Worship Service, February 28, 2021 “Bearing the Cross Doesn’t Mean Beating Yourself Up”
Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik
on February 28, 2021 via YouTube
The message “Bearing the Cross Doesn’t Mean Beating Yourself Up” by Pastor Erik can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service.
“Bearing the Cross Doesn’t Mean Beating Yourself Up” Mark 8:31-38
The term “bearing your cross” is a phrase sometimes used in our culture to describe an on-going hardship that a person might have to deal with. In certain circumstances this phrase can come off as a casual or almost sarcastic way of dismissing criticism or concern. For example, if someone told you your handwriting was really messy you might acknowledge it then respond with, “Oh, well, I guess it’s just my cross to bear.” This use of the phrase dismisses what the symbol of cross really means and almost reduces it to a kind of excuse.
Using the term in a more seriously manner, however, can also perhaps distort what the cross was about. Some people might use this term as a way of resigning themselves to a difficult situation. They might respond to a problematic relationship with a friend or struggles with a chronic illness as “just a cross they have to bear.” Others might use this phrase as a response to someone who is in a hard situation and are wondering why it is happening. They might say to the person, “It sounds like that is a cross you are just going to have to bear.”
While the phrase may be helpful on a certain level, I think on another level it can be harmful. It can be helpful by allowing us to accept the circumstance we are in, but it can also be a way of beating ourselves up, which can actually make us feel worse. It can be used as a way to make it sound like God wants us to suffer. It can be used to prevent people from making a change or keeping them in their place, as if that life situation they are in is just the way it is, and they cannot do anything about it.
This phrase partly comes from the passage of Scripture we heard this morning in the Gospel of Mark. We heard Jesus say, “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.” (Mark 8:34-35) Denying yourself, taking up your cross, and giving of your life, all make it sound like suffering is something you are supposed to do as a Christian.
But if suffering is the main goal of following Jesus, then why does Jesus spend so much time working to heal people? Why does Jesus spend so much time trying to cast out evil spirits that are keeping people in bondage? Why does Jesus perform miracles where he is feeding the masses? If people are supposed to take up their cross, why does it seem like Jesus is trying to change things so that people don’t suffer as much? If the main goal is to deny yourself why does Jesus say that the second greatest commandment of all time, is to love your neighbor as yourself? (Mark 12:31)
It seems clear that Jesus demonstrates throughout his ministry that making the world a better place and loving ourselves is a part of our calling as his followers. This is why I don’t think taking up the cross means inflicting self-punishment. In fact, beating ourselves up can actually prevent us from helping to bear the burdens of others. It can lead us to believe that we are not worthy of acting on behalf of God, which can lead us to not acting at all. Believing we are not good enough can actually prevent us from doing the good God wants us to do.
How we view the idea of denying oneself and taking up your cross, is really influenced by how we view what the true mission of Jesus is according to this passage. Professor Driggers from Lutheran Southern Seminary points out that much in this passage from Mark depends on how we interpret the word “must” in verse 31, where it says, “the son of Man must undergo great suffering.” Too often the word “must” is taken to mean that Jesus’ mission is principally to suffer and die. In this reading, Jesus “must” go to the cross in order to affect a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
But when we pan out beyond one or two isolated verses, we find that the overarching narrative of Mark offers a simpler, but no less profound, explanation of Jesus’ death: Jesus dies because powerful humans oppose both his healing mission and, more specifically, they oppose the disruption that mission brings to established law and order. It is the religious powers-that-be, that will reject Jesus and conspire with the political authorities to have him crucified.
So, the real essence of this passage Professor Driggers says, is not that Jesus’ mission is to die, but that his faithfulness to God’s desire to bring healing will inevitably result in his death. In Mark, Jesus “must” die because his commitment to human healing will not falter. Essentially, Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits. And neither does God’s life-giving power. (From the “Working Preacher” website, Feb. 28 commentary.)
