Skip to content

The 17th Sunday after Pentecost; Mark 8:27-38

The day after his consecration and installation, the new bishop drove into a decaying and run-down part of his city. He parked in front of an old, run down church, and walked around to the small, equally old and run down rectory. On the veranda an aged priest was sitting in the sun.

“May I join you,” asked the bishop? “Of course.” The bishop sat down. “Do you know me?” “Yes of course, you are our new bishop, and I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your consecration, but at my age the physical exertion would have been too much” the priest replied. “That’s not why I’m here, but, may I tell you a story,” asked the bishop? “Yes, of course.”

The bishop sat, deep in thought, for a few seconds. “It was about forty years ago,” he began. “This area was already on its way to becoming a slum. There was a group of young teenagers, mostly the children of parishioners here, some of them confirmed, some in confirmation classes, some altar servers. But really, in secret, they were a gang. Outwardly good Christian boys, their ambition was to be the terror of the neighbourhood. Oh, they’d done nothing really serious yet; a few broken windows, some graffiti painted on walls, shoplifting candy and cigarettes from the corner store. But there was talk of stealing a car and really having some fun, or even getting a gun and doing a serious robbery. Sooner or later, they were going to get into serious trouble with the law. They just hadn’t yet.

“One day they came to the church, looking for mischief; maybe take the money from the poor-boxes, steal communion wine, light all the votive candles at once, even break some things. Noticing there was a priest waiting in the confessional, those plans went on hold. Very quickly a bet was made. The roughest, toughest, loudest of them was to go into the confessional, and make up the wildest, most bizarre list of sins, and recite them to the priest. The longer he could carry it off, the more he would win. But, if the priest realized that he was being fooled, or worse, recognized the boy, the young ruffian would lose the bet. And so, off he went, with one observer left in the church and the gang waiting outside, laughing and joking.

“He was gone quite a while. Finally he came outside, grinning. ‘Did he buy it?’ was their first question. ‘Yep!’ ‘What did he do?’ ‘When I ran out of made-up sins, he gave me a penance.’ What was it?’ ‘I don’t know, he wrote it on a piece of paper.’ ‘Are you doing it?’ ‘No, why should I?’ The young hoodlum was going to walk away. ‘You’ve got to do the penance; it’s part of the bet!’ ‘No it wasn’t!’ he argued. ‘If you don’t do the penance, you lose the bet,’ they all shouted back at him. Reluctantly, he finally agreed.

“‘Let’s see what you have to do.’ He handed over the paper, and one of them read out loud. ‘Go, stand in front of the altar, look up at the crucifix behind it, and say out loud ten times: “You died for me on a cross, and I don’t give a damn!” Slowly, the young lout went into the church. He never came back. Finally, the gang went looking for him. They found him, lying on the floor in front of the altar, sobbing. He ignored all questions; in the end, they left him there. He was never the same; he never went back to the gang.”

The bishop paused for a long time, looking at the old priest. “You still don’t know me, do you?” he finally said. “You were that priest, and I was that boy.”

[Jesus] began to teach them that [he] 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.

[Then Jesus said;] “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

That quotation from today’s Gospel is reason enough for a homily on the Cross of Jesus, on crosses, and on our response to both. But there is another reason; last Friday was Holy Cross Day, a Holy Day particularly focussed on the meaning and significance of the Cross of Jesus. But, as a Holy Day (Sep 14), it only replaces the Propers of a Sunday after Pentecost if it happens to fall on a Sunday.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Those words are from the Good Friday Anthems, but seem appropriate for a homily taking a good, hard look at the Cross of Christ, crosses, and an even harder look at our response to it.

We tend to think of crosses as ornaments; fashion accessories, jewellery, church decorations. Mostly, crosses are empty, sometimes they are so highly decorated, or so changed in shape, that there is only little resemblance to the real thing. Even crucifixes have been prettified, the wood smooth and nicely varnished, the body artistically carved with delicate proportions, elegantly tilted head, and carefully placed cloth around the loins. It is difficult to look at the reality behind these symbols; not that many of us want to do that very often. It has been said that Christians prefer the old rugged cross, on a green hill, far away. It’s a lot safer there.

