“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”Mark 8:34
When I read these words from Jesus, my mind takes me all the way back to Junior High. I remember the T-shirts my friends would wear at youth group — one shirt would have a picture of Jesus hanging from a cross, another would have Jesus’ scared hands, and below these pictures there was a slogan: “No pain, no gain,” written in blood red. Another popular T-shirt had a picture of knees, scabbed and raw, the knees showing through holes in jeans, where the fabric had worn out, due to kneeling. Below the picture were the words, “Pray hard.”
That was a muscular Christianity. Faithfulness looked like bodybuilding. The Christian life was a spiritual workout, being a Christian until it hurt, pushing yourself to the limits — one more push up, one more curl, one more sacrifice, one more day of fasting. Because no pain, no gain. We’re not really living, unless we’re dying.
The theology of those T-shirts argued for the pain of sacrifice as the compass for our Christian lives — the more suffering we experience, the more Godly we are. We know our lives are pleasing to God because it hurts so much.
This is dangerous theology, because it easily becomes a rationale for staying in an abusive relationship. It’s a theology that can justify dehumanizing sacrifice. Because no pain, no gain. Deny yourself and bear your cross.
When Jesus invites his disciples to take up their cross, he wants them to count the cost of joining in his revolution. The cross is how the Romans got rid of political subversives. That’s the life Jesus is talking about — a life that is so threatening to the oppressors, that to live this way may get you crucified.
But the pain is not the point. The sacrifice isn’t the point. Crucifixion isn’t the point. Jesus doesn’t call for self-denial as a good thing, for it’s own sake. The point, Jesus says, is the gospel, to live a gospel life, to let your life be part of Jesus’ life. “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,” Jesus says, “will save it” (8:35).
Saving life — that’s the point. That’s the gospel. That’s the message Jesus is trying to teach them, to teach them through his life, through his words and actions, though what he does and says — that in his life we can find God’s life, and that we are invited into that kind of life, into divine life, heavenly life, eternal life, here and now.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus calls himself, “The Son of Man” — that’s a wooden translation of the Greek phrase. Other translators say a better way to put it would be, “the Human one,” because the whole point of the phrase is to declare oneself a human being, a child of Adam and Eve, like everyone else. Jesus claims to be “the human one” — human like us, but also showing us what it means to be human, revealing to us what we’re supposed to do with our lives.
Jesus is “the human one” — he says the phrase twice in our passage — the one who is here to show us what our bodies can do, to show us who God created us to be. Jesus lives out a vision of the good life, a human life. Jesus teaches his disciples, he teaches us, how to be a human being, a human who is filled with God, who is flowing with God, a human being who is overflowing with God’s love. Remember that Mark starts his Gospel with the baptism of Jesus, where a voice from heaven tells us that Jesus is the beloved, the one who is loved, who is filled with God’s love. Jesus is God’s love made flesh in Mark’s Gospel — God’s love incarnate. Mark tells the story of what that love looks like in our world.
To be human, to live out the kind of humanity we see in Jesus may lead to pain, to suffering, but it is the pain and suffering we experience in our movement of solidarity — that’s what it means to be the church, to be part of a people who give themselves to another in acts of solidarity, in being together as a sign of God’s love, of God’s companionship, as we let God join our lives to others, to people who are in pain, people who suffer — people here in this room, and people in prisons, in hospitals, people who are where they don’t want to be.
For some of you who are new to our congregation, you may have heard us repeat a prayer request that goes something like this: Let’s remember people who are hungry, who are homeless, who are in prison, who are in the hospital, people who are where they don’t want to be. I think we say that prayer more often than the Lord’s Prayer.
That prayer is our way of remembering a member of our church who died last year, Cameron. That’s the prayer he would ask for, almost every Sunday, year after year. He reminded us, over and over again, that there are people in this world, people we don’t see, who matter to God — that our lives are bound up with their lives, because God has invited us to become human together, to figure out how to be human with others, people whom God loves.
That’s what it means to be the church, to be the body of Christ, to find ourselves in the life of Jesus, here in this world, to become human like Jesus, truly human, a humanity full of divine love.
The whole point of the gospel, the point of the church, is to live out the life of Jesus, to live out God’s love, to explore it, to rest into it, to find it moving through us and around us. Of course there will be sacrifices along the way, as we learn how to love others as we want to be loved, to care for others as we want to be cared for — all for the sake of living into Christ’s humanity, living into God’s love made flesh.
