I really enjoy architecture. I love it when really great buildings combine form and function in such a way that they are almost inseparable. I love when a building makes use of ample windows and ambient lighting. I like architecture with curves.
I also really love church architecture (maybe it is an occupational hazard). So many of today’s churches are so boring and devoid of meaning. I mean, you walk into a lot of churches and you can’t really tell if you are in a church, a conference room at the public library, or a school auditorium (actually, with as many church plants as I know of in our area, you might actually be in a school auditorium or cafeteria). I love when architecture says something. I love when churches make use of symbols to tell the story of our faith in visual ways.
Recently, we have been doing some renovations at our church. We have been painting walls, and redecorating. As we’ve done this, we’ve had to take things off the walls, spackle over numerous holes and nicks in the sheetrock, and make some hard decisions about color palates and paint schemes. Those that have been involved with that process have probably heard me say on more than one occasion: “We are not going to just randomly slap stuff back up on the wall. We need to be intentional about what we hang up and where.”
This stems from a conviction that I have that most people will forget the majority of my Sunday sermon by the time the bill is paid at lunch. The way in which we order and decorate our worship space, however, will preach over and over again, Sunday after Sunday. We need to be clear about what we are trying to say.
With that said, let me confess that in all my travels to various churches, I have been struck by some of the depictions of the cross of Jesus. There are big crosses, little crosses, shiny crosses, wooden crosses, flowery crosses, crosses with other symbols (like a flame or a dove), crosses with writing on them, and on and on. In catholic churches, you find a multitude of crucifixes with Jesus hanging on them - there’s the realistic Jesus, the stylized Jesus, the agonized Jesus, the pretty Jesus (who looks as if this whole cross thing is just an inconvenience).
I think of all this as I come to today’s passage. In the story leading up to it, we get this famous dialogue between Jesus and Peter:
Jesus: Who do people say that I am?
Disciples: John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; one of the prophets
Jesus: But who do you say that I am?
Peter: You are the Christ.
All of Mark’s Gospel has been leading up to this point. The first eight chapters of Mark are some of the most intense portrayals of Jesus in scripture. This is a no nonsense Jesus. There are no birth narratives here - no shepherds in the fields, angelic messengers, babies wrapped in swaddling clothes. There’s not even a genealogy. In Mark, Jesus hits the ground the running. In the first chapter alone, Jesus has been baptized, fought with Satan in the wilderness, called some disciples, healed a man with an unclean spirit, healed Simon’s mother-in-law, healed many in Capernaum, went all throughout Galilee casting out demons, and cleansed a leper. And this is just the first chapter! You’re darn right, Peter - he is the Christ! He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He’s the one God has promised!
So, when Jesus “turns a corner” in verse 31 of chapter eight, we aren’t really prepared. “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Do what? Huh? Come again!
Talk to my church planter friends - if you are going to draw a crowd, then dramatic healings, great storytelling, incredible miracles, and radical inclusion are a great way to start. This kind of Jesus becomes Jesus, the caring helper; Jesus, the wise teacher; Jesus, the opener of new possibilities; Jesus, the welcomer of all. We all want to be like this Jesus. This plays well in the media. You can put that on a poster.
But Jesus, the crucified? Jesus, the shamed? Jesus, the criminal? Jesus, the mocked? Jesus, the persecuted? Jesus, the fool? This isn’t really the best way to “make friends and influence people.” And it doesn’t stop there - Jesus wants us, his followers, to take up a cross and join him . . . voluntarily? It’s scandalous! It’s crazy! It’s just flat out shameful! And yet, it’s the Gospel.
See, I have this issue with the sanitized versions of the cross I find in many churches. My favorite crucifix was in a little junk shop in Asheville, NC (I still kick myself for not buying it). It was made from a couple of old worn railroad ties. The figure of Jesus was shaped from two pieces of old rusted steel, curved out at the head, hands, and feet and held together by a rusty old bolt. It was ragged. It was not pretty, and yet,
O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me . . .
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.
Prayer: God, help me this Lent to let go of my pretty, sanitized crosses - of my easy faith that costs me little. Help me to take up my shame, my guilt, my foolishness, my embarrassment, my cross and follow after you. Amen.