Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
The way of the cross is a very complicated and at the same time easily understood idea. However, living the way of the cross is almost impossibly hard. The way of the cross is short hand for living with and despite suffering. It also can mean taking up a cause or mission with the hopes of bring help to those in need in the name of a loving God.
The word "cross" in the gospels refers to the Roman instrument of execution in which the condemned were forced to carry one beam of their cross to the place where they would die. Although Mark is underscoring in verse 34 the possibility of martyrdom for a disciple, he is certainly not assuming that all disciples would be crucified the way Jesus was. The Interpreter's Bible comments: "The Cross for Jesus was his deliberate choice of giving his life...of ministering to men's need of truth...of love, cost what it might." This primary biblical meaning of the word "cross" applies also to discipleship. To take up one's cross and follow Christ without counting the cost means making a deliberate choice of something we could avoid, undertaking a burden voluntarily, or serving others unreservedly—and doing all this because we are impelled by love. In the illustrations that follow, our particular theme is how authentic Christian disciples demonstrate courage while carrying their crosses in their primary and secondary meanings.
Numerically, geographically and thematically, today's passage from Mark's gospel occupies a central position. Numerically, the text approximately marks the halfway point in the gospel; geographically, our Lord leaves his public ministry in Galilee, and will move steadily toward Jerusalem for his crucifixion and resurrection; thematically, the text explicitly states both Christ's identity as the Messiah and what it means to be one of his disciples. Thus, the passage is a significant turning point in Mark's gospel.
The reading is divided into three sections. In the first section, the disciples look back to review their experiences with Jesus and what people think of him. Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah takes the apostles' understanding of Jesus' identity to a new level. The second section contains the first of three predictions that Jesus makes of his passion and resurrection. Peter's reaction and rebuke of Jesus reveal how flawed his understanding and faith still are. In the third section, Jesus outlines the requirements of authentic discipleship: "If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps."
Alfred McBride, points out that in the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is "the first human being to formally recognize Jesus as the Messiah." In Luke and Matthew, the shepherds and magi saw in Christ something extraordinary, but it is Peter who explicitly "makes the faith statement." It seems that Jesus knew that Peter's messianic confession "would be clouded by what their culture expected."(Alfred McBride, O. Praem., To Love and Be Loved by Jesus: Meditation and Commentary on the Gospel of Mark [Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992] p. 79-81). However, Christ would have no part with becoming merely a "cultural Messiah" modeled after public opinion. With blistering bluntness, Jesus in turn rebukes Peter: "Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are not judging by God's standards but by man's." Why would Jesus call his apostle "Satan" instead of "Peter"? George T. Montague answers by saying that "Jesus identifies the invitation (by Peter) to be from Satan who had tested him in the desert (Mk 1:13)," and who now confronts Jesus again "in the blindness of his chief disciple." In a similar way, Lamar Williamson answers the question by writing: "Jesus is tempted (and so are we) to think that God's anointed can avoid suffering, rejection, and death; that God's rule means power without pain, glory without humiliation. This is Peter's human way of thinking; and Jesus, overcoming this tempting suggestion, identifies it as a devil of an idea."
Although Jesus does not deny Peter's designation of him as the Messiah, Jesus never used that title of himself in the gospels. Instead, he preferred the enigmatic title Son of Man. A footnote in The New American Bible explains that Jewish apocryphal literature used Son of Man to describe "a unique religious personage, a messiah with extraordinary spiritual endowments. Jesus' use of it seems to derive from Ezekiel, where it is a title of humility, and Daniel 7:13f, where it indicates a clearly messianic figure. It expresses for him his twofold destiny of suffering and of glory." George T. Montague, notes that of the fourteen Son of Man sayings in Mark, three concern predictions of his sufferings (8:31; 9:31; 10:34). These three predictions in turn are balanced by three sayings predicting his glory (8:38; 13:26; 14:62). "But Jesus will attain that glory, as will his disciples," Montague concludes, "only by first walking the way of the cross." In other words, even our Lord's preference for the title Son of Man reveals volumes about who he is and how disciples must follow him. (George T. Montague, S.M., Mark: Good News for Hard Times [Ann Arbor: Servant Publications, 1981], pp. 100-102).
D.E. Nineham offers some further insight on these aspects of Christ's identity and role as Messiah, and a disciple's profile and responsibilities. He stresses the importance of the single word "must" in verse 31: "And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer...be rejected...be killed..." Jesus asserts that he "must" go through this cycle in order to obey his Father's will and to accomplish the messianic mission for which he was sent. To seek some other way would be equivalent to a lack of trust in his Father's design. In verse 34, this "must" is imposed upon anyone who wishes to be a disciple of Jesus: "If any man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps." Not all translations use the word "must" in verse 31, but The New English Bible with Apocrypha and The New American Bible are two versions that do. (D.E. Nineham, The Pelican NT Commentaries: St. Mark [England: Penguin, 1971], pp. 223-228).