Jesus tells his followers that, yes, the son of Man will suffer but the suffering is not an end in itself, it is a result of a healing mission, and although the powers-that-be in the world will try and crush that healing mission, it will not be denied. God will work even in the midst of the suffering to bring about new life, because the mission Jesus on was not just to die, it was to rise again. The real goal is resurrection and hope.
God is on the side of those who suffer, that is what the cross demonstrates. It reveals that God is ultimately about bringing about new life. But here’s the thing, when you identify with, sympathize with, and act on behalf of those who are suffering in the way that Jesus did, there’s a good chance you may end up experiencing some suffering too. But loving our neighbor means being willing to acknowledge and address their suffering just as God entered our suffering in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to take up our cross.
Unfortunately, the church has not always done a good job acknowledging the suffering of others. Unfortunately, the church has actually often enabled abusive relationships with the way it has associated such suffering as part of having to “bear your cross” as a part of your station in life. This has especially been the case when it has come to the abuse of women who have often been told to hide abuse against them or stay in abusive relationships because they are to be submissive and willing to suffer like Christ.
Rachael Denhollander was one of the young women abused by Larry Nassar, the gymnastics coach at Michigan State. Now a mother and a trained lawyer, Denhollander spoke out at the trial of Nassar that took place a few years ago. She publicly forgave him, but also asked that he be held accountable under the law.
Denhollander went on to advocate for other victims of sexual assault from within the Christian community in which she belonged, but she said doing so eventually cost her both her church community and some of her closest friends within her community. They were supportive when she spoke up against Nassar, but when she raised those same issues within the church they felt threatened and vilified her. In an article in Christianity Today, Denhollander said that in her experience, Christians tend to gloss over the devastation of any kind of suffering, and especially sexual assault, with platitudes like “God works all things together for good,” or “God is sovereign.”
These can be good and glorious truths, she explained, but when they are misapplied in a way to dampen the horror of evil, then they also dampen the goodness of God. She went on to say that she felt that the church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because of the way people are counseled can be more damaging to the victim than helpful.
Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard-Merritt echoes this same sentiment in her book Healing Spiritual Wounds. She writes about abuse in the church and about helping people find ways to retain their faith in a loving God even after being hurt by the church. She talks about how the church has not only failed women by covering up abuse, but in other cases, women who have suffered spousal abuse have been encouraged by pastors and priests to stay in abusive relationships. Howard-Meritt says that after she wrote her book she gets letters about twice a month and sometimes more frequently, from women whose pastors told them to stay with abusive spouses, which is something that actually happened to her own mother as well.
If the church is to reclaim its calling to be a place of healing, it needs to be aware of the ways it has fallen short of acknowledging the abuse it has enabled through its interpretation of God’s word on suffering. It needs to acknowledge the ways scripture has been used to keep people in their place. Jesus was not crucified because he thought suffering was a good thing. The powers-that-be would not have minded at all if he would have talked about people just having to bear their cross because that was simply their lot in life and there wasn’t anything they could do to change it. That would not have upset the status quo at all.
But the message of Jesus was quite the opposite. The good news of the kingdom of God was that God was breaking in to disrupt the status quo in order that people might be healed—in order that people might be fed and set free from evil spirits. The good news was that no matter if they were poor, sick, outcast, or abused, God loved them as much as anyone else and wanted them to have a new life, a full life, a healthy life, not just someday in heaven, but in the present time as well.
I like the way Professor Driggers puts it in his commentary on this passage from Mark. He says, “What makes the ministry of Jesus in the book of Mark so counter-cultural, and therefore the object of earthy hostility, is not that the ministry is “Christian” per se, but that it abides no impediment to the immediate restoration of the broken and the outcast.” The kingdom of God will accept no barriers to the immediate restoration of the broken and the outcast.
This is the way of the cross. It is not about beating ourselves up. It is about accepting the free gift of grace in Jesus Christ, which means accepting a love from God that drives us to love others so that they too might be restored to a right relationship with the community and with the Creator. Amen.
-Pastor Erik Goehner