Mar. 4, 2012 Lent 2 “Take Up Your Cross”

I’m going to ask you to imagine that you have a good friend named Bill. You’ve known Bill for thirty-five years, ever since you lived on the same street when your families were both young. Bill drove you to the hospital in the middle of January, in his pajamas, when your first child had appendicitis and your car wouldn’t start. He was the first one there to help out when your basement flooded; the one who made soup for you when you had the flu. You watched him care for his wife during her long battle with cancer, and then raise four children on his own, working long hours as a manager at the local bank to support them all, but always there when they needed him.

Now, imagine that you get a phone call from the bank asking for some personal information, something they need to update your account. We all know NEVER to give out our personal information over the phone. That voice might say they’re calling from the bank, but any wise person still won’t give their social security number or their credit card number over the phone. But if you know that it is Bill you’re talking to, it makes all the difference. You would trust Bill with your life; you certainly wouldn’t hesitate to trust him with your credit card number. Having faith in someone, learning to trust them absolutely because you know who they are makes all the difference in the world.

Just before today’s gospel reading, Jesus had asked his disciples if they really knew who he was. There were all kinds of theories going around about who he was. Some people said he was John the Baptist or Elijah, come back from the dead, and some that he was a great prophet. But Peter spoke for all of Jesus’ close disciples when he said: “We know that you are the Christ.” The Christ – which is the same as the Hebrew word Messiah, the anointed One of God –  was the One the Jews had been waiting for for centuries, the One God had promised to send to his people, the final descendant of King David, who would rescue them from all their enemies and bring justice to the whole world. For Peter to come right out and say that was huge. No Jew would call someone Messiah lightly; to identify Jesus as Messiah meant they placed every hope, every expectation, into Jesus’s hands; they gave him authority over every part of their lives – in fact, they proclaimed that he and he alone had authority over every power and ruler in the world. They had lived with Jesus, listened to his teaching, watched him as he walked through the villages and towns bringing healing and hope. They had seen that he had authority over satanic forces; they observed his deep abiding relationship with God, whom he called his Father. Now that they were ready to trust him with their lives, they were ready to hear this new thing he had to teach them. But it wasn’t an easy teaching.

Mark says that Jesus 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. It was almost too much for them, even with the solid faith they had in this man they had come to know so well. It stripped away every last vestige of glory and of safety they had in their preconceived idea of who the Messiah was going to be. Why would the One anointed by God – not to mention his loyal followers – be heading into a life of pain and death? Why would he be rejected by all that represented their connection to God? Surely the coming of the Messiah was supposed to mean victory for God’s people, relief from suffering, protection from death, a deeper experience of the Temple worship that was such an important part of their lives. As deeply as they had come to trust Jesus, it was almost too much for them. Peter, the spokesmen for the group, tried to talk a little sense into him and got a harsh rebuke for his pains.

It wasn’t the teaching they expected; it wasn’t the life they had envisioned; but they were ready to hear Jesus now, because as little as they still were able to understand, they had learned to trust him. And that was what they needed in order to hear him. It was time for Jesus to tell them what it really meant to be a disciple. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These were the steps into true discipleship, the choices that would turn their lives from the way of the world into the way of the kingdom.

First Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.” Denying yourself is not what we sometimes think, just giving up our favorite things, being kind of mean to ourselves so that we can be more saint-like. It means something much more radical than that. Jesus was calling his disciples to give up all their preconceived notions of what their lives should be like, all their preconceived notions of what God was going to expect of them. For Peter and the others it was letting go of that dream of a victorious Messiah who would crush the power of the Roman army, who would restore the Temple to its glory days, who would bring back the Golden Age of King David. The Messiah had arrived, and he wasn’t anything like what they had anticipated. Before Jesus could lead them forward they had to let go of all that glorious baggage. As long as they held onto the Messiah in their heads, they couldn’t follow the real Messiah.