When I think about the invitation of Jesus to be human like him, to be humans filled with divine love, I remember Cameron’s prayer, and I remember what we experienced with Cameron. So let me tell you a story about him, and about you. The first part of this story is what I said at his funeral; some of you may remember it. The second part is what I’ve preached a couple of time on the road, when I talk about you, about what kind of people you are.
Years ago, when Cameron began his retirement, he wanted to show me what he was doing with his time. So he invited me to join him on one of his visits to an assisted living home. He took me to one man’s room, where we sat in a couple chairs, and Cameron pulled out a newspaper from his bag, the New York Times. “This one’s his favorite,” Cameron whispered to me, and he began to read to the man, to read the paper aloud, article by article, page by page, from front to back.
After an hour, we said goodbye to the man and I followed Cameron down the hall to another room, where he introduced me to a woman sitting in a chair, a woman who didn’t seem to recognize Cameron, but was glad to have visitors.
We sat down and Cameron pulled out a copy of The Wall Street Journal this time — and even though she didn’t seem to recognize Cameron, she did recognize the newspaper as her favorite. Cameron read to her for a while, and then asked me to take a turn. So I did.
On the drive back to Cameron’s apartment, I asked him how he decided to spend his time with those two people. He said that when he first began going there, he asked the staff if he could visit people who didn’t have any visitors. They gave him a list of names, people who spent most of their days alone, and Cameron would work his way through the list, finding out what they would like for him to read, and he would visit them whenever he could, sitting with them, reading and talking.
One afternoon, Monica called me to let me know that Cameron was in the ICU, and that he wasn’t doing well. When I arrived, the doctor told me that Cameron was unresponsive and that he would die soon, very soon, maybe that night.
As I slid open the sliding glass door to his room, I heard a beep coming from a monitor suspended above him, a monotonous tone, keeping time with his heart’s pulse, reminding doctors and nurses and me that he was still alive, despite appearances, despite all other indications.
As I sat beside his bed, I reached my hand to his, and my fingers quivered as we touched. I expected that my palm on his would awaken a reaction, that the warmth of my hand would awaken life in his. I expected his hand to grasp mine, instinctually, the unspoken rule of hand-holding. But all I felt was his cold skin. I sat there, looking into his half-closed eyes, and I held his cold hand in mine as his chest rattled with every dying breath.
That afternoon I sent an email to you all, to let you know that Cameron was dying, quickly, and that, if you wanted, you could come to the hospital to say goodbye.
The next day, in the morning, I returned to the hospital, to sit with Cameron, because I knew that he had always hated being alone — that’s why he spent his time, when he was healthy, visiting people in assisted living facilities, because he couldn’t bear for them to be all alone all day long. So I knew that I couldn’t leave him alone, as he died.
That morning, when I returned to the hospital, as I walked through the ICU, toward Cameron’s room — as I got closer, I heard signing, four-part harmony, our kind of singing, coming from his room. As I opened the door to Cameron’s room, I found some of you, already there, standing beside his bed, filling his room with voices, with hymns — encircling him with the music of the kingdom, engulfing him with the sounds of the Holy Spirit, embracing him in the body of Christ, drawing him into communion with us and with God.
For our last song, we sang one of our favorites, a sending hymn, a benediction: “God be with you till me meet again, May the Shepherd’s care enfold you, God be with you till we meet again.”
Two hours after we finished singing, Cameron stopped breathing. Lifting my hand to his forehead, I traced a cross on his skin, “From ashes to ashes,” I whispered, “from dust to dust.”
He died with us, with his church, his sisters and brothers, by his side. He died knowing that we he was loved, that we would not forget about him, that we remembered him, in the hospital, in a place where he did not want to be.
Church is an exploring of what it means to be human, like Jesus, the Human One, a humanity revealed in our love, a humanity that is divine, full of God. When I think about church-life with you, I remember a passage from an Irish preacher, Herbert McCabe. What we are dedicated to, he wrote, what life means for us, is the exploration of what it means to be human. Learning to live in the church is an exploration of God’s love.[i]
That’s how McCabe puts it. I’d put it this way: You are an exploration of God’s love, of God’s way of being human.
[i] Herbert McCabe, God Matters, 233, 241. For the argument about the meaning of “The Son of Man,” see Joel Marcus, “Son of Man as Son of Adam,” Revue Biblique 110 (2003).