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"Understanding That We Don’t Understand" Second Sunday in Lent - February 25, 2024

Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts I do understand.” 

It’s a tough reading…this, what is often referred to as, the cost of discipleship passage. 

It’s tough because, I think, we understand what’s going on inside it…AND it’s tough because if we’re honest, we understand something else about it. Here’s what I mean. 

First, we have the situation itself…the story…the text…Peter just called out for refusing to accept that the path of Jesus was to be one of suffering and loss. Then you have Jesus inviting the crowd to sit down and he offers them a teaching on the nature of discipleship…this teaching or some derivative of it is in all four gospels. R. Alan Culpepper referred to it as “the most definitive teaching on what it means to follow Jesus.”

The most definitive teaching AND…it’s full of paradox.

You want to be whole, deny yourself.

You want to save your life, lose it.

And to top it off, this paradoxical teaching – these words - stand in the shadow of this ominous and frightening symbol – viscerally understood to all who heard it. 

Take up your cross. 

We’ve heard it time and again, we understand, at least, in light of the whole story what Jesus is teaching. 

Next, we have what is occurring behind this story…mainly the narrative, the experience of the people who gathered around Mark’s gospel. People who are in the midst of turmoil, persecution, martyrdom, their world is crumbling around them, and they’ve compiled these teachings of Jesus and they’re looking to his words for strength, for hope, for peace. They’re lives at risk for reading those very words, following that teaching. 

We’ve been around long enough, we’ve heard enough sermons and Sunday School lessons – we understand, at least in that way, what’s also going on there. 

And last, what makes this a tough passage…is we understand, that we really don’t understand.

I mean sure, we understand historically and we understand contextually – what’s being said. But, let’s be honest – we understand that we really don’t understand literally. The vast majority of people sitting in a church this Sunday morning in this country, in our culture – we don’t really understand what’s often been said, “To take up one’s cross for the gospel is to tread a lonely road and to bear men’s hatred.”   

Absolutely, history is marked by people who did – both in this country and around the world. Absolutely, there are those even now in certain places across the globe who understand, who are living out this passage on a daily basis. But, most of us…this morning, gathering in our places of worship around this country, singing our hymns, praying our prayers, listening to this passage – we’ve never had to experience that, we don’t truly know what that’s like. That kind of cost. 

But it seems we want some kind of claim to it. We contrive weird ways to convince ourselves and others we understand.

Maybe that’s why, on a humorous level…we’ve turned it into a weird little quippy saying. 

Little Johnny asks from the backseat of the car, “Why oh why do we have to go to this family reunion every year?!? You said yourself, you don’t want to do it…you can’t wait for it to be over. So why??” 

“Well Johnny, we all have our crosses to bear.”

But, on another more serious and pervasive level, maybe that’s why we tend to inflate our moralistic actions these days. Whether it be a group of people trying to force their hands in making sure the Ten Commandments are hung in every public school classroom  – or lacing some attempt at public policy with isolated verses or churchy-lingo. Or, critiques of those very things – posting or reposting some meme or social media clip, moral indignation, calling it speaking truth to power when it’s only the people who agree with us that hear it. One time I asked a good friend of mine, “What’s with all the posts?” And he said, “…Well, I guess it’s my way of taking up the cross.”   

So, what are you saying? Until we know the extremity of cost Jesus experienced or the trials faced by the community of Mark, this passage has no bearing in our lives?? NO…Far from it…No, to approach the Scriptures like that would be to make them some difficult combination of burdensome and obsolete. No, it’s not that. I actually think there’s an opening here for us. And I think that opening occurs in the very place we can honestly admit and say, “I understand that I don’t understand.”  

Because, although Peter gets a bad rap in this story, we can assume he’s just saying out loud what the others were thinking. They weren’t following Jesus expecting to suffer, they weren’t following Jesus expecting to lose, they weren’t following Jesus expecting to lose him. This was the guy, this was the hope, this was the One who was going to set the record straight, who was going to win, and they had the front row seats. And now all this talk of denying, and losing, and the cross. What???

We’ve mentioned the past several weeks, something that recurs in the gospel of Mark – is the disciples don’t understand what’s going on, but they still hang on to this belief that it’s not what Jesus is saying it is…still hanging on for the moment when they’ll finally be proved right. When they’ll finally…win. That’s why they’re trying to correct his story or have him tell it in a way that’s more palatable. Because what Jesus is teaching…you can’t sell that. No one’s going to buy it. And they still want to sell this thing.  

Until the moment occurs, the one you and I already know about – but they just didn’t quite yet. But they will. When they’re in the shadow of his cross, and they’re proved to be the tremendous losers Jesus always told them they would be. 

And there…the only thing they understand is that they don’t understand. 

But that’s the very place…the place where we give up our trying to save the world through our morality, give up trying to be proved right, give up trying to sell, and give up trying to win. Because when we give up all that…OR…to use the language of Jesus here, when we LOSE all those things…that’s when God’s grace can go to work. 

Because, as Robert Farrar Capon wrote, “Grace doesn’t sell, you can hardly even give it away, because it works only for losers, and no one wants to stand in their line.”   

The Christ-centered life, it’s not about morality. It’s not one we can sell.  

It’s not one in which we’re always proved right. It’s not about winning. 

It’s one in which we, over time, learn to stand in line with the losers. 

Letting grace do the work we can’t do on our own.

 Granted, that kind of grace is a hard thing to understand.

But sometimes just understanding, that we just don’t understand – is where it all begins. 







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