31 Then he began to teach them that 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. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
A dear friend of mine from seminary, the great Pete Speiser, once emailed me with a form of this question: “is there anything more terrifying than standing beneath the cross and confessing that this is my God?” And why terror you might ask? Perhaps you think this question to be evidence that going to seminary will make you both a bit melodramatic and more than a bit neurotic. But I am convinced that this question is the question for the Christian faith, and how we answer it, or avoid it, reveals everything about who we are and who God is. So what is it about this God enfleshed, this God who will go to Jerusalem and then past its city walls to the mount of execution, that should inspire a thing like terror? I mean, as Christians, isn’t the point of this whole thing not terror, but something a touch more life affirming? No doubt, this notion of terror could very easily be protested or ignored, as we chose to dwell on happier things, but to try and find these happy things apart from the cross would be to miss entirely the point of the Christian story.
And rest assured that being led to the foot of the cross and finding God there has never been an easy task for the church, not since its beginning. Indeed, that God might have to go the way of the cross was resisted even before it happened. Look again at the gospel reading, for we are at a turning point in Mark’s telling of the story. Up to this point, you see, Jesus has tried to keep his identity under wraps. When the unclean spirits he exercises know his name, know who he is, he does not permit them to speak. And while it is a little more complex than this, the motivation behind all this secrecy has everything to do with Jesus’ looming fate, indeed with the cross. So when Peter, just a few verses before our reading, by the power of the Holy Spirit, confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the secret is essentially out in the open. And in response to this confession, Jesus himself begins to speak openly, speak plainly about what is going to happen to him and what that means for those who wish to follow him. How do the disciples respond to this proclamation, all this messy stuff about conflict with power, about suffering, yes about death? Well, in a word, they are terrified. But the terror goes deeper than the gruesome picture that Jesus is painting. As we have noted throughout our reading of Mark, what Jesus describes simply does not square with what the disciples believed the Messiah would do, would be. Jesus is supposed to defeat the powerful collusion between Jerusalem and Rome, not suffer by it, and though it is Peter alone who voices his concern over this rather drastic turn of events, it is my hunch that the rest of the disciples are probably in agreement with him, thankful that someone had the courage to stand up to this project that is increasingly headed in the wrong direction. To Peter’s attempted correction, however, the stakes simply get raised even higher. This cross, Jesus says, now no longer just to the disciples but to the crowds as well, this cross is not just mine, but this is for you, as well. Gulp. Is there, then, an appropriate response other than terror?
Which, of course, throws the question right back at us. We are not, after all, first century Hebrews expecting the Messiah to overturn a government or two. What, then, might be the substance of our terror? Again, though time and circumstance might be much different indeed, we are no less committed to squeezing Jesus into our own expectations, into our boxes than were our ancestors in faith. For what Jesus is here rejecting is the disciples’ belief that they can come to him, that they can follow him, that they can indeed look at him and say “this is my God” in a way that will not upset their preconceived notions of who God is. Yes, what the disciples must undergo and what they will come to understand only after Christ is raised from the dead is that this confession of the Christ, this cannot be accommodated by their preconceived notions of themselves and of God. This cross cannot ever mean the continuation of human efforts to find and impress God on our own; the cross, is in fact, the end of such programs, the end of such strivings. And this perhaps is the terror. That the very place God wishes to reveal himself is in fact the last place we would look. Which explains, of course, why Jesus says that the cross must be taken up if true life is to be glimpsed. For true life, the life that Christ alone imparts, the life that is the Father’s very heart, this can never be accomplished by human wit, understanding or wisdom, these things that we hold so dear about ourselves. This the disciples learned and this we undergo. True life is gained through the end of our efforts to earn God’s love, as our own efforts to maintain ourselves are constantly being frustrated by God. And this is what is so terrifying to us. For we want desperately for this not to be the case, for God’s love to come to us in a way that does not cost us, cost God, so much. But this cannot be, the human situation being too full of greed, too full of fear for it to be accomplished any other way. God does not wish to be found apart from the cross of Christ, and it is only there, only at the base of Golgatha, that we are finally brought into true life. The terror then is this: we stand judged and forgiven in the same divine action, in the same divine breathe. As the Son is lifted up, as he suffers and then dies, we see our whole cosmic situation. We see both our sin and our futility, and God’s anger against them. We see that so often that which we think is right and true, that which we value and hold so dearly, that these things do not give us peace, do not give us security, for they will never lead us to Christ and him crucified.
But that is not all that is seen. This thing, this cross, that appears to us as terrible is actually the source of life, joy and eternal peace. For in this same action, in this resolute Christ who will go to the cross, literally come both hell and high waters, we see God steely in divine resolve to regain the creation. We see a God whose love is so determined that this God will take on our sin, take it onto his body and into the eternal heart of God, yes a God who take that sin as his own. And as the Christ doe this, as he is put to death for our trespasses, know that he has done all this for you. Not that you may wallow in a guilty piety, but that you may know there is nothing that can now ever separate you from this God’s love. That you may now have the power, given by the Holy Spirit, to lay down your fears, to lay down your burdens, to lay down, yes, even the things you think are God-pleasing, that all these may be laid down at the foot of the cross. For it is, here, atop Golgatha, that terror gives way to peace, that fear gives way to courage, that sorrow gives way to joy. Here atop Golgatha, this is where your God is found and your neighbor regained in the bounds of communal love. Not in wealth, knowledge, piety, status, power or control, but in the broken body of a first century Jewish man who bore God in the flesh. Yes there is terror here, but it is the terror of being so deeply loved and so entirely freed. It is the freedom of true life. Come, then, to this cross and know that Christ has lost all so that he might gain you forever. After all, there is nothing more terrifying than true love. In Jesus’ name, amen.