Crucifying Egos

Mark 8:31-38

1.

The cross is central to our story: it is central to Jesus’ ministry and mission; it is central to Christianity; and it is central to the overall story of humanity.

a. At least from his early ministry anyway, and probably since before his baptism in the Jordan River, apparently Jesus knew that this was where he was headed: execution at the hands of the state for being an insurrectionist; for protesting established political and religious institutions.

Never mind that these institutions were unjust! Never mind that Jesus always protested without resorting to violence!

Crucifixion on a Roman cross was the extreme measure to which Jesus would go in order to grab the world’s attention.

b. Walk into any church today and what do you see? A cross.

It might have Jesus on it, hanging crucified as a reminder of his suffering on our behalf.

Or he might be dressed in kingly raiment, risen and glorified—as our cross conveys—in an attempt to tell the fuller story of his death, resurrection, and ascension.

Or, as in many Protestant and non-denominational churches around the world, it might be only a cross—plain, ornate, simple, rough, smooth—it doesn’t really matter—it’s an enduring sign that Jesus is not here but risen.

Nevertheless, whatever its appearance, the cross reminds us that Jesus had to suffer and die on this instrument of torture and execution in order to accomplish his mission.

The cross is our symbol of discipleship; our brand, if you will.

c. In fact, in a way, the entire history of humanity revolves around the cross.

Imagine a long timeline. On the left-hand end is the beginning: an image of a globe or of a garden with a man, a woman, and a snake in it. On the right-hand end is the end: an angelic image; people with wings frolicking among the clouds and playing harps or whatever. And smack dab in the middle of it all is a cross!

In the beginning, God created humanity; but humanity fell. In the middle, the focal point of human history, God sent Jesus; who came and set things right by means of death on the cross. And in the end humanity will be redeemed; and dwell with God forever.

The cross is central to our story.

2.

But, since our human story revolves around the cross, why, then, is the cross not so central to our popular theology?

What do I mean? An illustration from my own story:

When I was a young man and still new to discipleship, I spent several summers on the staff of a large, non-denominational Christian camp in the Sierras, near Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

And when I say large I mean it: at that time—1987 through 1992—some 1,200 campers a week were bussed in from all over California!

So, picture this: a 400-acre property fronting National Forest land, nestled a mile high in a valley filled with great, tall Ponderosa pines and Cedars, with dragonfly-graced meadows; on the shore of a lake, with ample waterfront activities available; acres for hiking and exploring; a first-class high ropes course; excellent meals, always with more than enough food; Olympic-sized swimming pools to play in or tan beside; and on and on. “Club Med” for young people.

And every morning and evening there was a gifted speaker to deliver a Billy-Graham-style message (may he rest in peace), imploring young people to make decisions for Christ, for he was the answer to all their difficulties; in him was all happiness.

To be sure, the place ran (and still runs) as a well-oiled machine. How else are you going to host more than a thousand campers a week, delivering a quality experience consistently?

And a big part of delivering this quality experience, summer after summer, was to unify the staff, to get all of them—more than 200 people—on board, to make sure they were aligned with the camp’s mission.

And one of the chief means of getting the staff of one mind was the Summer Staff Handbook—which we all had to read, cover to cover; and sign our names to, stating that we’d read it and would abide by the camp’s covenants as long as we were in its employment.

Covenants like:

  • Male staff shall be clean-shaven with hair trimmed above the collar
  • Any and all tattoos shall be kept concealed from the public at all times
  • No alcohol or tobacco of any kind shall be allowed on the camp property; this applies to all staff, whether over twenty-one years of age or not, and cabin owners
  • Profanity in any form shall not be tolerated
  • Summer staff shall show no public displays of affection with each other
  • Staff shall not fraternize with campers
  • All staff shall maintain a professional demeanor at all times, whether on the clock or not

Of course, I didn’t mind these strictures—I was young and on my own and just happy to be in the mountains surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation and the programmatic fun—and get paid for it. I could deal with these mandates for twelve weeks (about twice as long as Lent).

Still, my curiosity got the better of me. And thus in a rare shooting-the-breeze conversation with the camp’s Executive Director, I mentioned how well the camp is run; and asked where the ideas came from for the Summer Staff Handbook.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he answered, “Disneyland.”

“What?” I asked. “Did you just say Disneyland?”

“Yes,” he explained. “You go to Disneyland and its image is as close to perfect as anything you will find anywhere: the staff are friendly and courteous, always smiling and happy to help; the gardens are wonderfully manicured and entirely free of weeds; trash cans are everywhere, which translates to no litter. No wonder it’s called ‘the happiest place on earth.’

