Jesus 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?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Christianity hinges on one significant moment in time. What is it? The resurrection of Christ. Yes? We are Easter people. The story of Easter is so mesmerizing because of the dramatic shift from death into life again. In a word, the Easter story is about transformation. And in this prophetic message from Jesus prior to his own transformation, he tells us the way to experience this change of heart ourselves is to….take up our cross.
Take up our what, Jesus? The cross was supposed to be...your work. You endured that pain on our behalf, right?
Right, Jesus says. I showed the world a new truth: there can be no resurrection without the cross. And if you want to follow me, you follow me, cross and all.
That part of being Easter people is a lot harder to accept.
We are not hardwired to like suffering. The disciples are no different- they want to claim Jesus is Messiah, but they don’t want to see him in pain. That’s why Jesus is having this hard conversation. When his friends use the word Messiah to describe who he is, Jesus silences them. “Nope, Peter, not today. I’m not ready to be called Messiah- at least not publicly. To be Messiah for my people, I will suffer.” Jesus holds fast to this plan of secrecy until the moment comes, when he finds himself deep in the throes of a trial that ultimately leads to his death. That’s when he takes on the identity of Messiah.
There’s no resurrection without the cross. We find him here in Mark explaining once more to his disciples this hard reality AND inviting them to take up their crosses too. Why? Because the resurrection is totally worth it.
“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 what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
It’s counterintuitive, isn’t it? Suffering leads to redemption? That just can’t be true. If this is hard to wrap your head around, I get it. I don’t want a God of love to somehow condone suffering either. Maybe that’s why he says it another way in John 12: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Think of the hardest moment you’ve been through recently. Now think of what type of inner strength formed as a result of your experience? What seeds of goodness were planted in the midst of a terribly difficult season of life?
After Blaire was born, some of you know, I found myself in a season of what I now understand was post-partum depression and anxiety. It was SO hard, and I felt really really alone. I also didn’t know how to ask for what I needed. In the midst of that suffering, I couldn’t have known what seeds God was planting within me, what passions God was developing in my soul. Here’s what I can tell you: my experience of PPD/A has allowed me to connect with SO MANY other families facing the same situation- and really understand what it’s like. It’s also inspired me to look in on women who’ve just had babies much more readily (and often without invitation) than I would have otherwise. See, when you’re in the throes of PPD, your judgment can be clouded, and you don’t know how to ask for help. So now I just show up, and who knows but God just might use my cross to become someone else’s resurrection. That is my prayer, every day. This is what real change looks like- messy, illuminating, and upending.
To be transformed requires something of us- and that “something” often feels a lot like suffering. For Jesus, who assumes the role of Messiah, transforming the world meant giving of himself entirely. Completely gone from earthly existence SO THAT we humans are no longer confined to a mere human reality, but can be “transformed into Christ’s likeness.” (2 Cor. 3)
That’s the good news- we have the potential to be transformed even in the midst of the suffering. This idea flies in the face of so much messaging around us. In every commercial and advertisement we see, we are sold a story that beauty matters most, that social status will give us joy, or maybe the worst of all: that comfort is our ultimate goal. Millions of products exist to give us what we seek most: less pain, an easier cross to bear. My lumbar support pillow promises me a pain-free existence, and I’m glad for that.
But if I sought only comfort all my life, I would have NEVER birthed a child. I would have never experienced PPD; and I would have never been changed by these difficult situations, transformed by taking up my cross and living for someone else. You don’t have to have a child to know what it is to live for someone else. That IS in our DNA- a desire to be connected, to engage lives of purpose, to be the kind of seed that bears fruit. I wonder what you might lift as a cross of your own that began in suffering and resulted in a type of transformation? These are the stories we must share, because this is the stuff of faith, the reason we follow Christ...at our core we need to believe that suffering will NOT have the final say. And we take eternal solace in the truth that we can do only in part what Christ did once and for all: take up his cross for the sake of redeeming you, me, the world.
So don’t be ashamed of your cross. Maybe it’s mental illness, maybe it’s a horrific loss, maybe it’s a moment of deep shame. Whatever your cross might be, bear it in faith that God just might be up to something good after all. Maybe God will even use your cross to become someone else’s resurrection. May it be so. Amen!
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. 34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”
You've never been tired, right? You’ve never lost your patience, have you? You’ve never said something you immediately regretted as soon as it left your lips? You’ve not reached the depths of your limit for human interaction only to hear the dreaded knock at the door, have you? Nah, those things never happened to Jesus either. He definitely never got tired, told people off, lost his patience, wanted to slink away for a long nap. Nope not God! Unless, well, unless Jesus was actually human...like- needed a nap kind of human. Could Jesus have been God’s son and still done something entirely human, like lose his patience? Good question, right?
