I have an exercise for you this morning. I want you to think about your own theology or identity as it relates to the visual of a cross. Do you relate more to a cross with the crucified Jesus on it, which is called a crucifix? Or do you relate more to an empty cross which signifies the resurrection? Look around this sanctuary. I doubt that there is a crucifix located here. The cross above the altar has no crucified Jesus on it; that cross points to protestant faith. If we were in a Roman Catholic or some sort of Orthodox church, we would see at least one prominent crucifix. Think about it: do you relate to the suffering Jesus, the Jesus who was persecuted as a common criminal, hanging on the cross of shame, bearing the depth and weight of all human sin? Or do you relate to the resurrected Jesus, now sitting at the right hand of God in glory?
The Gospel from Mark makes it clear that suffering and rejection are the expression of Jesus’ cross. From verse 31: “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all of this quite openly. ” When Peter decries this prophecy, Jesus rebukes him, “Get behind me, Satan!” What follows is one of the most cherished but difficult imperatives spoken from the lips of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Take up the cross and follow me. Wow. Does he really… mean it? Does our savior want us to suffer as he suffers? If we are to walk as disciples under the law of Christ, must we also bear the cross?
In her book, The Dream of God , ” Verna Dozier writes, ” Jesus never says in the gospels to worship him. His only call is to follow him.”
Think about that. Our instinct as Christians is to worship our Lord and Savior. But in Mark’s account of the transfiguration, which immediately follows today’s reading, the voice of God himself issues from a cloud, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Not worship. Listen.
Consider the scope of Jesus’ ministry. He does not seek worshippers. Nor does he demand adherence to a doctrine. He does not even demand admirers of the truth. He calls for followers of the truth. Or as we often say at St. James’s, he looks for doers, and not hearer’s only.
The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, explained the difference between a follower and an admirer. “A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An Admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached, failing to see that what he admires has a claim on him.”
Think of it this way: admirers keep themselves at a safe distance. They are spectators, for whom Jesus is merely an actor on a stage. They may be moved by what they see, but not changed. They understand the life of Jesus as a story, but not as a demand. They repeat the things Jesus says, they seek comfort and tranquility in the promises Jesus makes, they even worship Jesus Christ–but they do not do what he tells them to do.
At some level, admirers of Christ know that admiration isn’t enough. They know that while although Jesus says nothing against them personally, his life tacitly judges theirs. They know that they are sentimentalizing Christ, focusing on the infant, the lamb, the innocent one whose love and forgiveness knows no bounds, and ignoring the man, whose love–though infinite–is radically difficult. They know that Jesus is not speaking aesthetically or figuratively when He speaks about the eye of the needle, and the turning of the other cheek, and the forgiving of enemies. They know that while Jesus loves them, he also expects action.
All of us could stand to admire Christ less and follow him more. In our inaction, we admirers, we hypocrites–that’s really the right word for it when you think about it–all share in the guilt of Christ’s crucifixion. This is what we refer to when we say He died for our sins.
So let me return to my original question. Does being a follower mean that we must take up the mantle of suffering and denial? In a word: absolutely.
Of course we must define the word “cross.” I have been thinking a great deal about my own lenten discipline. Truth be told, if I could give up anything, it would be& me. All of me. Seriously, I get so tired of myself. Sometimes I wish I could hire a family practice attorney to help me file for legal separation from myself. Let Dana, that crazy woman, have the house, the car, everything–just get my out of this mess!
Don’t you wish you could just hand off all your stuff to Jesus? Your bad moods, your angst, your anger, your worries, your judgments, your insecurities, your weaknesses, your fear, your lies–all that pollution? I sure do. I would love to put all of that dirty laundry in a bag, cinch it up tight, and throw it over Jesus’ shoulder. Let him carry it around for awhile. It’s not a very nice thing to say about someone who’s been so good to me, but I really kind of like this vision I have of Jesus carrying around all my dirty laundry for all 40 days of Lent.
I’m serious when I say I just want to give up the old me during Lent and reclaim a new and improved me on Easter morning . I haven’t quite figured out how to make that a reality in the 35 days I’ve got left. I do know that it means I must lose myself in some way to this world, with its false promises, its demands, its typecasting, and its hype. As the passage states: “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.”
I do not believe that it is God’s will to inflict suffering upon our souls for the sake of suffering alone. Our God is not capricious. I can look out into this congregation and I can see your suffering, I can see the crosses you bear; I know many of your stories. The truth is that there is no escaping the cross. If you willingly carry the cross, it will carry you. It will take you to where suffering comes to an end, a place other than here. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load. If you try to do away with one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one. (Paraphrased from Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.)
I had a conversation recently with a woman who is feeling guilty because she feels she has no cross to bear. Her marriage is strong. Her children are healthy and delightful. Her parents are in good health. Her family lives comfortably but not extravagantly. Now, of course, she’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I told her that Christ does not want us to live in fear. We are called to live a life of daily gratitude–the kind of “get-down-on-your-knees-and-thank-God” gratitude that signifies that we take nothing for granted. We must be humble. We must remain aware of both our sins and our blessings in order to keep our hearts open to Christ. If anything, Jesus probably knows that a guilty, suffering spirit is more open to grace than an apathetic or smug soul. During this Lenten season, meditate on your sins, meditate on your blessings, and ask your Lord in prayer how you may best serve this world He so loves. Ask from a place of humility and genuine curiosity. Do not look for a reward, or for comfort, for having asked the right question. Look for an answer to your prayer. And then follow that answer.
So how do we carry the cross of Jesus? We make sure that when we come to Him our hands are empty, ready for the hand-off. And our hands can only be empty if we first give Jesus the weight of our burdens. So empty your hands and offer them up. He’s waiting for you.