This Week's Sermon


“Cross Words”

Sermon on Sunday, February 25, 2024
Based on Mark 8:31-38


Dear church,

Harsh words, rebuttals, direct criticism… it usually leaves us a little bit hurt when we get that sort of treatment. Even those among us who say that they are big boys and big girls and can take criticism just fine might have more of a reaction than they’d like us to believe. Deep inside where the feelings and emotions reside… it can sting. When it comes right down to it, we are all a little bit sensitive, right? It’s not that hard to get under our skin.

Hurt! That’s how Peter probably felt after he tried to interrupt the gloomy talk of his teacher; he was motivated by good intentions and love. Nobody wants a friend to get seriously hurt, and Peter’s friend Jesus began talking about a future that looked bleak and catastrophic. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed…” That’s probably the point when Peter had had enough and stepped in. But Jesus rebuked him like never before with words like never before. He called him a name, not a very nice name. He used “cross” words. “Get behind me…!” For full disclosure: I learned the adjective “cross” from Thomas the Tank Engine books when I read those stories to my children a few years ago. In the older English of those books, “being cross with someone” is a common expression. It’s a fitting word for this passage: Jesus was cross with Peter! 

When I read the story in preparation for today and read it again, I realized that I had never paid much attention to the word “teaching” in this passage. But that choice of words is also important. I used to picture this scene as Jesus telling his disciples about a dark premonition he had about his own fate. I pictured it similarly as when people in our time share a bleak medical diagnosis with family members. “I have been diagnosed with…” But in fact, Mark says he was teaching them, placing his fate in the context of a divine purpose that he wanted his followers to understand. He spoke about himself in the third person as the “Son of Man,” he suggested that his death would be part of something bigger than his own personal life. He hinted that it would somehow be an important part of the message he’d be known and remembered for… But Peter couldn’t hear or understand that teaching. He was just worried about a friend. And Jesus became cross with him.

The teaching about the cross that Jesus found important enough to rebuke his good friend Peter, what is it? The iconic cross, which we lean on our altar every year during Lent, the cross, which towers over our communities from countless church steeples, the cross, which has been a central symbol of Christians since the 4th century, how can it be a meaningful part of our spiritual lives? Not just artwork and pretty symbolism… Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Well, what does that mean? What is my cross?

For our brothers and sisters at St. Martin’s in Kyiv it’s clear what their cross is at this moment in time, and they have taken it up as far as they can, embracing a dark time in their country’s history with faith and fortitude. Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the Russian attack on Ukraine. It has changed everybody’s life there. Some people have fled and live now in places like Poland, Germany, the United States. Many people have stayed fighting the invaders. Entire cities have been destroyed. In the east, children have been captured and abducted.  War crimes have been committed. At the same time, we sense through our communications with our friends in Kyiv that their faith and sense of identity have been strong. That’s the weird thing about the crosses in our lives. Nobody wants to be confronted with somber news in tehri families. Nobody is interested in suffering or hardship or cancer or death. Yet these experiences can make people of faith stronger.  That’s the message and the power of the cross. 

I am reminded this morning of the German Pastor Bonhoeffer. He is included in the collage that our confirmation students have made about people who are in prison for no good reason. They made one collage depicting people from the past, and another one depicting contemporary people. The man Bonhoeffer spent time in prison for his courage to fight Nazis. Bonhoeffer also had many things to say about the cross and the cost of discipleship. Here is one quote from a letter he wrote from prison. “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Some of us have been blessed with health, success, boundless energy, and can contribute much to our community. It’s a wonderful gift. Some of us suffer every day: chronic disease, mental illness, tragedies, burdens we must carry in our families… Some of us, amazingly, manage to experience both at the same time. Stricken, they still serve in amazing ways.

Jesus taught that the cross is never far from our lives, our communities, our families, and we must pay attention to it and try not to look the other way or avoid it by all means or deny that it exists or believe that Christians should never suffer or whatever people come up with to avoid the cross. Suffering is part of life and part of this world. Cross words that wake us up to the plight of others, offensive words that shake us, they are part of the Jesus repertoire. We are blessed to hear those words and understand the importance of helping someone to carry their cross wherever we can. Is there someone in your life?


Pastor Andreas Wagner