FIRST READING Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
1When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, 2that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” 3Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, 4“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. 7And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
15And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
PSALM Psalm 22:23-30
23For he does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither does he hide his face from them; but when they cry to him he hears them. 24My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him. 25The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the Lord shall praise him: “May your heart live forever!” 26All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall bow before him. 27For kingship belongs to the Lord; he rules over the nations. 28To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before him. 29My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord’s forever. 30They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done.
SECOND READING Romans 5:1-11
1Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
GOSPEL Mark 8:27-38
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. 31And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
MADONNA AND THE CROSS
Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of rock star Madonna. It’s in part, due to an interview several years ago, during an edition of ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” Madonna was interviewed by co-host Charles Gibson. Madonna was dabbling in jewelry and was marketing a new line of crosses she designed. The crosses were labeled “The Madonna Cross.” Among the things Madonna said in the interview was that the “Madonna has brought a new dimension to the cross. Never has wearing the cross been more popular than today.”
Gibson challenged that statement by saying he understood the cross to be a Christian symbol. “Not anymore,” his guest responded. “It’s a fashion statement today. No one wears the cross for religious reasons anymore.” Gibson continued to challenge her, but she insisted that the cross was “the trend of the day.” It’s a rather depressing thought. For many people, the cross is only decorative. It’s become a trade mark symbol of the automobile restoration company Kount’s Kustoms. I’ve seen it tattooed on both men and women and of course the cross is a mainstay of many jewelry designs. But, in spite of our culture’s shift with regard to the cross, I think it’s good to take a few moments to go back and reexamine the meaning of another cross–the cross of Jesus.
Today’s gospel lesson is set in a place just outside of Caesarea Philippi; a village 25 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus gathered His disciples around Him to share with them some important information about His future. I’m sure they could tell by the sadness on His face that this wasn’t easy. Jesus started to tell them that He must suffer at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and must die—but, after three days He would rise again. For whatever reason, this didn’t set well with Peter. He took Jesus off to the side and began to rebuke Him. To Peter’s rebuke Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan!” “You’re not focused on the concerns of God, but on human concerns.” It’s a story we know well.
Peter is stunned. Jesus had never spoken to him like this before. Peter simply didn’t realize how difficult this was for Jesus. Then Jesus called the crowd together, along with the disciples, and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Jesus continued, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Consider these powerful words for a moment: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me. What good will it do you if you gain the whole world if you lose your soul? There’s a lot to consider here, so let’s take just one piece for contemplation. What does it mean to deny yourself and take up a cross?
First, it would be good to acknowledge what it doesn’t mean. Taking up one’s cross doesn’t mean in times of adversity saying in a whiny voice, “Well, I guess this is just my cross to bear.” For me, this is possibly the most abused phrase on the planet. People can’t get their nails to grow right. “Well, I guess this is just my cross to bear.” Some will complain, my hair is falling out in one place and growing in places I don’t want. “Well, I guess this is my cross to bear.” Parents can’t get the children to behave. “It’s my cross to bear.” When a husband or wife can’t get their spouse to quit snoring: “Well, it’s just my cross to bear.” It can get ridiculous. Robert Morgan tells about a woman who had a rattle in the dashboard of her new BMW.
She took it to the dealership. The mechanic said, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t repair it. “Oh well,” she said, “this is just my cross, and I will have to bear it!” Bearing one’s cross has nothing to do with uncooperative nails, changes in our body, unruly children, a snoring spouse or a rattle in your new car. Taking up one’s cross has to do with denying ourselves for the sake of the gospel. Taking up a cross is a choice we make–not something that’s forced upon us. Taking up a cross for Jesus has to do with discipline and hard work. It has to do with setting our desires aside and committing ourselves to God and to the finest of which we’re capable. It has to do with forgetting ourselves and concentrating on the needs of others. It has to do with a commitment to excellence in all things.
