“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
As many times as I’ve read and thought about that saying of Jesus through the years, I don’t think I have ever been so struck as I have this past week by that word daily. We rightly use the metaphor of cross-bearing to describe the way we ought to deal with pain or illness or tragedy or other difficult events. And we are quick to admire people who pick up such crosses courageously in the spirit of Christ. But think about that word daily in terms of your own life. Jesus seems to be saying that every single day there will be crosses in our path—and that picking them up and bearing them is part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In other words, cross-bearing is to be an attitude and not just a response when the occasion arrives. Cross-bearing is the way we are to live our lives. And that doesn’t mean going around with a long face! Nobody loves a professional martyr! (Ever met one of those—someone who’s turned being a martyr into an art form?) Part of genuine cross-bearing is living with joy and confidence!
Now, here are the things from this past week that got me thinking about that word daily. One is the situation in the Middle East. We pray for that part of the world every Sunday. From Jerusalem to Baghdad to Kabul and beyond, it is a scene of pure horror. And we mourn for all the slain, military and civilians, and pray for the bereaved, the wounded, the homeless and the despondent. And we know in our heart of hearts that our crucified Lord is there in the midst of the horror, and is here with families who receive the dreaded news that their loved ones have been killed or wounded. But it is often emotionally and spiritually exhausting, is it not? Aren’t there evenings when you feel like turning off the TV, or putting aside the newspaper, or just keeping the dinner table conversation light? It is exhausting to keep on bearing those crosses. We feel “saddened out.”
But, think about the day after day after day when people on the scene in the Middle East bear their crosses. We’ve been asked to pray this morning for a hospital in Gaza which has been under siege. Listen to how Anglican Bishop Riah of Jerusalem and the Middle East described conditions in Gaza not long ago: “There is no milk. Drinking water, food and medicine are in serious short supply. Innocents are being killed and are dying from lack of available emergency care. Children are paying the ultimate price. Even for those whose lives are spared, many of them are traumatized and will not grow to live useful lives….On Saturday we will attempt to enter Gaza with medical aid for doctors and nurses in our hospital there who struggle to serve the injured, the sick and the dying.”
And then the bishop addresses those who will read his words: “…we encourage and appreciate your prayers. That is important, but it is not enough. If you find that you can no longer look away, take up your cross. It takes courage, as we were promised.” The bishop goes on to invite churches and individuals to take up specific cross-like responsibilities to bring relief and justice. But my point this morning is simply to raise our consciousness of what it means to faithful people in that part of the world to take up their crosses daily. The words of that bishop haunt me : “We are tired, weary, sick and wounded. We need your help.”
The second influence on me this past week was a visit with one of our parish shut-ins, a man named Billy. His home is, and will ever remain, a convalescent center. He is severely disabled and always will be. 100% of the time he’s either in his bed or in a wheelchair. He’s lost control of his life and his bodily functions. But there is one thing of which he has not lost control, and that is his faith. When I first met Billy some months ago, thanks to Bob Seiler who introduced me, I was impressed by his upbeat attitude. But I thought to myself, I’ll bet he’s just having an unusually good day. No one in that condition can be that cheerful! I was wrong. When I was at his bedside the other day I got him talking at greater length. He is thankful beyond words to God; he is grateful for all the care the nursing home gives him; he loves St. James’s and the visits he receives from Bob and others; he’s totally confident in God’s care for him. There’s daily cross-bearing for you!
Jesus says, Take up your cross daily and follow me. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” How do you get into that cross-bearing frame of mind, like Bishop Riah in the Middle East who keeps on against all odds, and like our shut-in friend Billy who is incredibly, unbelievably, thankful for his life? Several things to say about that: First, it’s not easy for us, because you and I and those like us in the Western world are much too comfortable. An author and historian named Francis Fukuyama writes, “Liberal democracy, the tolerance it brings with it, and the affluence that made it possible, have removed the will to fight great causes. We slump in comfort.”
Second, knowing it’s not easy, we need to step out boldly and become “riskers”—willing to take chances, willing to practice—maybe at first with just some little part of our lives—“letting go and letting God.” When I was at the Virginia Seminary a few years ago in a six-week continuing education program, one of the faculty said something to the group of us I’ve never forgotten. He said, “Friends, use this six weeks to try out some new behaviors. Here’s an ideal time to do something you’re not used to doing, like speaking up for yourself instead of shying away from an issue, or exerting some leadership in the group .“ If you’ve been watching some of the talk shows on TV lately, you’ll remember a young Welshman with a great singing voice who was so shy and unsure of himself that he was relegated to working back in the stock room of a cellular phone company. Somehow, within the last week or two, he mustered the courage to enter a singing competition and it was shown on TV and picked up on “Good Morning America.” He’s not terribly attractive physically, and you could see the judges’ skeptical faces as they watched. But he sang out with such passion and beauty that both the judges and the crowd erupted in standing applause.
If you want to be a cross-bearer and live life with joy and confidence, count the cost—it’s not for the faint of heart; be a risker—try it out, take the plunge; but above everything else remember how much God loves you! God loves you beyond your fondest imagining! In Christ, God loves us enough to die for us! That’s what sets us free from our enslavement to things and comfort and same-ness. That’s the sense in which Jesus says we’ve got to lose our lives. By the grace of God in Christ we die to our old ways and live life in a whole new way. Cross-bearing is something you do instinctively, without even thinking about it. It’s simply an automatic response, an attitude, borne out of thanksgiving to God.
When you’ve died to your old self, you find you simply can’t “look away” from the plight of others, as Bishop Riah puts it. You pick it up; you care; you do something. Cross-bearers treat situations and persons with hope; they accept life gracefully as it comes; they don’t give up on anyone; they don’t give up on themselves; indeed they care for themselves in healthy ways and refuse to exploit others. They laugh; they see the humor in life—and they’re able to laugh with others, and listen to others, and cry with others. Finally, cross-bearers live life consciously in the companionship of the living Christ. In the words of St. Francis, they know that “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”