We find suffering all around us. We have a very hard time explaining to a suffering friend why there is suffering. We need to acknowledge that suffering is a part of life and that we know that God is with us during suffering because he even allowed his own Son Jesus to suffer.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
In his book The Will to Stay With It, Emerson Klees describes the courage and determination Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) possessed in order to become the first woman medical doctor in the U.S. Because her father died at age 48, Elizabeth had to teach for several years to finance her education. When she applied to 29 medical schools in 1847, only Geneva College in New York State broke the male barrier and accepted her application. She was on her way to "Jerusalem" but it would be a "Way of the Cross."
Blackwell had to live in a cold attic room in Geneva, other boarders ostracized her, women on the streets snubbed her, and one doctor tried to prevent her from attending a dissection class on the reproductive organs. In the summer she found work in a Philadelphia hospital, but the doctors ignored her, and she had to make many of her own diagnoses. During her second year of medical school Blackwell earned the highest grades in her class, and upon receiving her medical degree in January 1849, she said: "Sir, I thank you. By the help of the Most High, it shall be the effort of my life to shed honor on your diploma."
Unable to find work in Philadelphia even with a diploma, Blackwell went to Paris in May 1849. One doctor viewed her merely as a midwife, some doctors denied her permission to attend their lectures, and one doctor dared to suggest that she disguise herself as a man. Blackwell moved to London and then later to New York. Her applications to work in each place as an assistant physician were rejected. So Elizabeth established her own dispensary, published a book in 1852 on female hygiene, and with her sister Emily founded a hospital in 1857 for women and children.
Blackwell traveled to England in 1858 to become the first woman in the British Medical Register, trained nurses here during the Civil War (1861-64), and established a medical college for women in 1868 (later incorporated into the Cornell Medical Center in 1899). She returned to England in 1869 to promote medical training for women, and in 1876 accepted a teaching position in gynecology at the London School for Women. She died in 1910. Considering all the obstacles she overcame, Elizabeth Blackwell deserves a very high place as a pioneer in medical history. (Emerson Klees, The Will to Stay With It [Rochester, NY, Cameo Press, 2002], pp. 55-66).
The documentary film The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition captures the virtue of courage under the aspects of leadership and loyalty. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set sail with a crew of 28 men for his third attempt to be the first to cross the Antarctic Continent on foot. He used a three mast sailing vessel built to withstand ice and christened it after his family motto: "By endurance we conquer." Shackleton's newspaper ad made no attempt to hide the expedition's hardships: "Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold..."
The adventure started well, but soon the ship became trapped in an ice pack for 10 months before finally breaking up and sinking. With strong leadership Shackleton organized activities to maintain discipline, quelled a threat of mutiny, and devised survival tactics. The men were forced to live for another 5 months on dangerous ice floats before they used the 3 lifeboats they had salvaged to take refuge on Elephant Island. From there Shackleton and a crew of 5 took off in one of the lifeboats on the open sea for a perilous 800-mile journey to reach South Georgia, a whaling station. Some say this was the most daring ocean voyage in modern maritime history. Their frostbitten exhausted group arrived safely, but they still had to make a 36-hour trek over a glacier before reaching their destination. It took Shackleton 4 attempts before he could safely rescue the rest of his crew. Not a single man died!
Movie reviewer Jack Gardner called the documentary "a jaw-dropping, true-life story of courage, resilience and perseverance." Critic Laura Clifford called it "an awe-inspiring, uplifting tale of human fortitude and one man's incredible capacity to lead men through unthinkable obstacles." If men such men as Shackleton and his crew were able to cope for two years with such excruciating circumstances, we might wonder why more disciples of Christ don't carry their crosses with a like uncommon courage.
Bouaketh Chanthavisouk graduated from St. John Fisher College last May in spite of having a brain tumor removed by surgery five months earlier in January. While playing volleyball last October, Bouaketh was hit on the head and later diagnosed with a concussion. She continued to have headaches and had difficulty concentrating. An MRI showed that she had a walnut-sized brain tumor that had nothing to do with the concussion. Bouaketh worked as a Senior computer lab assistant at St. John Fisher, and so she did some internet research to learn about her illness. Since she is also a flight medic in the Army National Reserve, she understood that even though the tumor was not cancerous it was still a severe condition and had to be treated.
Within a month of her surgery, Bouaketh felt strong enough to go back to her classes and the computer lab. Although she is a very bright student, her final semester at the College was difficult. Bouaketh had some loss in hearing and sense of balance, her memory has been affected, and the return of feeling is her face has been slow. Besides coping with recovery from her surgery, she had to play "catch up" with the course work she had missed.
According to one of her classmates, Bouaketh has demonstrated through all this adversity that "she's an incredibly strong person." A member of the faculty at St. John Fisher College testifies that she is an inspiration to all who know her, is a model of generosity in helping others, and sets an example of how to maintain a positive attitude when faced with severe challenges. Because she's already carried crosses so courageously, Bouaketh can continue her education in graduate school with confidence that the Lord will be with her every step of the way.
