16th Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12,
Take Up Your Cross and Follow
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Hard words for the disciples and the original listeners back in the first century, and hard words for us to hear on a nice, peaceful Sunday morning in Daly City in 2015! This is a hard saying in our modern culture, even for Christians, and for the Church as a whole. Living the way of the cross, suffering, and giving up one’s life doesn’t cut it too well in a culture that promotes luxury, ease, an abundance of material things, a way of life where achieving wealth and status, and power for ourselves and our loved ones is often seen as the highest good. In a world where there are winners and losers, and the winners have the power and the influence, following in the way of the cross is countercultural, and seems like folly to many people. If I am honest with myself, sometimes it seems far-fetched to me. It is easier to go with the flow, with the majority, rather than dare to follow the gospel way. But what seems like foolishness is actually wisdom in the sight of God.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus has just finished asking the disciples who they say he is. Kudos go to Peter, for correctly answering that he is the Messiah. So far, so good. It looks like the disciples, or at least Peter, are beginning to understand who Jesus is. Then Jesus goes on to reveal that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the religious authorities and be killed, and on the third day, rise again. This wasn’t quite what Peter and the other disciples had bargained for when they signed on to follow Jesus! No doubt some of them expected Jesus to be the political warrior who would rid Israel of the hated Roman rule. Or they longed for him to be a king who would restore Israel to political power. Death for the Messiah, and especially a shameful death on a cross, just seemed wrong, out of the question. But when Peter protests against this, Jesus rebukes him, and tells him that he is missing the point and not looking at things from the perspective of faith and complete trust in God, but from his limited human viewpoint. Jesus is making it clear to the disciples that there is a cost to following him, and they must make a choice. If they choose to follow, they are called to live as he lived, a life of sacrificial love and radical trust in God. We also need to look at this passage in the context of the audience Mark was writing to. At the time this earliest gospel record was being compiled, the Romans had just destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. There was beginning to be division between the Jewish religious leaders who believed Jesus was the Messiah and those who did not, and some believers were being asked to leave the synagogues. For Mark’s community, which was seeking to find its identity in a post-temple world, it was important to know where one stood and what one believed. Believers were asked to show where their allegiance lay, and total commitment to the way of the gospel was expected.
What does it mean to take up our cross and follow for us today, in our modern world, in our pluralistic society, in our busy lives? How can we live out the gospel way of sacrificial love and radical trust in God? I think we can begin to discover what it means to take up the cross by looking at our baptism. For not only is baptism the initiation rite into the church, it is, as Paul comments in Romans 6:3, baptism into the death of Christ. When we are baptized we enter into the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection, and we share in his experience. We are initiated into the mystery of his sacrificial love that reconciles the world. When we are baptized, we die to our old attachments to our own will, to our wisdom, and even to our own life itself. We commit ourselves to following Christ alone. So taking up our cross and following Jesus means living fully into our baptism, into a way of life where we die to our old ways of centering our lives on ourselves and are born into a new way of being where we offer our lives to God to be joyfully spent in his service.
Though we use the language of being buried with Christ in baptism, most of us won’t be called upon to suffer martyrdom for our faith. But taking up the cross means that we will suffer many little deaths in our lives, and gain our lives by losing them. We may die to the need to be competitive, to succeed at the expense of others. We may have to die to the need to always be right, to always be in control. Perhaps we need to die to fear, fear of taking risks for the sake of the Gospel, fear of daring to love others because we may be hurt. Maybe we need to die to the need to judge and blame others. Again, our baptism into Christ calls us to die to our old self-centered way of living and to receive life as a gift from a gracious God, to be shared and celebrated with others.
Taking up the cross and following also means committing ourselves to living the same life of radical trust in God, of gracious love, and reconciliation that Jesus lived. In our own unique circumstances, we are called to weave that beautiful, pattern of abundance and grace into our lives, sharing the Gospel in our world both by our words and by our actions. Taking up the cross means we voluntarily choose the hard way of peacemaking when it would be easier to choose anger and enmity. Taking up the cross means we identify with the weak, the broken, and marginalized, and proclaim their dignity in a world that seeks to glorify wealth, status, and power. Taking up the cross and following means we have the audacity to proclaim hope, and peace, grace and joy in a world that thrives on judgment and cynicism. Taking up the cross and following means that we stretch out our arms in love as Jesus did, and become vulnerable, and ask God to give us hearts of compassion that are broken by the pain of the world. When we take up our cross and follow, we will know pain and grief, because we enter deeply into the suffering, pain, and sorrow of the world, out of love for Christ who loves us, who comes to dwell with us, and suffer with us. When we take up the cross and follow, we also enter into the joy of his resurrection, where we come to know that nothing can ever defeat the love of God, and pain, suffering, and darkness become the gateways into light and life and joy.
When I was a young woman, many, many moons ago and attended youth group, I remember going on a retreat and being part of an exercise where we were asked ‘If you were to go on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? At first we thought that was kind of silly. Then we really thought about it. How do people know that we are followers of Jesus? Being a generally “nice” person wouldn’t cut it, verdict, not guilty. Going to church and receiving the sacraments, sorry, not enough. Believing all the “right”doctrines about Jesus, about who he is, about the atonement, not enough to convict. Then we looked at the lives of the saints, and they are guilty as charged! And I am not just talking about the saints with a capital S who were canonized by Rome or who are listed in bold print in the back of our prayer book. I am speaking of the nameless faithful with a small s, who live sanctified holy lives in a quiet humble way, who take up the cross daily- they demonstrate the marks of a Christian! I think of the many people who died for their faith in the early years of the Church. I think of those who sought to make peace during times of religious warfare and strife, the followers of St. Francis and Clare. There are the people who marched in the civil rights movement, those who served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, those who hid persecuted people during the Holocaust, those who peacefully protest and call us to remember that every human life matters, and those here in our midst who live quiet faithful lives of love and service–these are the ones living out the commands of the Gospel. They are taking up the cross, they are embracing the life of the Christ who calls us to stretch out our arms in a loving embrace, to be the instruments of reconciliation in our broken, yet beautiful world.
If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Do you gladly and joyfully embrace the way of the cross as the way of life and peace? May we all take up the cross and follow Jesus in lives of humility, love, and joy. Amen.