Today’s Gospel is a continuation of last week’s Gospel. Last week, we heard Jesus ask his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and we ourselves reflected on our images of Jesus and who we think Jesus is. Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, in last week’s Gospel lesson, and Jesus blessed him for this confession and told him that “on this rock,” he would build his church. Peter must have been flying high on that kind of praise. But this week, we see a startling reversal, as Jesus begins to show his disciples what being the Messiah means. And not only will Jesus undergo great suffering and be killed (the disciples seem either to have not heard or not understood the “be raised” part) he calls on all who wish to be his followers to take up their cross and follow him. This is serious stuff. When we looked at the different images of Jesus last week, when I put this one up on the screen one person said that it made him uncomfortable, because that’s what Jesus is calling us to do.
Being a Christian is not just about dressing nicely and coming to worship on Sunday mornings. It is about getting down and dirty, expecting suffering in life, and denying one’s own desires in order to follow what God wants of us.
Before we get into what taking up your cross and following Jesus means, I want to first be clear on what it does not mean. We have this phrase in English that says, “That must be your cross to bear.” Sometimes this phrase is used rightly, but more often than not, it is used wrongly. Most importantly: women, if you are in any kind of abusive situation with your husband or significant other, that is not your cross to bear. Abuse is not the kind of suffering that Jesus is talking about, and if you are in that kind of situation, you have a right to get out. And there are many resources available to help you with that, including Crisis Intervention Services here in Powell. So please, never, ever think that being in an abusive situation is simply “your cross to bear.” On the opposite end of the spectrum from abuse, we also use the phrase “our cross to bear” in a flippant manner, as if putting up with an annoying co-worker is “our cross to bear.” Taking up our cross and following Jesus is a lot more serious than that. So, somewhere between abuse on the one hand and everyday annoyances on the other lies the meaning of taking up our cross and following Jesus, and we’re going to take a look at this today.
So first, what does it mean to deny ourselves? During Lent, many of us have a tendency to deny ourselves simple pleasures like chocolate or other sweet things. But here in the context of this gospel reading, Jesus is talking about a different kind of self-denial. Peter has just rebuked Jesus for talking about suffering and dying, because this does not fit what Peter’s idea of the Messiah is. The Messiah was supposed to be a mighty leader who would kick the Romans out and restore rule of the kingdom to the Jewish people, and that kingdom would be even better than that of the ideal king, King David. Jesus, though, is teaching that the Messiah is not going to be like that. He calls Peter Satan because, through Peter’s words denying what Jesus knew he must do, Jesus is hearing the temptation of Satan to actually be the kind of Messiah that Peter and the rest of the disciples expect. And Jesus knows that he must resist that temptation.
We too have our own ideas of how God should be working in the world. When a 4-year-old has to undergo chemo treatments and blood transfusions because of cancer, we think God should come down, click his fingers, and make the cancer disappear instantly. When fighting erupts anywhere: Palestine and Israel; Russia and Ukraine; ISIS in Iraq and Syria; we think God should speak the word, “STOP!” in a loud voice and that everyone should cease what they’re doing and live in peace with one another. When we see pain and suffering anywhere, we think that if God would just come down to earth and cause everything to miraculously cease, then we could really get behind that God and believe in him. But, that’s not the way God works. And to deny ourselves means that, in the words of Professor Jeff Gibbs at Concordia Seminary, “we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency.” In other words, we give up the illusion of control and we submit to God’s ways, which are very different than the ways we would run things if we did indeed have control.
Related to this, Dr. Gibbs writes, is when a disciple of Christ “desires to exercise power over others, especially over fellow disciples, so that he (or she) can accomplish what he (or she) believes should be done.” This is the “If I were in charge, I would do everything right and we’d be getting along great,” syndrome. We’re all guilty of this. Sometimes we pastors think we have this power over our congregations, and one of my professors at Gettysburg warned us that any time we think that, we are supposed to shoot ourselves in the foot. The Christian life is not about each one of us as individuals, it is about how we live together in community. And when we live together in a Christian community, we are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are not to lord it over others, but to think of others more highly than we think of ourselves, and to submit to one another in Christian love. This giving up of our illusions of control and submission to one another in love is what denying ourselves is all about: It is denying our desires for power and for control, giving those up, and actively seeking the good of the other person.