The last chapters of Fr. Thomas Murphy's story parallel in some respects Mark's final chapters of our Lord's journey to Jerusalem for his passion and death. Fr. Tom was born in 1928 in Chicago, graduated from De La Salle High School, and was a first-string guard for three years on the U. of Illinois football team, including the team that won the 1952 Rose Bowl. He then entered the Army, served sixteen months in Korea, was discharged as a first-lieutenant, entered the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, and was ordained a priest in 1965.
In the late 1960s, Fr. Tom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was forced into medical retirement. This once robust football player gradually lost the movement of his arms and legs; eventually he could move only his head and speak in a whisper. Nonetheless, Fr. Tom remained a cheerful and prayerful person who gave visitors much more than he received. His service as a Missionary of the Sacred Heart from 1970 until 1998 was his struggle with the multiple sclerosis, and his ministry was one of suffering, prayer, and inspiring others. Fr. Tom's Community always considered him an unseen partner in all their missionary endeavors.
If we asked Jesus, "Who is your disciple?" he could easily point to Fr. Tom and say: "There is my disciple—someone who carried his cross of sickness with courage, remained steadfast in following me, and died on the cross of his bed commending with trust his spirit into my Father's hands." Where do we find saints such as Fr. Tom Murphy, M.S.C.? In our own families and among our friends; we find them just down the street or in our local church. (Obituary, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, 1998).
The 1943 movie Madam Curie, starring Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, is a story of carrying crosses with courage in the life of a woman scientist who became the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes. Marie Sklodowska (1867-1934) was born in Poland and met her physicist husband Pierre Curie while studying in Paris. Attracted by the uranium researches of Becquerel, Marie and Pierre's investigations of the mystery of radioactivity led to their discovery of two new elements, radium and polonium. With Becquerel, they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.
Madame Curie's celebrated marriage with Pierre and the fame they attained belie the hard life she had. While just a child, Marie saw her mother and eldest sister die, her family lived in poverty, and her Polish people were oppressed. Nonetheless, she worked to save enough money to move to Paris. Marie endured living alone in an unheated room, often went hungry, and worked for meager wages just so she could spend some part of her day in a laboratory. Although Marie's marriage to Pierre brought her much love, their exhaustive research together on radioactivity took place under the worst conditions. In his book Party of One, Clifton Fadiman writes: "From 1898 to 1902, in a dilapidated, leaking, freezing shed, with primitive apparatus, with little or no help, unaided by the scientific bureaucracy or by the State, these two gentle fanatics work in an absorption that is like a dream." Furthermore, their intense scientific research did not exempt them from the normal family difficulties of raising two daughters, or from the tragedy of Pierre's accidental death in 1906.
Refusing to be defeated by this disaster, Marie continued to educate her two daughters, took over Pierre's position as Director of the Physical Laboratory at the Sorbonne, and carried on her research. Nearly blind at the time, Marie's death in 1934 ironically was caused in part by the radioactive rays of the radium she had discovered. In her biography of her mother, Eve Curie listed some of the traits she admired so much in her: "The immovable structure of a character; the stubborn effort of an intelligence; the free immolation of a human being that could give all and take nothing, could even receive nothing; and above all the quality of a soul in which neither fame nor adversity could change the exceptional purity..." (Quotations cited by Peter Seymour, Courage! [Kansas City: Hallmark Cards Inc., 1969], pp. 24-27).
R. C. Sproul prefaces his book Stronger Than Steel: The Wayne Alderson Story, by saying: "I am writing about a common man with uncommon courage, a man whom I honestly believe to be one of the most courageous human beings I've ever encountered." Wayne Alderson is a humble coal miner's son who became a high corporate executive, a risk-taking soldier who became a peacemaker, a Christian who successfully combines idealism with realism, and the founder of today's Value of the Person movement.
As an advance scout for the U.S. forces in Germany during World War II, Wayne often risked his life probing enemy territory behind
the Siegfried Line. After the war, Wayne went to work in the steel industry and played a daring role in defusing a potentially explosive strike in 1972 at the Pittron steel foundry in Pennsylvania. He created "Operation Turnabout," a model for working through confrontational negotiations by bringing union leaders and management into constructive agreements. Its aims are to foster an atmosphere of trust between workers and company heads, develop innovative problem-solving strategies, improve job security and productivity, and increase ethical consciousness.
Wayne's successes have not been accomplished without cost or crosses to carry. Because of his strong convictions, he has often encountered hostility and was even terminated once from a key executive position. Nonetheless, Wayne has courageously never compromised his commitment to be a Christian peacemaker in our industrial and corporate world. (R.C. Sproul, Stronger Than Steel: The Wayne Alderson Story [Pittsburgh: Value of the Person Consultants, 1980]).
