Sometimes when I’m leading a new Bible study I’ll start with some variation on a game I like to call “Shakespeare or Scripture?” Let’s play a little bit of it now.
- “Tell truth, and shame the devil” – King Henry IV
- “Every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge” – Jeremiah 31:30
- “Condemn the fault, and not the actor of it?” – Measure for Measure
- “Put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.” – Proverbs 23:2
- “Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we shall die” – Isaiah 22:13
Another version is “Ben Franklin or the Bible?”
- “Be in general virtuous, and you will be happy.” – Ben
- “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” – Ecclesiastes 7:3
- “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” – Matthew 6:34
- “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.” – Ben
I could probably make up a third game called “What not to say or the Word of God?” with such non-theological sentiments as “God needed another angel” (What not to say – God doesn’t cause people to die just to take them to heaven to have them nearby; God is with us here on earth.) or “God won’t give you more pain than you can carry” (Again, what not to say – God doesn’t hand out bad situations just to watch us suffer and struggle with them because we can.) or “It is my cross to bear” (What not to say, but if I summed this one up in a sentence there won’t be anything left to preach about.)
It’s my cross or your cross or her cross or their cross. Most if not all of us have heard this said at some point or maybe we’ve even said it ourselves. Usually it’s a statement of resignation or maybe even of pity. This awful thing we are experiencing or see someone else experiencing is somehow something God has given us to live through maybe to make us stronger? Maybe to make us an example? Maybe just as a condition of being God’s childe? Sometimes it’s in jest about something mildly annoying that has happened to us or that we can’t change about ourselves. “This fair skin burns so easily in the sun. It’s my cross to bear.” But other times I’ve heard it used about much bigger things, life or death things, “That cancer diagnosis is his cross to bear.” “Her addiction is her cross to bear.” These kinds of things most definitely fall in the “What not to say” category, not “The Word of God.”
“Cross to bear” language is based on, but is actually quite different from, the reading we heard from Matthew this morning and other parallel passages in the gospels. Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Somehow, somewhere along the line “take up their cross” on the lips of Jesus turned into “cross to bear” in common conversation, and the sentiments are really very different.
Our passage this morning begins immediately after Jesus has asked the disciples both who the crowds say that he is and who the disciples say that he is. Peter has just made his grand declaration that he knows Jesus to be “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus has called him blessed. From then on we heard today, Jesus began to show the disciples just what is going to happen to the Messiah, what has been bound in heaven for the Messiah to do, and that is to go (to Jerusalem), to undergo great suffering, to be killed, and to be raised. All of which is more than Peter can handle. Horrified by what he hears, Peter tries to correct Jesus or maybe remind him that he has the authority to override this kind of fate. It can’t be true he seems to be saying. Even if it feels inevitable, certainly this doesn’t need to be the case. It can be avoided. Certainly God’s own son can find a work around.
As human beings we tend to want to pick the path that is easiest to follow for ourselves and for our loved ones. Instinctively, we want to avoid pain and suffering whenever possible. It is a part of a primal instinct toward self-protection, self-preservation. Receptors in our fingertips send messages to our brain to tell us when something is hot and will burn us so that we can react, pull back, and avoid major injury. We see young people we love making poor decisions, even those that don’t have long term consequences, and we want to intervene and save them from the heartache we know will follow. Understandably we want to avoid that which will hurt us, that which will disrupt our lives, that which will take more energy or change our charted course.
But Jesus who contended with the devil for forty days in the wilderness knows a dangerous tempter when one is standing right in front of him. “Get behind me, Satan!” he says to the rock on which he planned to build the church, the rock that is now at risk of tripping him on his journey of faithfulness. The easy way out is a human way out, but Jesus’s mind is set on the divine way. There are other higher values for living than self-preservation, he tells the disciples, and then he invites them to join him in this kind of life – a cross-shaped life.
The cross as Jesus speaks about it here in Matthew isn’t a burden to bear. It isn’t a punishment to be handed down, but instead it is an invitation that is handed out. It is an invitation to a different kind of life that is shaped by God’s priorities, not our own human instincts or desires. It is an invitation to lay down the unnecessary and perhaps even sinful worries of trying to save face, save our possessions, save our prestige, save our privilege. It is an opportunity to step outside of the walls and barriers that keep our lives self-contained and self-centered. It is a call to step into the kingdom of heaven where we will be laborers centered on God’s purposes of reconciliation and peace.
Taking up our cross is a reminder that faith is not a passive faith. It doesn’t just live in our head or warm our hearts or sound good on our lips. It is a faith that inspires action, a faith that calls us to live for others in the manner demonstrated for us in the cross upon which Jesus died. In submitting himself to the cross, Jesus showed us that the life God desires is one of humility. In sharing the crucifixion of criminals, Jesus showed us that the life God desires is one marked by solidarity with those on the fringes. In loving us to death on the cross before we knew him, before we loved back, without judging our worth, Jesus showed us we are to love others indiscriminately. In reconciling the world to God, Jesus showed us it our life’s work to be agents of peace.
As we sit on the cusp of a new ministry year, as we enjoy a weekend in which we are invited to think about and offer thanks for those who have advocated for labor practices that enrich our lives, Jesus invites us to consider how we can live our lives in a way the blesses others. Jesus, who inevitably went to the cross himself not to save his own life, but to lose it for our sakes, invites us to lose our lives for his sake. But what does that look like? What can that mean?
We saw some of it in news stories that circulated this last week in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. There was the furniture store owner who opened his stores so that evacuees would have a comfortable place to rest. There were the bakers at El Bolillo Bakery in Houston who were trapped inside their kitchen, so they spent two days and 4,400 pounds of flour baking bread for other victims. There were countless neighbors taking their boats house to house, street by street, rescuing people they had never met and may never meet again, not because they had to, but because they wanted to, they needed to. There was police Sgt. Steve Perez who died driving through floodwaters while on duty trying to protect the lives of others.
Losing our lives, ordering our priorities, orienting our minds and hearts for the sake of Jesus, for the cause of loving others, this is what it means to take up our cross. This is what it looks like to mold our lives into the shape of the cross. We have been invited to join Jesus in a cross-shaped life. It isn’t forced on us. And although there can be risk to our physical lives and the lives we have crafted for comfort when we are called to a way of life that centers self-sacrifice and standing against the norms, it still is not a burden under which we suffer, but a blessing to share with the world.
So again, we are called to consider – how will we reshape our lives to take up our cross? What will we give up in return for our life with Jesus? Where and with whom will we stand that might bring ridicule? What will we learn that might challenge our former thoughts? What will we say that offers blessing to those who persecute us? When will we feed our enemies who are hungry? Which of our desires, our possessions, our resources will we deny so that others can have life? How will we respond to the invitation to get up and follow Jesus, to carry his cross wherever we go?
Maybe if your faith has been stagnant, buried in unexamined ideas and beliefs, you might join an adult study class this fall. Maybe if you have been drinking from the deep well filling your own cup, it is time to step into a teaching role for children, youth, or adults. Or if your faith has been strong in your head and your heart, now might be the time to put your hands and feet to work. If following others has been a place of growth, now might be a time to take the next step and lead. If your financial resources have been focused on building a nest egg of comfort and reassurance, it is probably time to engage in cross-shaped stewardship with new or increased giving to God’s work in the world.
“Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus invites, and with the invitation comes a promise. We will never be alone when we walk as Jesus’ disciples. He goes before us and our fellow travelers are with us. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus invites. With joy and thanksgiving, let’s go with him.