“So the camp board got hold of Disneyland’s Staff Handbook and we adapted it to our purposes. If Disneyland is the happiest place on earth, then Christianland should be happier still, for we are not of this world.”

I bought this popular theology at the time. But today I ask, Really? “Christianland”? Is this what it looks like to be a disciple of Christ?

3.

But today’s Gospel paints a very different picture.

Recall, just before we enter this scene of rebuke, where Jesus famously calls Peter Satan, Peter said, “You, Jesus, are the Messiah!”

Over in Matthew, Jesus praises Peter for this declaration, calling him “Rock” and even bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom.

But here in Mark—and in Luke too—the response is rather different. There’s nothing about a rock or keys; just an immediate twofold admonition.

First, Jesus warns his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.

If word were to get out, people would assume his call to messiahship fits the popular theology of the day: a revolutionary leader whose agenda, when the time is right, is to take action. But this is not Jesus’ theology. So, for now, better keep quiet.

And second, Jesus tells both what he means by Messiah and what it means to be a disciple of the Messiah.

The Son of Man must suffer. He must face the unjust institutions of his world head-on, which will lead to execution on a cross.

Anyone who wishes to follow the Son of Man—well, discipleship is not about happiness or strength or popularity or any other kind of self-focused glory. Discipleship is about the cross! Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves and take up their cross.

By the way, Matthew goes here too—after Jesus’ appraisal of Peter as Rock. The whole bit about calling Peter Rock and bestowing on him the keys to the kingdom—it’s really just a parenthetical insertion, as if Matthew is trying to be diplomatic; trying to soften the hard truth of Mark (and Luke).

It’s a parenthetical insertion; and yet it’s what we tend to remember. “The Rock”: sounds like a good name for an attraction at an amusement park; or maybe even a good name for a feel-good Hollywood actor. . . .

But, even in Matthew, it’s just an aside: it’s not the main point.

All the Gospels agree: Discipleship is not mainly about a kind of personal, unearthly happiness that is happier than the happiest place on earth.

I don’t know about you, but I trust the Gospels far more than Christianland.

4.

And thus I want to ask us all a question: As we seek to live out Jesus’ mission, are we keeping the cross central—or, the flipside, is personal comfort and happiness more important to us than bearing our cross?

We could spend some time imagining what each of our crosses looks like—something I’m sure many preachers are doing with their congregations today. But we’re not going to—not to discourage you from doing it on your own!

Instead, a better use of our time, I feel, is the part where Jesus says, “Those who want to follow the Son of Man must deny themselves.”

More precisely then, I’d like us to ask this question: As we live out lives of discipleship, what does it mean for us each to deny him- or herself?

Of course, we find good examples of what self-denial looks like, both positive and negative, in the scriptures. John the Baptist must decrease in order that Christ may increase; Peter tries to foist his agenda on Jesus both in today’s Gospel and elsewhere. John is self-effacing; Peter is ego-inflating. We should be like John; not Peter.

But is self-denial as simple as that? Or as simple as keeping your hair trimmed above the collar and not using profanity? No!

For instance, should you always say yes to your needy friend, even though you really want to tell her no?

Is this what it means to deny yourself? Maybe not. Maybe saying yes really isn’t self-denial at all, but rather enabling bad behaviors in your friend. Curiously, Jesus said no to Peter (and others) often. Saying yes when you really should say no is not necessarily self-effacing.

Or how about this one? You agree to do something but then act the martyr.

It might be a chore for a family member; or a ministry at church—uh oh, now I’m meddling! Whatever the case, you agree to take something on and then call attention to yourself in whatever way—moaning, complaining, whining; singing your own praises, asking for public thanks; whatever—so that everyone around you knows how great a person you are to have stepped up.

And, by the way, I’m not meddling here—I’m not thinking of a particular person or persons. No one specific comes to mind—except the person sitting next to you. Really, it’s something we humans commonly do. We say it’s our cross to bear; but to play the martyr is hardly self-effacing; but rather ego-inflating.

One more: we talk a lot about outreach in the church; but outreach can all too easily become a patronizing action that allows us to pat ourselves on the back: we saw a need; we came up with an agenda; we helped someone in need; and so we feel really good about ourselves.

When I was a Boy Scout, our scout leaders told us to do a good deed daily, like help an old lady across the street. But what if that old lady doesn’t want to cross the street?—a good question for us to consider in our outreach efforts.

Anyway, we modern-day North American Christians tend to like a popular theology of self-glorification. Many and manifold are the ways we demonstrate this like.

However, the season of Lent and especially today’s Gospel remind us that Jesus calls his disciples to deny themselves and take up their cross.

In other words, it’s time to crucify our egos.

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