Genesis 17. 1 – 7, 15, 16

Mark 8. 31 – 38

Fr Alex


I’m quite fond of a political drama – on the TV anyway, not those we get all the time at Westminster! – and the first part of that Gospel reading made me think of one right away.

You can picture the scene: a politician on the campaign trail, trying to convince his listeners, suddenly goes off-message with a strange and challenging speech, and the panicking advisor jumps in to try to steer him back on course.

Peter, who in the verses just before this Gospel has finally recognised Jesus as the Messiah – takes his Messiah aside and rebukes him.  “People don’t want to hear about suffering, rejection, and death!”

But unlike a politician eager for votes, Jesus doubles down on his difficult and unpopular teaching.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

This passage marks a turning point in Mark’s Gospel – everything is now different, as Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and the terrible consequences of his return to the holy city.

In a similar way, this Gospel today marks a change in tone on our journey through this Lenten season.  We began on Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday of Lent with Jesus in the wilderness; with themes of resisting our own temptations, of giving things up, or taking things on over forty days.

Now, today and the next couple of Sundays, the view widens, and we focus on the long haul of our Lenten journey, and indeed our life-long discipleship.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ?  How can we truly follow Christ – especially when he says that following him might be very costly indeed?

We’re familiar with the sense of what it means figuratively to ‘bear a cross’ in life – the idea of stoically putting up with something difficult, be it health issues or crumbling relationships or disappointment of some sort.

‘We all have our crosses to bear,’ is something you’ve probably heard before.  In other words, get on with it, everyone’s got their own problems to deal with.

But there’s no hope, if we see taking up our cross in those terms.  It turns the cross into a crutch, simply a way of coping with whatever life throws at us.  And it’s something that is thrust upon us, against our will.

But for the Christian, the cross is something we take up willingly.  It is an invitation.  And by taking it up, we may not just find a way to cope with life: but a way to transform our experience of life.

One example of this that comes to mind is those who have entered the religious life, such as the brothers at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, our patrons.

Many see their apparently impossible vows of poverty, obedience, and stability as taking up a cross on an heroic scale.  How can they possibly be happy giving up so much of what we take for granted?

But when you speak to religious, I find they never talk about what they’ve given up, or what they’ve lost.  They only talk about what they’ve gained.  Freedom, peace, deep joy and contentment.

They illuminate that difficult teaching of Jesus this morning: “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 the religious, taking up their cross isn’t a way out of the difficulties and temptations of the world: it is the way to freedom and fullness of life in the world that God has given us.  Nothing less than a total transformation of their experience of life.

There is another, darker example in the news recently that seems to epitomise what Jesus talks about today.  It’s not a Christian story – in fact I don’t even know if this person was religious or not.

But Alexei Navalny to my mind did a very Christ-like thing.  Having been poisoned and fighting for his life in a German hospital a couple of years ago, he chose to return to Russia, knowing full-well what would await him if he did.

He was of course arrested immediately; and just last week, he died in prison – no doubt murdered by the power to whom he spoke truth.

He could’ve sought asylum, stayed away from the danger.  But for Navalny, the only way to try to transform the corruption and oppression of the Putin regime was to take up his cross and go back into the darkness.

I don’t wish to paint him as a saint.  But Navalny hoped for a better life for himself and his fellow Russians.  And he was willing to give up everything, to bring it about.

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Jesus said.

This was the question that Jesus faced himself as he turned towards Jerusalem.  As he said in this Gospel reading, he knew what the consequences would be if he took up his cross.  He knew it would be heavy to bear; he would fall under its weight, more than once.  But he took it up anyway.  And by taking it up, he transformed the world.

Because for Jesus, taking up his cross and going to Jerusalem was not a way to live with the darkness, like some crutch; it was the only way through the darkness, and into the fulness of life that he longed to bring to the world.

Praise God, it is unlikely that the cost of our own discipleship will be so high.  But we are called to be just as ready to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ – whatever that might look like.  May we be given the strength to do it willingly, and joyfully.  Amen.