I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 26, 2023. It is based on Mark 14:53-72 and Hebrews 12:1-3, which you can find here.
One of the issues the early church had to deal with is what to do about professing Christians who had denied Christ under threat of torture or death. Writer Sandra Sweeny Silver puts it this way: “These people performed the sacrifice to the Emperor or gods and were let go. After a particular persecution was over, most of them wanted to be back in fellowship with the Christian body. This produced a dilemma in the Early Church: should we allow them back after they had denied Christ and sacrificed to the Emperor and to pagan gods or should we exclude them permanently from the Church?”
What do you think? Before you answer we really need to consider what happens in our passage from Mark’s Gospel. We can say this: Walking the way of the cross means that in our lives truth is on trial, because our faith in Jesus will be tested by those who do not follow him or are not fans of the church or Christianity.
“They all condemned him as deserving death”
Years ago I was a babysitter for one evening. The next day I was accused of taking money from the home. I had done no such thing. But I had a small taste of what it’s like to be falsely accused. Of course, in my case, the stakes were very, very low.
In our passage today, the stakes are much, much higher. Jesus has been arrested and is being brought before religious authorities to be tried. This is what we read: The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they could not find any. For many were giving false testimony against him, and the testimonies did not agree.
We need to note a few things here. First, the religious authorities had been looking for the means to condemn Jesus for quite some time. Consider what we read in Mark 11:18: The chief priests and the scribes heard it and started looking for a way to kill him. And in Mark 14:1 we read: It was two days before the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a cunning way to arrest Jesus and kill him.
They weren’t putting Jesus on trial to find out if he was guilty of some punishable offense. They already believed he was guilty and were putting him on trial to see how they could do away with him. In Matthew 26:4 it says this: they conspired to arrest Jesus in a treacherous way and kill him.
Second, there was no credible evidence or testimony against Jesus that demonstrated he deserved punishment, much less death. Witnesses disagreed with one another. They misrepresented Jesus’ own words. Evidence was manufactured.
Eventually Jesus was found guilty because when asked if he was the Messiah, he told the truth about who he was. They all condemned him as deserving death. While Jesus was silent when he was asked about the false charges, here he spoke the truth of who he is. Of course, this did not help his situation. And maybe we wonder how this applies to us.
In John 15:20, when Jesus is spending his final hours with his disciples, he says: Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. Jesus is basically saying, “If you follow me, you can expect people to treat you like me.”
We can put it this way: Walking the way of the cross means being treated like Jesus.
In fact, we see this happening to the first Christians in the book of Acts. Followers of Jesus are arrested, beaten, and even killed (Stephen and James) by those who reject Jesus.
How might Christians be falsely accused today? That we think we’re better than others? That we’re judgmental and intolerant? That we want control of the government so we can enforce our beliefs on everyone else? Perhaps the time will come when we will be deemed to have “unacceptable views” by governing authorities?
It’s a difficult question but one we all need to ask: Will I follow Jesus even when it means being treated like Jesus?
“This man is one of them”
Not even Jesus’ closest friends were great examples here. At least not at the time of his arrest. An important part of our passage is how Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, follows behind to see what was going to happen to Jesus. And eventually Peter gets confronted by a maidservant to the high priest. You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth. This man is one of them. Three times this happens. Three times Peter denies knowing Jesus. I don’t know this man you’re talking about!
Then it happens. Then Peter hears it again. The rooster crows a second time. Recalling Jesus’ words — Before the rooster crows twice you will deny me three times — Peter broke down and wept.
There is good reason to believe that Peter was able to see and hear everything that was happening to his arrested Lord. In Luke’s account (22:61), after his third denial, the rooster crows a second time, and then the Lord turned and looked at Peter.
Peter did not want to be treated like Jesus. He saw and heard how that went. He was afraid. So he denied Jesus. But just as he could see and hear what was happening with Jesus, maybe Jesus could see and hear what was happening with Peter.
In any case, I can’t even imagine what that was like for Peter. To have his Lord, his teacher, his friend, look him in the eye after he just denied him three times. This after all of his big words and bravado. Is it any wonder that in Luke it describes Peter’s reaction by saying he went outside and wept bitterly?