The first great reality of the cross is that it is one of the most cruel tools for killing a human being that our ancestors invented, and our ancestors were very inventive at killing people. The cross combined a maximum of pain with a maximum of shame. Roughly hewn wooden beams, to which the victim was lashed and then nailed through wrists and ankles, braced upright, with all the body weight concentrated on the nails. The totally naked body exposed to the heat of the sun, the cold of the night, rain and wind, the insects and birds, and to the mocking stares of onlookers. The only way to breathe was to support body weight on the nail through the ankles. As strength failed, the legs would no longer support the body, and with all the weight hanging from the arms, breathing became difficult. Death came, often after many hours, even days, from exhaustion and suffocation. No wonder that the Jews believed that anyone who dies on a cross is eternally accursed; only someone totally beyond human respect and God’s care deserved such a terrible death.

And yet, this is the death that Jesus, the Son of God, died. In being born of a woman, and living the life of a human being, with all its joys and pains, with all its limitations, the Son of God showed us God’s solidarity with humanity. God’s Son, God-self, chose not to be remote from creation, but to enter into creation, and know what it is to live a human life. With that choice went the choice to die a human death. But the death God’s Son, God-self, chose was more than simply the quiet ending of life. By choosing the worst possible death, the most painful death, the most humiliating death, the death which was though to lead to eternal accursedness, God’s Son, God-self, showed solidarity with the worst of being human, and included all human experience, even the most terrible, in the experience of God.

The question “Why?” easily comes to mind. Why did God choose this awful way to experience the worst of human suffering? The very words of Jesus in the Gospel reading for Holy Cross Day give the answer.

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

That is the second great reality of the cross. On the one hand, the cross is the worst that humanity can do to another human being. On the other hand, the cross is the great symbol of God’s love for the world, a love so great it chose to undergo the very worst that humanity could do. The cross is a human instrument of torture and death, and the cross is God’s instrument of love and eternal life!

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

We celebrated the love of God in the cross on Holy Cross Day, and we celebrate it today.

But there’s more. I said that not only is this the day to take a good hard look at the Cross, and crosses, it is also a day to take a good hard look at our response to it. True, Christ died once on the cross, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life. But belief is more than some kind of intellectual agreement. Belief requires more than simple consent, it requires an active response. Over and over again, Sunday by Sunday, we hear it in the words of Jesus:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments, . . . feed the hungry, clothe the naked, comfort the afflicted, visit the prisoners . . . feed my sheep . . . love your neighbour, . . . follow me . . . do my work . . .

And specifically today, personalized and perhaps more pointed,

If [you] want to become my followers, … deny [yourself] … take up [your] cross … follow me … those … who lose their life for my sake… will save it … what can [you] give in return for [your] life?

Ultimately, Jesus died for each of us, individually, one at a time. And our response has to come from each of us, individually, one at a time.

What can you give in return for your life? What can you give in return for your life?

From the Collect for Holy Cross Day,

May we who rejoice in the mystery of our redemption, have grace to take up our cross and follow him.

From the Collect for today,

Help us so to proclaim the good news of your love, that all who hear it may turn to you.

Take up our cross! For Jesus, the cross was the great instrument of God’s love for the world. Similarly, our cross is whatever we take up to show our love for the world, our love for our brothers and sisters, our love for God. Not for our sake, but for the sake of those who not only hear us, but see us, watch us, and feel our actions in their lives, and through us see the love of God.

And so, let’s take a good hard look at the cross of Christ, and at our cross, our response to Christ’s cross. Take a look in your mind’s eye at a real crucifix, the hard, rough wood, the naked body twisted in pain. Take a good, hard look. And then, in your mind, say, not out loud, not even ten times, just whisper to yourself just once, “You died for me on a cross, and I, . . . , and I . . . AND I?

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.