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Taking Up the Cross (Mark 8:31)

by William Willimon

Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 2, 1983, pp. 173-174. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected . . . and be killed [Mark 8:31].

When Jesus asks, "Who do men say that I am?" Peterís hand is the first to go up. "You are the Christ," he answers. Among all the others, he is here the disciple who understands. He looks at Jesus and sees the Messiah, on his way to Jerusalem to claim his crown.

But then Jesusí next words strike like a tolling bell. "And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer . . . and be rejected . . . and be killed." And Peter, who only a moment earlier was so sure of what he knew, is thrown back into confusion. And so are we.

How is it that the church, like Peter, can answer Jesusí question correctly and still be wrong? "You are the Christ!" we shout. This is no small insight. Some look at Jesus and see only the Baptist with his fierce preaching, or old Elijah, or one of the prophets. But we see him for who he really is: the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior. Then the bright moment of confession and revelation darkens as the storm clouds gather and we stumble behind him toward the Passion. He picks up his cross and urges a cross upon us as well. Striking at the heart of our expectations for easy deliverance come the words suffer, rejected, killed.

As the worship committee of my church made plans for Lent and Easter this year, I noted that we minimized Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but planned big for Easter Sunday. We, like Peter, still find it inordinately difficult to believe that the Christ of Easter is the same Son of man who must suffer, be rejected and killed. Even more than Peter, we resist the notion that the cross is the definition of what it means to follow Jesus.

To help us avoid the cross, our theologies first minimize our participation in evil, and then inflate our possibilities for goodness. Evil is explained away as a temporary disorder of personality or a quirk in the political system. Sinfulness, personal or corporate, is but a matter of maladjustment that can be cured through some minor psychological or sociological tinkering -- Iím O.K. and youíre O.K. and the Department of Health and Human Services will make our community a nice place to live. Unable to be obedient or courageous, we are content to be decent. Donít worry about what is good; itís enough simply to do what works. Jesus was an idealist who lived 2,000 years ago in a dusty, prescientific sort of place, whereas I must adjust to Greenville, South Carolina, and keep up my car payments.

Must the confrontation with evil be as harsh as the eighth chapter of Mark depicts it to be? Must the alternatives be laid out so sharply? Do our timidity and good will deserve such a fierce rebuke? After all, we are only trying to keep good people from getting hurt. We are only trying to protect the innocent.

If we or Peter follow Jesus to the cross, you can be sure that we will be protesting all the way. Here is a path nobody wants to take, a burden no balanced person would willingly assume. Our shoulders are too weak to carry such a load.

The doctor spared few words. "Your baby is afflicted with Downís Syndrome, mongoloidism. I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure."

"Is the baby healthy?" she asked.

"Thatís what I wanted to discuss with you," the doctor said. "The baby is healthy -- except for the problem. However, it does have a slight, rather common respiratory ailment. My advice is that you let me take it off the respirator -- that might solve things. At least, itís a possibility."

"Itís not a possibility for us," they said together.

"I know how you feel," responded the doctor. "But you need to think about what youíre doing. You already have two beautiful kids. Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress and family problems. Is it fair to do this to the children you already have? Is it right to bring this suffering into your family?"

At the mention of "suffering" I saw her face brighten, as if the doctor were finally making sense.

"Suffering?" she said quietly. "We appreciate your concern, but weíre Christians. God suffered for us, and we will try to suffer for the baby, if we must."

"Pastor, I hope you can do something with them," the doctor whispered to me outside their door as he continued his rounds.

Two days later, the doctor and I watched the couple leave the hospital. They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle; but it seemed a heavy burden to us, a weight on their shoulders. We felt as if we could hear them dragging, clanking it down the front steps of the hospital, moving slowly but deliberately into a cold, gray March morning.

"It will be too much for them," the doctor said.

"You ought to have talked them out of it. You should have helped them to understand."

But as they left, I noticed a curious look on their faces; they looked as if the burden were not too heavy at all, as if it were a privilege and a sign. They seemed borne up, as if on anotherís shoulders, being carried toward some high place the doctor and I would not be going, following a way we did not understand.

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