Jeanne E. Rogers of Stressfree Living relates a story of uncommon courage about Jackie Nink Pflug. In 1985, Jackie was a teacher of disabled learners at an American School in Egypt. On a planned vacation trip to Athens, she was shot in the back of the head by a hijacker while boarding Egypt Air-Flight 648, pushed down the plane's stairs, and left on the tarmac for dead. Although in extreme pain, Jackie realized what was happening and tried to survive by "playing dead." The hijackers announced that they would kill one passenger every 15 minutes until their demands were met. In the end, more than 60 people died. Jackie lay still for 3 hours under the plane until she was placed in a van that was brought to take the dead to the morgue!
As she went through her healing process after the hijacking, Jackie "learned that good does come from bad. She learned more about faith in God and in her doctors....The main lesson was that, `Whatever comes our way, it will all be okay, no matter what the outcome.' These considerations became her motivating force." She drove herself to keep a positive outlook, to conquer her fears, to re-learn how to read, and to share her story with others.
Jackie's vision is still fragmentary, and she has to move her head from side to side or up and down to see a complete picture. Her short-term memory is still somewhat impaired, and she requires medication to control her epilepsy. Seven years after the hijacking Jackie met and married her husband Jim, and they have one son. Three years later she authored a book titled Miles To Go Before I Sleep. She is a spokesperson for Novartis Pharmaceutical Company and also a professional motivational speaker. Although her crosses are still many, Jackie continues to inspire people with her courage. (Jeanne E. Rogers, Uncommon Courage [ Prior Lake, MN: Stressfree Living, 1999].
During his complex career as a Basilian priest, George W. Kosicki has earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the U. of Michigan, did university teaching and experimental research, worked in religious formation, was actively involved in Charismatic Renewal, directed Houses of Prayer, played a leadership role in the Divine Mercy Apostolate, has given over a hundred retreats all over the world, and has had numerous articles and books published.
In his book The Good News of Suffering, Fr. Kosicki writes: "Over the years I've been searching for the why of suffering, what its meaning is? Now it seems to me that the important question is not why but how to suffer. If I become absorbed in searching out the why of suffering, I come up against mystery—God's plan for our salvation. It is in suffering that we discover the mystery of God's love, and it is in his love that we can possibly get a glimpse into the why of suffering, thus leading us deeper into the how."
As he reflects on the life, passion, and resurrection of Christ in the Scriptures, Fr. Kosicki concludes: "His utter and radical trust in the Father is at the root of how he suffered.... Suffering is not something that is embraced for itself but for others. As we unite our sufferings with Christ's, we enter the sacrifice of Christ and into the work of salvation of souls. The elements in this salvific work need to be stressed:
—all suffering (from the pain of a headache to our very dying)
—in union with Christ (a simple act of the will offering it up)
—offered for others
—is redemptive, that is, brings salvation to others.
—How? Look to Jesus! Trust!"
When he returns to the why of suffering, Fr. Kosicki simply says that it is only when we ponder the immense love of the Father who gave up his only Son, and how Jesus laid down his life for us, that we can begin to approach the why of suffering. (George Kosicki, C.S.B., The Good News of Suffering [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1981] pp. 11-15).
How can we accept a loving God amidst so much pain and evil in the world? This is a question Louis Evely tries to answer in his book Suffering. With his characteristic insight to discover paradoxes, Evely shows several ways of exercising courage in carrying our crosses. For example, Evely asserts that our capacity for suffering is the necessary reverse of our capacity for joy. We think of how the pain of a woman in labor gives way to joy when her child is born; how an athlete's suffering in training fades in comparison to the exhilaration of winning; or how the ordeals of rehearsals disappear when actors hear resounding applause after a fine performance.
Instead of looking upon sufferings as some kind of curse from God, Evely considers sufferings not only an inescapable condition of human life but also "the support, the material of a `sign' of God." He encourages us to see God's promises in what we suffer, and not mutilations. To do this, however, requires immense patience and trust to wait until God's mysterious plan unfolds. In this sense, such patient endurance is akin to courage—"Patience is so like fortitude," Aristotle wrote, "that she seems either her sister or her daughter."
The Scriptures show that Jesus did not come to suppress suffering, but to assume it; not to explain it, but to transform it; not to justify it, but to use it. God did not create suffering, but makes a beatitude of it— "Blessed are the persecuted..." Christ made suffering sacred by revealing his divine love for us through his passion and death on the cross. When our Lord invites us to take up our cross and follow in his steps, believing that suffering is sacred doesn't make our discipleship any easier, but it does encourage us to be patient and steadfast. (Louis Evely, Suffering [Garden City: Image Books, 1974], pp. 43-52).
