Take Up
Mark 8:27-38

by | Feb 29, 2024

PRAYER:  The challenges we face, O God, are often difficult.  And sometimes, the hardest part is figuring out which challenges we need to take and which we can let go of.  Pour out your Spirit upon us, that we may be empowered to make the hard choices, and take up our cross for justice, for peace… for love.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.  Amen.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, people who held my position as pastor, were often regarded in some high level of esteem, whether deserved or not.  They were always addressed by their titles.  Most of you know that I much prefer to be addressed by my name, not my title.  My priest growing up was never ever addressed by his first name; it was always his title.  And I was taught that when they spoke, their words were practically considered to be straight from God.  There could be no debate.  I don’t mean this as a pun, but there was a certain reverence expected when addressing a reverend.

Truth be told: if I had pursued my path to ministry in my younger days, then yes… I probably would have been a bit more snobbish about it and insisted on being addressed by my title.  But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the title, the role one serves should be apparent, not in how others address you, but in what you do – in how you live your life.

The story in today’s reading involves Peter naming Jesus’ title.  He proclaims that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.  But even Jesus does not seem to covet being addressed by that title.  “Do not tell anyone,” Jesus says.

In this part of Mark, Jesus is giving his disciples some clarity for the first time what is going to happen to him.  “…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again.”  It is pretty easy to assume that Jesus had some apprehension about the things he was predicting.  Jesus certainly would have known what it meant to “undergo great suffering.”  Right before this passage in Mark, Jesus learned of the gruesome death of his cousin, John the Baptist — beheaded at the whims of the daughter of Herodias, King Herod’s wife.  So, that might explain a little bit of Jesus’ insistence that Peter tell no one of his title.

Our worship series for Lent uses hot air balloons as an anchor image.  If you’ve ever seen them up close, you may have noticed that the baskets – or gondolas – often have heavy sandbags hanging off from the sides.  These are called ballasts, which are used to add weight.  They’re used  to create stability.  They can also affect the speed or buoyancy of a vessel as well.  Too much ballast in a hot air balloon would prevent it from rising into the air at all, too little would cause it to rise too rapidly and contribute to the gondola’s lack of stability.

Ballast in a hot air balloon keeps it from tipping too much in windy conditions, or from tipping over when it needs to stay upright while on the ground and the “envelope” of the hot air balloon is filling up with hot air. If you are in the balloon and need a rapid way to gain altitude, you can also cut off any ballast to lower your weight and gain altitude quickly.

Sometimes you need to release things that are weighing you down.  When Jesus speaks of “taking up” one’s cross and also denying themselves, Peter rebukes him.  I can imagine Jesus’ irritation and anger no matter how well-intentioned Peter may have been. And I think at that moment, Jesus’ rash words of anger would have been a lot like the impulse one might have to cut the ballast off of the gondola to gain altitude.

Whether or not Peter’s words were well-meaning, we have a lot of ballast in our lives.  And some of it weighs us down when we need to rise.  But Jesus didn’t just release in this passage, Jesus also taught that we had a cross to take up as well!  Weight in and of itself is not bad.  Sometimes we need to add ballast for stability.  Sometimes we are too high and far removed from reality and need “ballast” to bring us back to earth.

There are a lot of faith communities in the world that teach their congregations that once we decide to become Christians, then everything going on in the world is no longer our concern.  They teach that our faith pursuits are 100% about getting to heaven after we’ve died.  They talk about “the world” as if it’s completely separated from God and that God would have us reject everything about it.  I have an old friend who called this type of church environment ‘so heavenly inspired, they’re no earthly good’!

Jesus’ invitation to “take up your cross” is an invitation not to be too far removed from suffering or pain — because those places of hardship are where Jesus is already at work. A life of discipleship — of following Jesus — would consist of both joy and buoyancy, as well as hardship and the weight of sorrow.

There has to be a balance to using ballast.  When there are many bags of groceries to carry in from the car, I find that it’s sometimes easier to carry a bag in each hand.  When I carry only one bag, it throws off my balance and it’s a little harder to walk a straight line.  The art of using ballast is the art of balance. When do we need to carry the weight, and when do we need to release it? Jesus released the weight of Peter’s rebuke, but he also encouraged us to take on the weight of the cross of suffering. Even as we take up causes of justice and compassion in our discipleship, we have to remember that we can’t only focus on hardship indefinitely. Sometimes we have to let the weight go.

We should probably be careful to not make too many assumptions about the relationship between Jesus and Peter in this instance.  When Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan”… we might look at that as an all-out rejection, but I think it’s a fairer assumption to take this a little more literally, as Jesus was literally telling Peter to get behind him, to follow him.

After all, what was it that Peter said, really?  Peter didn’t like the fact that Jesus said that he is going to have to suffer.  Who would?  So, Peter suggested that there’s an easier path.  After everything Jesus had seen, up to and including what happened to his own cousin, an easier path may be very tempting.  An easier path IS very tempting; it could certainly lighten the load you may be carrying.  But you may remember that this is exactly what Jesus was tempted with in the wilderness after his baptism.  Jesus was tempted to turn stones into bread.  Why face the burden of hunger.  Make it easier on yourself.  He was tempted with easy power.  Why do the hard work of building community.  Just flex those god-sized muscles and force people to follow you.  He was tempted with being protected against harm.  Why burden yourself with human suffering.  Take the easy path.  Always take the easy path!  That is essentially what Peter was suggesting.  No, Jesus, you don’t have to suffer.  Take the easy path; lighten your load!  Peter’s mistake is in stepping out of order.  Jesus’ statement to get behind him demands that Peter “get back in line,” or simply, “let me lead.”

Jesus was very clear that following him might not be a smooth ride.  He was bound to choose the just way, not the easy way, through life.  To take up the cross was to lose one’s life — to let go of certain expectations of safety and acceptance in order to stand for the Gospel’s message of love.  How are we to take up the causes of Jesus — justice, righteousness, and mercy in our day?

There was a story in the news this past week about a young person named Nex who was killed in Oklahoma.  They were 16 years old and was beaten up in the bathroom of their school because they identified as transgender.  There has been a lot of noise – a lot of people making claims about transgender children… and on one level, I understand.  This was never possible when we were young.  Children were not encouraged to be their true selves.  And today, even as it is possible for children to explore who God made them to be, there are still people who will resist and commit acts of violence against children because they don’t want to share even a shred of compassion.

But the thing that fills my heart with hope in the midst of this tragedy is the comment I read from this Nex’ grandmother.  Their grieving grandmother said, “Nex did not see themselves as male or female.  Nex saw themselves right down the middle. I was still learning about it, Nex was teaching me that.”  Nex’ grandmother proved that it is still possible to learn.  It is still possible to take up the burden of righteousness and empathy for our fellow human beings.  It is still possible to take up new understandings in the name of love.

We must let go of the lies we keep believing that prevent us from living the life God has created for us.  If only Nex had been allowed to do that without being bullied to death!  We have to let the weight of self-loathing go, too.  We have to drop the weight of unreasonable expectations… both of ourselves and of others.  We can and we must release those things we keep telling ourselves that lead us to believe in our unworthiness.  And when we do, we gain the strength to take up the cross Jesus is encouraging us to carry.

I hope you’re coming to realize that not all suffering is necessarily bad, but needless suffering is certainly not good.  Not all weight is burdensome, but burdens can hinder us from living a full life of faith. “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.”

We have the opportunity – every day that we’re on this earth – to help others take up their own burdens and becoming more Christ-like in the process.  This is the blessing of being a disciple.  This is the blessing and the hope that comes when we get behind Jesus and allow him to lead us.

To God be the glory.