In short, in these few words Jesus has summed up all the most helpful advice of all the self-help books ever written. People who succeed in almost anything in life deny themselves. It’s true. In this life, you don’t get to be the best by staying in your comfort zone. You do it through hard work and making difficult choices. You sit at your computer or your designing board or your blueprints or your lesson plan or whatever, long after everybody else has gone home. That’s what it means in a secular sense to deny yourself.
Some of you, who are baseball fans, remember a man named Cal Ripken, Jr. Ripken entered the sports history books when he played a record 2,632 consecutive baseball games. Considering that the average baseball season is 162 games, Cal played some 15+ years without missing a game. Most players miss a game here or there because of injuries or a need to rest their bodies. Ripken didn’t get injured any less than other players, and he didn’t need less rest. Ripken earned national respect because he played in spite of his injuries or exhaustion. As he once said, “I want to be remembered as an iron man; a player who went out there and put it on the line every day. I want people to say, ‘They couldn’t keep him out of the lineup.’”
The Austrian concert pianist Artur Schnabel was diagnosed with neuritis in his hands. It was an “occupational disease,” he said. Other famous concert players would have agreed. “Throughout my entire stay in Copenhagen,” wrote pianist Clara Schumann in her diary, “I always had to tolerate grief and anxiety concerning my fingers, which were constantly inflamed with much playing.” Wrote Sergei Rachmaninoff in a letter, “I am very tired and my hands hurt.” These pianists hurt because of constant practice and their willingness to continue, despite the obstacles. Striving to be the best never said, “I can’t because…” And the same is true in every field of endeavor.
One of the most promising areas in medicine today is gene therapy. Gene therapy is an experimental technique that uses genes to treat or prevent disease. In the future, this technique may allow doctors to treat a disorder by inserting a gene into a patient’s cells instead of using drugs or surgery. Although gene therapy is a promising treatment option for a number of diseases including inherited disorders, some types of cancer, and certain viral infections, the technique is still considered risky and is still under study to make sure that it will be safe and effective. It’s currently only being tested for the treatment of diseases that have no other cures. Still, it holds much promise and may eventually revolutionize medicine.
In one of his books, Robert Schuller tells the story of Dr. W. French Anderson. Dr. Anderson is known as the father of gene therapy. Dr. Anderson has been talking about gene therapy since he was a senior in college. It was a radical idea when he first got excited about it. He notes that in his senior year at Harvard, he was attending a graduate seminar of doctors and senior graduate students. There was a session on protein hemoglobin, the pigment in blood. At the time, he was doing research work putting genes from one bacterium into another, changing its properties. So, he raised his hand and asked, “Why can’t you do that in a human being? Why couldn’t you treat sickle cell anemia by using a gene to create normal hemoglobin?” He said, “the scorn and ridicule in the room was obvious.” “This is a serious scientific meeting,” someone said. “Don’t be silly, don’t bring up science fiction.”
So, Anderson hid off in a corner, and when the meeting was over he was going to sneak out so that nobody saw him. But one professor, John Edsall, one of the great names in science, came up to him, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “Interesting idea.” That’s all he said. And Anderson thought, “If Professor Edsall thinks this is an interesting idea, I’m going to do it.” On September 14, 1990, Dr. French Anderson saw the first fruits of his efforts.
His four year old patient, Ashanthi DiSilva, received the first treatment using gene therapy. This young girl had a defective gene causing her to suffer from what has been called “bubble boy syndrome.” Through his breakthrough treatment, Dr. Anderson was able to give her a normal life. Today, there are many patients who have been helped through his work. Gene therapy has great promise and is predicted to help many thousands of patients, but it’s still in the experimental stage.
Dr. Anderson hasn’t made the contributions he’s made to human well-being through half-hearted effort. He could have walked away when his early critics termed his efforts as science fiction. Taking up a cross has to do with being so dedicated to a cause that you’re willing to endure criticism, willing to tolerate persecution, willing to devote long hours in pursuit of a higher calling. People who succeed in life, in almost anything, deny themselves and devote themselves to the being the best.
