Admirers or Followers: Jesus’ Call to Carry Our Cross

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage:    Mark 8:27-38 

Summary:  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to live with compassion toward all people, and work for justice in nonviolent ways.  This can be risky and lead to suffering, as we see in the life of Jesus as well as faithful disciples throughout history.  We are called not just to admire those suffer for being faithful, but be willing to take up own cross and put ourselves in harms’ way as followers of Jesus.

When I was in high school, I was in the Key Club, which is a teen service club connected with I believe the Kiwanis Club.  It was an all guys’ club, but every year we elected a girl to be the Key Club Queen.

The election involved an interview where we’d bring each candidate into a room to answer questions any of the guys wanted to ask her.  Talk about being put on the spot!  I hope they don’t do it that way anymore!

Anyway, I remember one interview where the candidate for queen was wearing a cross around her neck, like many people do.  It was a time when I was starting to take my faith more seriously, so I raised my hand and asked her:

“What does that cross mean to you?  (talk about putting someone on the spot!).  I can’t clearly recall her answer, but I remember that the question startled her, and she stumbled around and said something like “Uh, my faith is important to me, and it’s one of my favorite pieces of jewelry.”

Regardless of the reasons why people wear crosses around their necks, the cross is probably the most common symbol of Christianity.

The cross points to Jesus.  And Jesus showed with his teachings and with his life the way of the cross, which involved suffering, humiliation and death.

During the season of Lent I decided to read a book about the cross, and I chose this new book by one of my favorite authors, Brian Zahnd.  It’s called “The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross”.

On a sidenote:  I appreciated the stories and examples that Caleb gave last Sunday about the importance of incorporating spiritual disciplines like sabbath and fasting from certain things during Lent,

as ways to place ourselves before God so God can transform us into becoming more Christlike.

One discipline I’ve decided to do during Lent is unplug more from social media, especially X, and spend more time reading books and articles that nurture my faith.

I realized that I was spending too much time scrolling and going down rabbit holes, especially related to politics, and it was affecting my attitudes and emotions in negative ways.  I didn’t like what it was doing to me.

OK, now back to Brian Zahnd’s book.  This book came about as a result of reflection that Zahnd did on the meaning of the cross as he walked the Camino de Santiago in Spian.

He’s actually walked it several times, it’s 500 miles, so that’s pretty impressive! Anyway, Zahnd says this about the meaning of the cross in Jesus’ day:  (SLIDE)

It is nearly impossible for us to comprehend just how shocking Jesus’ words were to his Jewish audience in the first century…A disciple might be called to take up his prayer shawl, but his cross??  There was nothing spiritual or religious about a cross—it was ugly and profane.  It was known only as a horrible instrument of execution employed by the Romans Empire to inflict the most degrading death upon slaves and rebels.  (p. 45, The Wood Between the Worlds).

Crucifixion is shocking in its own right.  But what was more shocking to Jesus’ first disciples is that their long-awaited Messiah–who they hoped would bring justice and freedom from oppression–

would allow himself to suffer and die at the hands of his own religious leaders and the Roman government.

We see this shock in our story today in Peter, who has earned the reputation as Jesus’ most passionate and impulsive disciple. When Peter hears Jesus saying that he’s going to suffer and be killed by the authorities, he would have nothing of it.

He was so taken aback that he probably didn’t hear the part where Jesus said that he would rise again after 3 days.

Peter protests so vehemently that Jesus comes back at him with “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking like people think, not like God”.

You know what’s ironic?  Did you notice that Peter’s rebuke of Jesus comes right after Peter comes to the realization that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel.

And like most of his contemporaries, Peter assumed that their Messiah had the power to use whatever means necessary including military might to end the Roman occupation and bring about his people’s liberation.

You see, Peter wanted a cross-less Christ, a Christ who would fight fire with fire.  And he’s not alone.   (SLIDE)

Theologian Walter Brueggemann talks about how Martin Luther in the 16th century made a distinction between “A Theology of Glory” and a “Theology of the Cross”:

A “Theology of Glory” referred to a “Gospel faith that smacked of triumphalism that was aligned with worldly power that specialized in winning, control, being first, and being best.  For Luther, that theology with tied up with the European imperial of his time.

By contrast, a “Theology of the Cross” referred to the risky way of Jesus that is marked by humility, obedience, and vulnerability, standing in sharp contrast to and in opposition to the hunger for “Glory”.  The way of the cross, for Luther, is demanding and costly because it contradicts the dominant way of the world.”

You know, we Mennonites didn’t see eye to eye with Luther on some things, but here, we’d say that he is right on!

Fast forward to today, and many in the American Church seem to be clamoring for “A Theology of Glory” instead of the Cross.

Brian Zahnd says that Americans are so smitten with the lore of “cowboy justice” that the notion of dying instead of killing is perceived as weak and ignoble. Those of us who read Jesus and John Wayne in the book club saw many examples of this idea of cowboy justice.

When we do this, we’ve taken our eyes off of the cross.  And we need get them back focused on it.  And we need to not only remember that Jesus showed us the way of the cross with his own life, but also that he calls anyone who wants to follow him to imitate him and carry their own cross as well.

You know, we sometimes hear or use this phrase “carry your cross” as we go through lifeHave you ever said or heard someone say, “This is the cross that I’ve been given to carry” or, “She’s got a heavy cross to bear.”

When someone talks about “carrying their cross”, what does that often refer to?   Sometimes people are referring to their own personal burdens they have, like  chronic pain, caring for an aging loved one, or parenting of an unruly teenager.