When it comes to suffering, there is a phenomenon known as the "Stockdale Paradox," which derives its name from Admiral James Stockdale. He was the highest-ranking American officer to be held at the so-called "Hanoi Hilton" prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. During his imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, he was tortured more than twenty times by his captors. Throughout that time, he was denied the customary rights afforded to a prisoner-of-war. In addition, no release date was ever set for him, and he was given no certainty that he would ever return home to see his family again. But Admiral Stockdale was able to survive that horrible ordeal. He later said, "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade." When asked about those who did not survive their imprisonment, Stockdale observed that those who clung to false optimism fared the worst. Some soldiers, he said, kept telling themselves that they would be home by Christmas. But Christmas came and went, and they remained in prison. After a while, after repeatedly having their optimism crushed like that, Stockdale said, those prisoners ended up perishing from a broken heart. The admiral summed up the essence of the Stockdale Paradox: You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline of confronting the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
There is a story that tells about a certain fork in the road where there were two arrows pointing in opposite directions. The one sign read "Heaven"; the other said "Discussion About Heaven." Most people who passed that way followed the latter. In the same way, those signs might very well read "The Cross" and "Discussion About The Cross." Which of those two paths would we be more likely to follow?
Many people are willing to support a cause with their words, but they aren't necessarily willing to devote their lives to it. Earlier this year a city councilman in Boston announced his opposition to the impending war with Iraq. To demonstrate his opposition, he announced that he would go on a hunger strike until the hostilities were peacefully resolved. But instead of engaging in a complete cut-off of nourishment, the councilman indicated that he would still consume liquids. After a little while, he then altered his protest by announcing that he would be taking part in his hunger strike only during daylight hours. Since this was taking place in Boston during the winter time, the daylight hours, of course, are rather limited. In essence, refraining from eating during daylight hours meant that he'd only be skipping lunch each day. Finally the councilman further changed his hunger strike plans, indicating that he would engage in his protest only on the second and fourth Fridays of each month.
Some people aren't willing to make much of a sacrifice for their faith. For instance, if it came down to a choice between the Super Bowl or the cross, most people know which option they would choose. At the New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Alabama, they voted 67-10 to fire their new pastor. The reason for the move was that the pastor had scheduled his consecration service to take place at the same time the Super Bowl was on. When he refused to change the time of the service, the congregation ousted him.
Back in March, a New Zealand woman announced that she would be willing to be crucified if President Bush would pledge not to attack Iraq. Mary Grierson made the offer in an e-mail to the White House and in an open letter to a number of newspapers. One hitch to the offer, though, was that the president would have to personally hammer in the nails.
A baptism in the Greek Orthodox tradition is markedly different from the kind of baptism that is found in most mainline churches today. After the Greek Orthodox priest has baptized the infant, the priest takes the large, heavy cross that hangs in front of his chest and strikes the child firmly on its chest, so hard that the cross leaves a mark and the child cries out. The symbolism is unmistakable. Those who are baptized are baptized into the way of the cross, a way that leads not necessarily to success or prosperity, but to pain, suffering, and death.
Many church crosses are serving double duty these days. More and more congregations are renting out the crosses on their steeples to cell phone companies. At present about 1% of all cell phone towers in the United States are located in church steeples. That number will likely continue to rise as cell phone companies offer churches anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per month to lease the space.
Neither Peter nor his fellow disciples could at the moment have grasped the meaning of John Bowring's great hymn "In the Cross of Christ I Glory." Surely there is no glory in dying the lowliest and most painful death that Roman power could inflict upon a person! It would only be after their Master's death and resurrection that they could have joined in singing it—and it would only be through the centuries that men and women could see that the cross towered "o'er the wrecks of time," as the mighty Roman Empire crumbled to ruin. The first Christians could not even depict the Crucifixion, turning instead to Christ's birth and healing miracles for the subject of their catacomb art. But after the emperor ended crucifixion as punishment, and the centuries passed, Christians came to see the cross as the means of "peace and joy" that the hymn writer describes. The author Sir John Bowring was a British Unitarian when its adherents still believed in the divinity of Christ. Born in 1792, he became a youthful idealist dedicated to social progress, championing reforms in Parliament and the prison system, the overthrow of the odious Corn Laws, and Catholic Emancipation. He was a master linguist, translating poetry from Russian, Spanish, Polish, Serbian, Bohemian, Magyar, Czech and Hungarian tongues, and even learning Chinese. He served two terms in Parliament, and this led to the waning of his idealism. He was said to have been the worst governor ever to have served in Hong Kong, forcing the lucrative opium trade upon the Chinese, and at the end of the second Opium War forcing many humiliations upon the Chinese nation, one of which included the permission of missionaries to operate within that country. He served in many other positions as a tough-minded diplomat, and yet one who continued to translate poetry and avow "Christian principles." Quite a contrast between the words of his hymn and his deeds in promoting the imperialistic power of his nation!
From the earliest days of the Christian faith, there was a belief that to follow Jesus means to let go of our sinful pasts and to walk with courage in the way of Christ. Dating back to the beginning of the third century, the Apostolic Tradition describes how the church tried to impress upon people the new way of life that is demanded by Christ.