I’m sure we can understand Peter. Maybe even relate to him. Maybe even think “But for the grace of God go I. . .” Because we wonder about how we would fare under such pressure.
Because Peter did deny Jesus. He denied knowing him. Denied that he was a follower of Jesus. Denied that he had anything to do with him. Three years of discipleship, of seeing Jesus heal, hearing him preach and teach — all gone in the time it took for the rooster to crow twice.
While in the courtyard, someone said to Peter, This man is one of them. He denied it. What if we had been in that same situation? When it comes to following Jesus, our outsides have to match our insides, what we say ought to match what we really believe.
In other words: Walking the way of the cross means being honest about our allegiance to Jesus.
Do we ever hide our faith from others out of fear of what they will think or say? What does it mean for us to deny Jesus? How might we potentially deny Jesus?
As far as I can tell, none of us is ever asked to publicly deny that we believe in Jesus. None of our lives is at risk because we confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. However, the story of Peter tells us that even a committed disciple of Jesus can experience the pressure of denying Jesus. And perhaps it’s also possible to deny Jesus even if we’re not doing it with words like Peter.
“You will see the Son of Man . . . coming with the clouds of heaven”
Maybe then it’s important to ask: how can we be better prepared so that when the pressure is on we will remain faithful to our Lord?
Jesus only speaks once in our passage. It’s when the high priest asks him: Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? Jesus says: I am and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.
Of course, it is because of Jesus’ answer that he is finally condemned by the Sanhedrin. His words are thought to be so blasphemous that the high priest tears his robes, a symbol of grief or horror at blasphemy.·
Jesus forthright in his answer. And his answer also helps us understand what made it possible for him to persevere under the pressure and weight of impending suffering and death. Only knowing the full story — that he would be raised from the dead and return in glory — enabled Jesus to endure the false accusations and suffering.
Consider Peter again. In our passage, yes, he denies Jesus. As difficult and as awful as this might be, we do need to remember that his denial was also before the cross and resurrection, before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When you look at Peter in the book of Acts, he is not only an outspoken man, but a man of Spirit-driven conviction. He was willing to be arrested for Jesus. Beaten for Jesus. Eventually he was martyred for Jesus.
All because he had encountered the risen Jesus. All because he had received the inner-working power of the Holy Spirit. All because he knew the full story. He would see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.
This is also true for us. We know the risen Jesus. We have the inner-working power of the Holy Spirit. We are not depending on our own will-power. We live this Christian life, we follow Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, knowing full well that life follows from death, that the empty tomb follows the cross. We confess Jesus knowing that one day he will return to vindicate all those who have been faithful to him.
In other words: Walking the way of the cross means living in the light of Jesus’ return. Because although we have to take up our cross to follow Jesus, the cross was never going to be the end of the story.
At the start, I mentioned the situation of the early church following occasions of persecutions. Do you forgive and welcome back into fellowship Christians who had denied Jesus when threatened with torture and death?
There wasn’t a consensus. Some thought those believers could in no way be welcomed back. Others believed those folks could be forgiven and be a part of the church again.
Those who believed they could be brought back into the church, forgiven, often pointed to Peter as the reason. Why? Peter denied Jesus. But then Jesus also forgave and restored Peter. At the end of John’s Gospel (21:15-19) Jesus asks Peter three times, Do you love me? And then he tells Peter three times to feed and shepherd his sheep. Jesus’ threefold restoration overturns Peter’s threefold denial.
And isn’t forgiveness and restoration at the heart of who Christ is and what the gospel is all about? I want to point this out because it is so very important that our emphasis is always on the grace and forgiveness of God made possible through Christ on the cross, on the new life made possible through the empty tomb.
Considering the state of our world at the present, it seems to me that it’s only going to become more difficult to be a follower of Jesus. The truth of who Jesus is will be on trial in our lives more and more. Jesus told us to expect this. But we can also expect our Lord Jesus to be present with us all along the way.
And I think the way we stand up under pressure, when other people are questioning our faith, bringing false accusations, or treating us poorly, is by learning to walk in the way of the cross in the here and now. Leaning to trust Jesus in the here and now.
Think of our passage from Hebrews 12: Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up.
Here is a Collect Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, which I think is helpful and encouraging:
“Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.”