For each of us denying ourselves is letting go of those things that we hold most dear, turning our backs on pursuing the kind of life we always thought we should have, giving up the dream of becoming the self we always wanted to be, or of having the things we always thought we’d have. Because as long as we hold onto the Jesus in our heads, who acts like we expect him to, who gives us all the things we think we need, we can’t follow the real Jesus.

Next Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up his cross.” Jesus was revealing something devastating to those disciples. Not only was he telling them that he was going to be killed, he was saying that he was going to die in the most shameful and painful way. They knew the Scriptures that said, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” To die by hanging on a cross was not only to be rejected by men; it was to be rejected by God as well. And Jesus was saying to them not just that he was going to be a victim of such a horrendous thing; he was saying, “I am going to take that up; I am going to willingly embrace that shame and pain and horror. The death of the cross is not going to be forced on me – I am choosing it, taking it up, myself.”

There was no way for Peter and the disciples to fully understand what Jesus was saying, not until they had reached the other side of the cross, not until they had known the grief of Jesus’s death and the joy of his resurrection. This was a command they could hear because they trusted him, but it was not until much later that they would be able to understand it. But still they followed, every one of the apostles, except for Judas, with a willing and courageous heart, following Jesus even to their deaths as martyrs for the faith.

We don’t have to deal with that same kind of confusion about the meaning of the cross. On this side of the Resurrection, we know that Jesus chose to die a shameful and agonizing death to accept the consequences of our sin that we are not able to endure, and to defeat once and for all the power of sin and death in our lives. But we still have to deal with what Jesus means for us to “take up our cross”. And we have Jesus’s example to show us what he meant.

First of all, the pain that Jesus suffered was not something he did to himself. He taught and healed and cast out demons, living each day in faithful obedience to God’s will. It was the rebellion of a sinful world that condemned Jesus to torture and death. But we would be wrong to say that he was simply a victim of a violent and wicked world. The world did nothing to him that he did not authorize. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He told us that he is the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep”. He told us that the Son of Man came to “give his life as a ransom for many.” And most remarkably, Jesus said this, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” No matter how vindictive or cruel the world became, and we know as we meditate on the Passion during this season that it was very cruel, in the end nothing was done outside of Jesus’s authority.

And when Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he shares his authority with us. Just before he returned to the Father, he gave us this final commandment: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples…” We are to reach out to the world as Jesus reached out to us, bearing his authority, because every power, in heaven or on earth, is subject to him, and because it is subject to our master it is subject to us. And like our master, we don’t have to go out and seek the evil of the world; we don’t have to seek suffering or pain. Jesus told us, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.”

The difference between us and the rest of the world is not that we have more trouble, or less trouble. Christians get colds and cancer and have marital difficulties and financial problems; they struggle with their own selfishness and the world’s injustice, just like every other human being. The difference is that if we know Jesus, we know that no trouble can make us a victim unless we allow it. We are followers, not of a victim who was executed by those more powerful than him, but of the willing sacrifice who chose to submit to those who were weaker than him; not of the one who avoided the world, but of the one who overcame the world. That is why we are not crushed by our crosses; we can take them up as he did. Not by our own power, not because we are immune to pain or fear or despair, not because we embrace suffering to atone for our guilt and shame, not from any fortitude in and of ourselves, but simply because we trust in the one that carried his cross all the way to death, and rose again, putting death itself to death.

Christianity is not a religion that tells us how to live and what to think; it isn’t a religion at all. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is nothing more or less than a relationship of trust. If you believe that you can trust Jesus with your life, then you can begin to learn to let go of everything else and follow him, one step at a time, one day at a time. It’s not easy, it’s not a one-time decision, it’s a lifelong process. Like Peter and the other disciples, if you follow Jesus you will have to learn to let go of all those things that you thought were going to bring you life. If you keep your eyes fixed on him, your carefully constructed plans for security and happiness will crumble like a house of cards. You will lose everything that you thought was your life. But in losing everything for his sake, you will find that you have gained everything, because you will have found your true life, the never ending life of perfect peace and joy in the presence of the God who loves you as his precious child.

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