The document, usually attributed to Hippolytus, describes how the act of washing was used to communicate the boundary between the impure society outside the church and the pure community within the church. Before new members were admitted to the fellowship of believers, they were carefully screened before they were even permitted to begin the process of catechesis. Those who held jobs that were considered to be immoral were forced to change their line of work or else face exclusion from the church. In particular, the early church refused to admit male or female prostitutes, school teachers, and sculptors. Usually a three-year period of instruction would then take place before the candidate was finally admitted as a member. During that process, a number of exorcisms were regularly performed on the candidates, further emphasizing that the devil's power would not be admitted into the church. Only those who were utterly committed to the way of Christ were finally welcomed into the church.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is located at the site in Jerusalem where the tradition says that Jesus died on the cross and was buried. During this past Easter season, a service was being jointly led by both Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox clergy. At one point in the service, a priest is supposed to emerge from a certain entryway carrying a lit candle, supposedly ignited by a flame that miraculously descends from heaven. When the priest appears with that candle, the worshipers recognize that as the official start of Easter. But during that service, the Greek and the Armenian priests got into a shoving match with each other over which one of them would carry their candle through the entryway first. Eventually Israeli riot police had to swarm into the church to keep things from getting completely out of hand. Last year at that same service, Greek and Armenian priests and worshipers had gotten into a massive brawl with one another. When the Israeli police threatened to clear out the building and allow only a few hundred stay for the service, the priests worked out their differences, and the 6,000 who had gathered were able to conclude their worship.
When people see the cross today, do most people identify it as a symbol of suffering and death, as a symbol that invites believers to live lives of courageous faith? Or do many people today merely see the cross as a piece of artwork or jewelry? After all, does a pristine golden cross, imbedded with jewels, truly communicate the horrible, excruciating death that stands behind the church's use of that emblem? In the same kind of way, have the symbols we use at Easter time blurred the true meaning of that holy season? This past Easter season Kmart sold Easter baskets. That might not sound so amazing. But for $15.99 your child's Easter basket came complete with a Combat Vehicle Military Play Set and the Die-Cast Metal Army Force. For those who wanted a more inexpensive option, Wal-Mart offered a $4.88 Easter basket that contained an Army Tech action figure who came fully equipped with an automatic rifle and bazooka.
"Hardiness" research studies were conducted some years ago by the International Committee for the Study of Victimization. Those studies assessed people who had suffered serious adversities in their lives—cancer sufferers, prisoners of war, accident victims, and others—and who had survived. The study found that those people tended to fall into three basic categories: those who were permanently disheartened by the event, those whose lives returned to normal, and those who used the experience as a turning point that made them stronger.
In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning Rene Girard explores the roots of violence in the world, with particular attention to the crucifixion of Jesus. His basic thesis is that people act violently because they are imitating the violent people around them. Simply put, Girard suggests that humankind is much more prone to a "mob mentality" than we might want to admit. He uses the term "mimetic contagion." It basically refers to our tendency to imitate others. According to Girard, what makes the story of Jesus so astounding was Jesus' ability to resist being drawn into that cycle of violence. Instead of setting his sights on other people and trying to be like them, Jesus kept his sights firmly set upon God and dedicated himself to imitating the Father.
The Talmud teaches: "If everyone is in agreement to condemn someone accused, release him for he must be innocent."
One of the funeral prayers in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship reads: "O Lord, help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying, our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord."
"Christianity is an ultimate optimism founded upon a provisional pessimism." (Georges Tyrell)
"Jesus invited us, not to a picnic, but to a pilgrimage; not to a frolic, but to a fight. He offered us, not an excursion, but an execution." (Billy Graham)
"Life is a mess. Any Christian who chirps platitudes to the contrary is deluded. From the beginnings of His church, Jesus made it clear that we would be the Body in the midst of a sinful, broken world." (Charles Colson)
"There are no crown-wearers in heaven who were not cross-bearers here below." (Charles Spurgeon)
"Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die." (G. K. Chesterton)
"Have courage for the great sorrows of life, and patience for the small ones. And when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace. God is awake." (Victor Hugo)
"The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt." (Paul Tillich)
In the Synoptic gospels, Jesus very rarely advises his disciples to do what he does. He offers lots of instruction on how to live in line with God's will, but he does not often call on folk to imitate him. Except in this one thing, taking up the cross as he will. To live in imitatio Christi means to be willing to take up a cross if you are asked to do so. RAS
In the last 25 years, perhaps no one in the world demonstrates as clearly what it means to be courageous in taking up one's cross than Nelson Mandela. The white government of South Africa tossed him in a remote island prison to rot away, but when Mandela walked out after decades in the most horrendous conditions imaginable, he still held himself strong because he believed in what was right and trusted that good would ultimately triumph. He suffered wounds that will never go away, yet did not respond with revenge and hate. He modeled both courage and forgiveness and the truth that a cross is never the last word, though it may seem so at the time.
Once a high school class valedictorian, a football player at Yale, and handsome young actor, Jim MacLaren was leaving a rehearsal at a prestigious New York theater school when he was run over by a bus that ran a red light. MacLaren underwent 18 hours of surgery, spent six days in a coma, and awoke to discover that his left leg had been amputated.
