Cultivating a Cross-Shaped Community


John Darrow

Crucifixion of St. Peter; 1426 - Masaccio

As Communion Church has worked through the Gospel of Mark in our recent sermon series The Radical Way of Jesus, we landed on Mark 8:27-9:13, which directs our attention to a major shift in the tone and direction of Mark’s Gospel. As Jesus and the disciples arrive at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks the disciples who the various people they have interacted with think Jesus is. Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others think he may be another prophet of old. But then Jesus directs the question toward his disciples in v. 29,

            “But who do you say I am?”

For Jesus, it was one thing for others who did not associate with Jesus on a regular basis to formulate opinions about who they thought he might have been. But up until this point the disciples have witnessed healings, miracles, exorcisms, life-changing sermons, and much more. With their directed access to the remarkable acts of Jesus, again the question needs to be asked: “Who do you say I am?” Thus, Peter boldly declares in v. 29, “You are the Messiah.”

Initially, the attentive reader would applaud Peter for his accurate interpretation of Jesus’ identity. Mark certainly would have his audience identify Jesus as Messiah. The word “Messiah” (Gk: Christos) is also translated “Christ,” which for Israel meant the Anointed One who was expected to deliver God’s people from their enemies. This is only the second time in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is identified as such. The first time is back in 1:1,

            “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”

Everything written about Jesus throughout the previous seven and half chapters was intended to create awareness that Jesus is the long awaited King of Israel. But it is evident that Peter’s understanding of “Messiah” was vastly different from Jesus’.

Peter makes the declaration of Jesus’ messianic status with the understanding that Jesus is going to cause some military damage in Rome. He is coming with the sword to destroy Rome and resurrect an earthly kingdom for Israel. And as a close follower of Jesus, this will put Peter front and center in the action. But this definition of Messiah reveals to us that Peter reflects the spiritual ailment that was synonymous to the blind man's physical disability from back in 8:22-26. Just as the man went from blind to an obstructed vision, so too Peter can see dimly that Jesus is the long awaited Anointed One of God, but sadly is still unable to see clearly, nor understand completely, what this entails for Jesus’ kingdom vision.

Instead of representing the conquering King Israel had long expected, Jesus defines his messianic mission in slightly different terms. In v. 31 he states,

1.     He must suffer many things

2.     He must be rejected by the religious elite

3.     He must be killed (and rise from the dead)

Modern-day location of Caesarea Philippi

These attributes fly in the face of everything Israel has generally expected in a King. Kings do not suffer; they cause the suffering. Kings are not rejected; they are accepted. Kings do not die; they do the killing. Naturally, Peter wished to put this nonsense to an end by taking Jesus aside and “began to rebuke him” (v. 32). In other words, Peter wanted to shut Jesus up!

But Jesus meets Peter’s rebuke with one of his own. In v. 33, Jesus tells Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

For Peter, and other seemingly religious and nationalistic people like him, their vision about whom God is and what he is supposed to do in this world does not match God’s own expectations and concerns.

So what are the “concerns of God?” 

In vv. 34-35, Jesus is explicitly developing kingdom citizens that reflect the subversive nature of the cross. If someone desires to follow Jesus, then it is absolutely necessary that we follow him on the cross. The call for cross-bearing discipleship is not theoretical. It is a commitment to following the same path that the Messiah would follow. As you could imagine, this is a profoundly political statement:

§  If he enters into physical battle, then we take up arms and fight.
§  If he enters into political office, then we serve him on the campaign trail.
§  But if he subjects himself to death on the cross, then we follow him to the cross.

Practically speaking, what does it means for those of us who are not under immediate threat of death on the cross to heed Jesus’ instructions to “deny themselves and take up our cross and follow me” (v. 34)?

Michael Gorman appropriately calls this lifestyle “cruciformity,” stating,

“‘Cruciformity’—from ‘cruciform’ (meaning cross-shaped) and ‘conformity’—means conformity to the cross, to Christ crucified…. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity—like the cross—is about faithfulness and love.”[1]

To be a cruciform, or cross-shaped, follower of Jesus we need to explore how this impacts our spiritual formation.

1.     Mere identification as a “Christian” is not enough, especially in a post-Christian world. Identification is useless without a clear reflection of the thing or person we are identifying with.

2.     The very act of “denying ourselves” necessitates that we renounce our claims to ourselves. Personal happiness and personal fulfillment are not bad in and of themselves. But when they take precedent over everyone and everything else, or when it becomes the most important thing in our lives, we are by definition not living cross-shaped lives.

3.     Sadly, the idea of “taking up our cross” has been hijacked in our culture for being a metaphor for a life of hardship. On the contrary, taking up the cross is to willfully subject oneself to the excruciating and shameful execution by crucifixion as a representative of Jesus.

Often, when we read the words, “deny yourself,” “take up your self,” or “lose your life,” we think solely of losing grip of our self-preservation. We focus only on what we stand to lose. But the implications of self-denial is to actually participate in acts of human flourishing and the expansion of God’s kingdom into areas where it typically is ignored or suppressed. Jesus tells his disciples that a cruciform, cross-shaped life is the “power” of how the kingdom of God will come (9:1). By aligning with the power of God we become kingdom participants.

Of course the “power of the cross” is radically subversive and counter-intuitive to human wisdom and reasoning. Paul acknowledges this much in 1 Corinthians 1:18 when he admits,

             “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who              are being saved it is the power of God.

And in v. 25 he adds,

             “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is              stronger than human strength.”

The great paradox of the cross is that life is found in death. Death to ourselves, death to self-preservation, and death to self-satisfaction at the cost of others is where life in the kingdom of God begins. Furthermore, at the root of this cruciform lifestyle is the follower of Jesus’ new identity. Richard Hays clarifies,

“To be Jesus’ disciple means to allow one’s own identity to be stamped by the identity of the one who died forsaken on the cross…. When we embrace Mark’s answer to the question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ we are not just making a theological affirmation about Jesus’ identity; we are choosing our own identity as well.”[2]

So what does this mean for the church moving forward?

At Communion Church, we are diligently asking ourselves this very question. How does a church community reconfigure itself into the image of the crucified God? Where does self-preservation need to die and the building up of others need to take root? The answer to these questions lie in conversations we have as a community.

A couple of things to consider:

First, every member of the church needs to diligently answer the question: “But who do you say that I am?” If the answer is anything less than the crucified Messiah, then we may be following a different Jesus.

Second, each person needs to discern where the Spirit is leading them to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. Who needs some financial support, even where personal financial loss may take place? Who needs my help watching their kids on a Friday night even when I have plans? Where do I need to speak up for those experiencing injustice, even when where ostracization may be a result?

Third, how does the church as a whole bolster itself in the community as a hub of reconciliation and hope? How does it position itself as a place that is committed to giving instead of taking? Is it a place that values the voice of others, and seeks to elevate the unique gifting of the individual for the benefit of the kingdom?  

As we conclude our series through the Gospel of Mark, our desire is to not only ask these important questions, but to diligently pursue the answers that would identity us as a truly cruciform, cross-shaped, Jesus-saturated community.

[1] Michael J. Gorman, “Cruciformity,” in Dictionary of scripture and ethics, ed. Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, 2011), 197.

[2] Richard B. Hays, The moral vision of the New Testament: A contemporary introduction to New Testament ethics (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 79.

John Darrow

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