henry once said, “The transformation of the bloodstained wooden cross of Calvary to the diamond studded gold cross of a cathedral may well signify humankind’s attempt to remove the offense of the cross.” Because, in all reality, the cross is not a beautiful symbol, and it especially wasn’t in Jesus’ time. The cross pointed to death, but not just any death; a brutal, ugly death. The cross of Jesus’ day was rough, terrible, and horrific. This is the message that Mark brings before us this evening. The way of the cross, the way of Christ, is no easy path!
But how can we follow the true path of the cross when even in the day-to-day workings of our lives, we try to make things “easier?” We go to great lengths to “gloss over” the difficult circumstances in our lives and to “prettify” the rough places just as we try to beautify our looks. We cover financial difficulties by running up credit card bills. We drown our sorrows in a plethora of addictive behaviors that provide only temporary relief. We hide in the darkness of illness or depression, unable to admit our fear. And we do all of this because “image” is so important; because things must always be beautiful and perfect.
Then we try and make the way of the cross easy. The word “cross,” in its truest sense is a difficult word to face; this is what Jesus is trying so desperately to drive home to Peter and the other disciples in this passage from Mark. In Christianity, we tend to misuse the word “cross” more than any other in our vocabulary. We have given the name cross to many things that are not a cross at all in the truly Christian sense of the word. We talk about “calamity” as a cross we must bear. But calamity is not a cross; though indeed, it may be a tragedy. We speak of sorrow or loss as a cross. These are often heavy burdens, but they are not necessarily a cross. We even speak of our own shortcomings – uncontrolled anger, impatience, insensitivity – as a cross we must carry. The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this, “If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life…But [the notion of suffering] has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.” Taking up the cross is not about patiently enduring what happens to us; while this is a great virtue, “taking up the cross” is about making a conscious decision.
You see; the cross for Jesus was a deliberate choice. It was Jesus admitting and showing that things are not always pretty. The cross was Jesus’ “yes” as he gave his life a ransom for many. The cross was Jesus’ conscious decision to minister to people’s need for the truth about God, their need for love, no matter what it might cost. And so it should be for each of us. Taking up a cross for the disciple means making a deliberate choice to face something that could be avoided; to take up willingly a burden which we are under no compulsion to take up, except the compulsion of God’s love in Christ. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” By choosing the sacrificial path of Christ, we are freed from the suffering of this world. Such conscious decisions to bear burdens are not easy; and as we follow through with these choices, we find that they are not beautiful or glamorous either. This is what we remember on this day and during the 40 days of Lent; the ashes remind us of the “dirtiness” of the way of the cross.