There are lots of Christians who aren’t too comfortable with Jesus' humanity. Maybe it even rubs you the wrong way, hearing me say your redeemer needed a nap. I get it, it’s weird to think of Jesus snapping from time to time. But here’s the alternative- Jesus just pretends to be human, right? He could have, going around wowwing everyone with these awesome miracles, looking people in the eyes and saying, “oh I get it, I know what it’s like to be human” when really he never knows pain or frustration or loses his patience at all. But that wouldn’t have worked. You and I know people who pretend to be what they’re not just aren’t believable in the end. I can connect with Jesus if I can trust that he gets how hard it is to be human at times. In fact, I’m not sure I even buy the depths of God’s love for me unless I believe that Jesus was actually the kind of human who occasionally said “NO” to someone in need. Like right here, in this conversation with a Syrophoenician woman. In saying ‘no,’ Jesus reveals something here that's common to all humanity, that connects him with you and me. That thing is called “implicit bias.” Implicit bias is the invisible force that creates “us” vs. “them” thinking. It’s a totally normal human condition, and the gospel tells us it’s a part of humanity that’s in need of total redemption.
Us vs. Them. In Jesus’ day, the Jews and the Gentiles are a prominent example. People who followed traditions centuries in the making, vs. those that didn’t. This was a religious divide, yes, and often an ethnic us vs. them too.
In our day, any number of traits can distinguish us from them.
Our “Jews” and “Gentiles” might be
East River/West River
City Kid/Country Kid
THOSE family members/US
Folks on Medicaid or TANF/ Folks insured through employment
Church Goer/Spiritual but not religious
These distinctions often cause division, but Jesus reveals a new truth in this story: it doesn’t have to be that way.
Implicit bias was once a survival mechanism of our species, still is in some ways. Stick with who looks like you, it’ll serve you well. Even Jesus prefers to engage his Jewish people, not the Gentiles. We find Jesus in the region of Tyre, filled with Gentiles, doing what exactly? “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Has that ever been you?
Hiding! Oh but Spirit is always at work, isn’t she, ushering in moments of redemptive grace. Even for Jesus. That’s the good news that occurs when Jesus’ implicit bias is brought into the light by this brave non-Jewish woman. She says “I know I don’t look like you, but I also believe you’ve come to set my daughter free.” After saying no the first time, Jesus takes a beat, listens to this woman proclaim faith in a God that’s bigger than implicit bias, and Jesus gives this woman the time of day after all. Was it simply a test of some sort for his disciples? We can’t know that, but we can trust all the more that Jesus was fully human in this moment.
He goes on to heal yet again, this time a deaf man. And seeing his miracles, the crowds proclaim, “He has done everything well.” I would contend the best thing Jesus does that day is expose this us vs. them thinking as a myth. It doesn’t have to be this way. Syrophoenician women deserve God’s grace too.
And in that single miracle, Jesus transforms humanity into a community that reaches beyond implicit bias.
Oh but it’s always with us, isn’t it? Here’s my example of implicit bias. Briggs had his first soccer games this week. On Tuesday, his team Orange Crush played the kids in the maroon jerseys, which included our church friends Fox & Tayson. I’m on the sidelines cheering my heart out, because that’s what I do, and I felt this tension inside. I REALLY wanted Briggs’ team to win. I also REALLY wanted to root for Tayson & Fox. Competitive sports is a great example of us vs. them thinking because so often, that’s exactly what happens. If I root for my team, I am obligated to NOT LIKE the other team, right? I’m sure you have your own examples of this competitive nature. But what if it doesn’t have to be like that? What if there’s another way to be truly competitive AND honor the intrinsic value of your opponent?
I was thrilled when orange crush won the game. I was also really proud of Tayson (who took a ball to the face and got back in there) and Fox (who laid it all out on the field, literally), because real community (centered in Christ’s redemptive promise) will always be stronger than competition. I can root for my team without hating the opponents. It’s possible, and we know because Jesus was really human, he said no to his religious and ethnic opponent AND THEN he said yes. And that yes makes all the difference.
The author of Galatians reminds us, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith [...]There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
If you choose to believe this, then Christ has the power to set you free from implicit bias and unhealthy competition.
This week, let’s consider what forces are holding us back from full communion with others (what us vs. them thinking still has power over us)- and be brave to let Christ transform our thinking into us….and them too.
Prayer: Christ came to set us free and we become free when we let go of hatred, fear, and resentment, praise be to God!
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.