Now God cares about us and is with us during those painful experiences, but I don’t think that these are the kinds of things that Jesus is talking about when he asks us to take up our cross and follow him.

Also, I don’t think that Jesus is talking about what we call martyr complexes where people constantly play the victim, throw a pity party and complain about what they’ve lost and how people treat them so badly.

Author Diana Bass Butler says “That’s not a cross.  That’s a millstone.”.  She says that taking up the cross of Jesus is about letting go of what weighs one down to make room for something bigger,

What I believe that Jesus is talking about is giving of one’s self to love and service to create a different kind of world, where you choose compassion and love of neighbor. You do it not for yourself, but for others.

So I think that Jesus is talking about the costs involved in imitating him, of being faithful to his way of nonviolent, radical love, which could be costly and involve suffering,

because Jesus’ way challenges and confronts the ways of violence, injustice, and oppression that institutions and individuals operate by in our world.

Many of Jesus’ first followers met their fate through suffering and losing their lives for the sake of the gospel of Jesus.  Stephen did.  The apostle Paul did.

And Peter did as well.  It took him a while to put away his sword, he even cut off the ear of a Romans soldier before he did it!

And it took Peter denying Jesus 3 times before he could muster up the courage to be identified with Jesus, but then he became a key leader in the first Church that was born at Pentecost,

and for the rest of Peter’s life he preached a gospel of liberation and love. He was a follower of Jesus who carried his cross to the end.

Throughout history there have been countless faithful witnesses who have suffered and even given their lives in service and obedience to the way of Jesus.

During the Nazi regime in World War II, there was a resistance movement in the church, led by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred as a result criticizing Adolf Hitler’s oppressive, racist regime.

Another Christian resister during World War II whom you may not have heard about is an Austrian named Franz Jägerstätter.

Reading the scriptures led Jägerstätter to see Hitler as an antichrist who was leading people astray, so he refused to swear an oath of allegiance to him.  He was ridiculed by his entire village for not being patriotic enough.

Jägerstätter’s following in the way of Jesus led to his execution in August 1943 at the age of 36.  His last words were “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.”

His story was fairly obscure until recently it became more known through a 2019 film called “A Hidden Life” by Terence Malik.  It’s on my list of films to see.

Just recently we heard about the death of Alexei Navalny, the Russian dissident who lost his life because he spoke out against the brutal dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.  Navalny was motivated by his convictions as a follower of Jesus.

It’s always inspiring to see and hear about stories of people who took risks and showed great courage in counting the cost of following Jesus.

But we’re called not just to be spectators or admirers, but participants in taking up our own crosses.  You see, we live in a world that gives us so many opportunities to just sit and watch other people do things, and that’s so much of what we call entertainment.

I think of TV shows where for hours we can watch people cook up meals on The Food Network, or do home improvement on HGTV, home improvement, or hear  singers on The Voice, and see athletes perform on sports channels.

And we watch people do all kinds of things on social media sites like Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook (for us old fogies!).   Aren’t we such a voyeuristic society?

Being a spectator and watching people do things can be a lot of fun, and it’s safe and doesn’t take any effort on our part.

And because we’re so used to this kind of life, it can also affect the way we approach our Christian faith.  To truly follow Jesus can be costly, so it’s easy to resort to being spectators instead of participants, admirers instead of followers.

The great Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about the difference between admirers and followers.  He said:

What then is the difference between an admirer and a follower?  A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, on the other hand, keeps himself personally detached.  He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires…

Admirers are only willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger.

Friends, I invite you to ask yourself the question, “Am I more of a follower or an admirer?  Am I taking up my cross to imitate and follow Jesus, or am I content sitting on the sidelines admiring others who are following him?”

Skye Jethani, in one of his recent daily devotionals, talked about the great painter Vincent Van Gogh being influenced in his faith by Thomas a Kempis’ book, The Imitation of Christ. 

Van Gogh was challenged by a Kempis’ emphasis that imitating Jesus and his way of the cross was the calling of every Christian.  Van Gogh reflected his desire to be more like Jesus in one of his paintings.  

This is Van Gogh’s version of the Pieta, which is where Jesus’ mother Mary takes him down from the cross after his crucifixion. If you look closely at Jesus’ face, you will see that it looks like the face of Van Gogh himself.  

Look at Jesus’ hair—Van Gogh painted it red, it bears a resemblance to Van Gogh’s.  This isn’t narcissism, but Van Gogh showing that he wanted to imitate Jesus with his own life; he didn’t just want to be an admirer, but a follower.

What does it mean to be a follower and carry our cross today?  Living in the United States is different than living in Nazi Germany or Putin’s Russia, so we may not be placed in situations where our lives are on the line in pledging allegiance to the way of Jesus.

But when we commit ourselves to truth, compassion and justice, and stand up for those values, we may be putting ourselves in harms way and it could be risky.

This might also involve standing up for people and vulnerable groups of people who are targets of harassment and bullying in a society where polarization, culture wars, incivility and cruelty are on the rise.

Mennonite Mission Network put out a Bystander Intervention card that gives advice on how to support someone who is being intimidated and harassed:

Getting involved as a bystander can be risky, but Jesus calls us to stand with those who are suffering and who are marginalized.  It can be one practical way to be willing to “carry our cross” in following Jesus.

I want to close with one of my favorite scriptures, which has to do with becoming a person who takes up his cross to follow Jesus.  It also hints at how the cross reminds us of just how much Jesus loves each one of us;

We could also say that Jesus’ going to the cross could very well be the greatest expression of God’s love that the world has ever known.  It’s from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  Paul says:  (SLIDE)

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.  –Galatians 2:20