After his injuries healed, MacLaren found himself low on self-esteem and depressed. He returned to Yale School of Drama, and began to rebuild his life. He spent mornings in the pool, began riding a bike, and gradually trained to walk and then run on his prosthesis. Then MacLaren ran the New York Marathon, and later the Boston Marathon. He then moved on to triathlons, and later Ironman events. He felt like he was on top of the world.
Eight years after his first accident, MacLaren was in California with his girlfriend, Pam Haskell. Riding the bicycle portion of a triathlon, Jim MacLaren was once again hit, this time by a van. He was paralyzed, and once again began the long road to recovering simple things like the ability to feed himself and comb his hair. Now in a wheelchair, MacLaren believes that "Every tragedy is a gift in disguise." He speaks at various events, trying to motivate others to "Say Yes to Life." (J.R. Moehringer, Uncommon Courage, [Rocky Mountain News, September 25, 1994], pp. 8M-11M).
Jessica Esquivel was five years old when a bacterial infection cut off the blood supply to her limbs. Her arms were amputated below the elbows and her legs below the knees. Jessica credits her parents for ability to overcome such terrible circumstances. "My parents have always helped me believe there's nothing I can't do, and I've done it smiling."
Jessica was filmed by NBC's news feature on her prom day, as she chose her clothes, as she proudly displayed her `high-heeled feet'. They followed her to dinner with her date, and then on to the prom.
Now, Jessica is enrolled in college, doing what other 18 year olds are doing_studying, talking on the phone, going to movies with friends, and learning to drive. She swims and writes poetry. She wants to become a child psychologist because of the help she received while she was relearning the simple skills of living.
If someone stares at her, Jessica simply greets them and smiles. "The main thing is, I'm just a regular person, even though I don't have hands and feet". (Cheryl Clark, Where Are They Now? Catching up with those who made the news, [The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 29, 2002], p. B2)
More specifically, does our union with Christ merely sanctify our inevitable suffering? Or does union with the suffering Christ bring new and deeper suffering? This is a question I’ve had for a long time, especially from studying Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. In the context of explaining his own personal suffering, Paul uses language like:
“As we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:5)
“. . . always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (2 Corinthians 4:10–11)
“He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him.” (2 Corinthians 13:4)
In Christ we “share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Even Peter calls us to “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
So again I ask: Does our glorious union with Christ merely sanctify our inevitable suffering, or does union with the suffering Christ bring with it the addition of new and deeper suffering into our lives?
Suffering is an essential part of our union with the suffering Christ. And yet “the Bible never romanticizes suffering, and it doesn’t minimize it either,” he reiterated. “And there’s no call to stoical resignation. At the same time, the Bible makes it clear that if we are united to Christ, suffering will be inevitable for every human being. Union with Christ makes clear that God redeems our suffering, not only to introduce us to ourselves, but also to introduce us to him.”
“Suffering is one of the means that God uses for us to know his heart,” Wilbourne said, alluding to the book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, where Tim Keller writes: “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine”.
“The suffering Christian is being driven to the heart of God and conformed to the image of Christ,” Wilbourne concludes. “So yes, Christ sanctifies our inevitable suffering. And knowing Christ will bring with it new and deeper suffering.” (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/does-christianity-make-life-harder)
It’s not often that reading a story online makes me cry, but Singing Man: Story Behind the Viral Video of Ben Ellis on The Gospel Coalition did yesterday.
Ben Ellis was a teacher at a Christian school in Nashville diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. He loved Jesus and loved singing to Jesus. Recently, a video went viral when 400 students and staff from Ellis’ school filled his lawn and surprised him to serenade him (or more appropriately, worship with him). (Watch the video here.)
It was tear-jerking and profoundly beautiful, making me cry and reflect for a number of reasons:
My family lost my mother earlier this year to cancer. :'(
It beautifully reflects the love we are to have for one another.
Seeing Ellis’ frailty and thinking about his death on September 16 remind of the brevity of life and encourages me to live more with eternity in mind.
Ellis’ story is a beautiful example of faith and suffering for the glory of God.
Major news outlets (Good Morning America, CNN, Fox News, The Telegraph) all shared this video, showing a secular world what true Christian love is and broadcasting our reigning Lord’s praises to millions.
A reminder of how, in Christ, we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).
Read the story yourself with a tissue box handy or watch the video below.
“So, it is not well with my body. But it is well with my soul.” (https://www.kevinhalloran.net/an-amazing-example-of-christian-love-and-hope-in-suffering/)
2010 was a year of many tears for me. Tears of joy and tears of great sorrow.
It began in June when my husband and I found out we were pregnant. We have two beautiful boys that we adopted as babies, but this was my first pregnancy. To say I was ecstatic would be an understatement.
Then our world came crashing down on us in September. I went in for my 18-week ultrasound and was devastated when I was told that my water had leaked at some point, that no fluid was left around the baby, and delivery was imminent. My first thought was just total disbelief. And then pure agony. What was God doing?