So, now that we have an idea of what self-denial is all about, what does it mean to take up the cross? First, when Jesus originally said these words, there is a strong probability that he was being literal. He knew that he would be crucified, and he knew that several of his disciples would be killed for following him, some of them also by crucifixion. In early Christianity believers were not supposed to seek out martyrdom, but, if you were killed because of your belief in Christ, it was considered an honor and a blessing given to you by God. As an example, an early account of two female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, recounts that while the two of them were in prison awaiting execution, Felicitas was worried that she might not be able to be martyred with Perpetua because she was pregnant, and the Romans did not execute pregnant women. It turns out that Felicitas did have her baby, and she and Perpetua were martyred together. But, can you imagine the idea of wanting to be martyred, and then wanting to be martyred with a friend of yours?
Today this concept of martyrdom is foreign to us here in the United States, although it still happens elsewhere around the world. We know in theory that we might have to die for our faith, and we hope that we would be able to stand up to the test. But in reality, the deaths we die will most likely not be deaths of martyrdom. So, how do we take up our cross and follow Jesus? If we have started with denial of self and the desires of self, thinking others better than ourselves and submitting to one another in Christian love, then that is a start of taking up our cross. Denying self and the sinful desires of the self is never easy, and we will never get it perfectly right, so as disciples of Jesus, we should keep working at this day by day. Martin Luther himself wrote that this is the life of a baptized Christian. In his Small Catechism, he wrote that Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Sinfulness is something that happens daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute, and that self-denial is a daily struggle that we as Christians must engage in. This is part of what it means for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus.
And that self-denial can lead to suffering, or, at the very least, looking very different from those around us. I would like to lift up a recent example of something that’s been going on: the ice bucket challenge. For those of you who don’t know what this is, people have been challenging one another to donate money to help fund research for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. In order to make this challenge fun, people are supposed to continue challenging one another by dumping a bucket of ice water on themselves, and posting a video of this online, with the names of people they want to see do the same thing. Now, on the one hand, this has raised a lot of money for ALS research, which is great since this is a disease that generally gets left behind in charitable donations. But on the other hand, this really is not self-denial, but is instead another gimmick that we here in America do. We think that it’s okay to just waste water and look ridiculous on the internet so we can get people to look at us and laugh at us, when around the world, and even here in the U.S., for example, California, there are people who are suffering drought and simply cannot take a bucket of ice water and dump it on themselves. What if everyone who dumped water on themselves had instead not only donated to organizations that fund ALS research, but also donated money to organizations that provide clean water for places that do not have it? Wouldn’t that instead be denial of our sinful desire to have other people admire us for the good we’re doing? Wouldn’t this be thinking of others as better than ourselves? And wouldn’t that be a way in which we can heed Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him?
I heard a sermon on this idea of taking up your cross and following Jesus when I was in seminary. And what annoyed me about the sermon that I heard is that the preacher told us what taking up your cross was not about, but she never told us what it was about, and I was left to wonder. Now that I’ve had a chance to look at this passage, I think I can give you some guidelines: it is not about suffering abuse, it is not about an annoying person in your life; it is about self-denial and an expectation of suffering in this world. God is not going to come down and snap his fingers and make our lives just wonderful simply because we believe in Jesus as the Messiah. No, it is because we believe in Jesus as the Messiah that we should live lives of self-denial and expect suffering to happen, just like what happened to him when he was here on earth. But what I can’t tell you is the specifics of what that self-denial and suffering is going to look like in our lives. What I can promise you is that God will be there for you throughout any suffering you may encounter, and the Christian community will be there for you as well, all of us loving and supporting you. Amen.