When Jesus told His followers to deny themselves and take up a cross, He’s talking about people who are willing to make more than a token sacrifice. He was talking about people who are willing to give their all in following Him. And believe it or not, we still have people around who are willing to give their all. There are many who have made the ultimate sacrifice in behalf of the common good. Secularly speaking, we don’t have to look far to find such people.
One example that we all can relate to are the firefighters who rushed into the collapsing twin towers on 9/11 with no regard for their own safety to save people who were trapped. Many of us will never forget the feelings that swept over us as we watched the twin towers fall. Folk singer Tom Paxton wrote a song about it which he called, The Bravest. The first couple of verses go like this:
The first plane hit the other tower, right after I came in. It left a fiery, gaping hole where offices had been. We stood and watched in horror, as we saw the first ones fall, Then someone yelled “Get out, get out! They’re trying to kill us all!” I grabbed the pictures from my desk and joined the flight for life. With every step I called the names of my children and my wife, and then we heard them coming up, from several floors below,
a crowd of firefighters with their heavy gear in tow. And then Paxson sings that haunting chorus: Now every time I try to sleep, I’m haunted by the sound of firemen pounding up the stairs, while we were running down. There are still people today who are willing to give their all.
The first responders of 9/11 are but one example, they’re not alone. Who can forget the six teachers who were killed in December 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, or the coach at Parkland High school just a couple of weeks ago? (15 Feb 2018) Some of those slain teachers and the coach at Parkland literally shielded the children with their bodies. Two of the teachers at Newtown even lunged at the shooter in an effort to stop the massacre. I know I say they use the word hero way too much these days, but in my book, they, are heroes. In every tragedy there are people who step forward with no thought of their own safety. They understand what it means to deny themselves.
Bryan Chapell tells a tragic story that happened in his hometown: Two brothers were playing on the sandbanks by the river. One ran after another up a large mound of sand. Unfortunately, the mound was not solid, and their weight caused them to sink in quickly. When the boys didn’t come home for dinner, the family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother unconscious, with his head and shoulders sticking out above the sand. When they cleared the sand to his waist, he awakened. The searchers asked, “Where is your brother?” The child replied, “I’m standing on his shoulders.”
With the sacrifice of his own life, the older brother had lifted the younger to safety. The tangible and sacrificial love of the older brother literally served as a foundation for the younger brother’s life. “Whoever wants to be my disciple,” said Jesus, “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Jesus was of course addressing a very special people. He was addressing those who would be His followers. He was addressing you and me.
Jesus is saying there’s nothing casual about following Him. I worry that we ask so little out of the average Christian nowadays. Come to church when you feel like it. Drop in a small offering when the collection plate passes by you. Serve on a church committee, if it doesn’t interfere with a favorite hobby or television show. Is this what it means to deny yourself, take up a cross and follow Jesus? I don’t think so.
Not too long ago, a news story came out of Pakistan about a young Pakistani girl named Saleema. Saleema is a Christian who was arrested for witnessing to a friend about Jesus. Her friend converted to Christianity. After that friend started following Jesus, she was killed by her own family because of her conversion. Unbelievably, because Saleema had shared her faith with that friend, she was also charged with the death of her friend.
Saleema is now 18 years old and has been passed from court to court–going higher each time in the Pakistani judicial system. She has been in a healthcare facility for some time, and a recent report said she’s in great pain. Saleema has been unable to attend court because of health problems due to being beaten and tortured by the police. She’s unable to stand and walk. Her back, hip and ankles are sore and full of pain. All because she’s seeking to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
What about you and me? We can’t miss our favorite TV show? We can’t afford to give more than a pittance out of the abundance with which God has blessed us to the work of Christ in this world? What has happened to us? “Whoever wants to be my disciple,” said Jesus, “must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Each of us must evaluate our own life.
Are we more focused on saving our own life, thus in the process losing it? Or are we a person focused on losing our life for Christ’s sake and actually saving it? Maybe we need to trade our Madonna cross–a mere decoration, for the Cross of Christ–the cross of sacrifice and service. The choice is ours. Jesus summed up the entire matter like this: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”