For the next seven weeks, I defied all odds and didn’t deliver. Then, on October 27th, at exactly 25 weeks pregnant, I was admitted to the hospital for what we hoped would be a nine-week stay. But shortly after I was admitted, the monitors showed I was having contractions and I was rushed back for an emergency C-section. That afternoon we welcomed our precious baby girl, Eliza Grace, into the world. Weighing in at only 1½ pounds and 13 inches long, she was incredibly tiny but perfectly formed. God in His great mercy had allowed me to sustain my pregnancy to the point that I got to meet my daughter and see how He had fearfully and wonderfully made her.
The NICU staff fought hard for her, but after an hour of being worked on, we were told she was not going to live. They unhooked her tiny body from all the tubes and wires and placed my baby on my chest. And that is where she spent the next three hours, until she quietly passed from my arms into the arms of her Heavenly Father.
Eliza’s short life impacted me dramatically. I have been a Christian since I was young, but I’ve never really been challenged in my faith—until I was standing at the grave of my baby girl. At that moment, I had a choice to make. To turn to the One who gave and took away or turn away from Him. And I chose to cling desperately to my Father. I got into the Word with a new fervency. It was no longer just words on a page, but truth and life.
As I sought to learn more about God through His Word, one thought kept popping up over and over—this isn’t how it is supposed to be. But I came to conclude that nothing in this world is. Too often as a Christian I get into the habit of thinking I deserve good days and easy paths. But that isn’t what God has promised me. As I read the Word, I saw numerous times how faithful Christians suffered and the ultimate suffering of Christ on the cross. Suffering and pain are part of this fallen world. But those of us who trust in Christ can have great hope that God is using our pain to draw us closer to Him. I’ve taken great comfort from 1 Peter 1:6–7, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” God is using this tough time in my life to bring me to Him and shape me into who He wants me to be. It hurts, but I trust that it is for my good and His glory.
My time in the Word has also been opening my eyes to how I can glorify God through my grief. And I can’t do it if I’m not trusting God with His plans for my life. He wants me to “trust in the Lord with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). To trust even though I don’t always understand why He has chosen certain paths for me to walk. To trust that “in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). I bring Him glory when I stop relying on myself and fully rely on the One who made me.
I’m sad that my story didn’t end with the “happily ever after” that I was hoping for. It’s hard to think about all the things that might have been if Eliza would have lived. But the good news about my story and Eliza’s story is that it isn’t done. Instead it is “to be continued.” For my time here on earth is just a dot on the timeline of eternity that I will have to spend with my daughter and my Lord.
So, whatever your stress may be, whether it is something big like grief or just the little day-to-day things that weigh you down, bring it to the Lord. Seek Him through His Word. He wants you to trust His plan for you. And, to quote my sons’ Jesus Storybook Bible, to remember that God loves you with a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love. (https://www.str.org/blog/story-suffering#.W5V5NehKhqM)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: What shall we return to the Lord for all his bounty to us?
People: We will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord,
Leader: I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.
All: Praise the Lord!
You call us to take up our cross and follow You, dear Lord, but we say "Not yet." Too often we love our luxuries and creature comforts too much. Still addicted to instant gratification and easy solutions to life's complexities, we turn away from many of the challenges You offer us. There are people to feed and house, prejudices and false pretensions to be unmasked and combated, entrenched wrongs to be overthrown, but we would prefer that You call someone else to join You in the fight for a more just and humane world. Forgive us for any lack of courage or faith in You that holds us back from following Christ, to the end that we might offer our time, talent, and treasure in taking up our cross. This we ask in the name of the one who died for us on a cross, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen,
When we see how much Your Son has given, his very life on the cross, we realize how small are these, our gifts, which we bring to You this day, O God. And yet we do so, trusting that You can use even the smallest gift to do great things through Your church. Amen.
O God, we still marvel when we think of Your Son carrying his cross to Calvary and dying on it amidst the ridicule and scorn of the crowd. "What wondrous love is this?" as the hymnist declared. And how incredible that so many others have followed in his path, shouldering their own crosses and enduring similar Calvarias, from Steven to Peter and Paul, down through the centuries to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero—and the host of those whose names and courageous sufferings only You know. Most of us come to You in this comfortable church today with little fear that our faith will cost us much. And yet there are times when we too are called to take up our little crosses—at those occasions when the dignity of someone is violated or their character besmirched; when we hear cruel jokes that put down certain groups; when lies are told and wrongs are covered up; in so many diverse and small ways Calvary is reenacted around us, even though nails and wooden crosses are not employed. At such times may we have the courage and the faith to make the small but vital gesture to stand up and be counted as being on Your side.
We pray also for those who are in poor health; who are grieving; who feel lonely and neglected; who are wearied by difficult and stressful work; who are weighed down by disappointments or defeat. Send the refreshing power of Your Spirit to them, and where possible, use us as Your instruments, armed with a word of Your encouragement and love. Give us strong shoulders and willing hearts so that when called, we can indeed pick up our crosses and follow Your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen