Crosses are everywhere these days. Not long ago I happened to find myself leaning over a jewelry counter in search of a gift, and everywhere I looked there were crosses. Some were large, silver, earthy looking, appropriate, say, for a casual outfit, a day in the country maybe. Some were delicate, ornate, glittering gold, often with bright-colored stones set in them. There seemed to be a cross for just about every taste and mood.
In the last several years I was surprised to see that crosses were a chief feature of punk style and the outfits of young celebrities. Amid the black jeans and T-shirts, the bright blue hair and piercings, you would nearly always find a cross or two. Crosses seem to be doing a booming business. As I heard one sales clerk put it, they are a standard fashion accessory.
Crosses didn’t have any religious meaning in Jesus’ time. A cross was an instrument of torture and death the Roman government used to keep people in line. The road to Jerusalem was often lined with crosses, each one with a dead body hanging from it—an effective tool for intimidation. Nothing worse could happen to you than being hung up on a cross, and you would do anything to avoid it.
Jesus’ ministry had been a soaring success in the rolling hills of Galilee—teaching in the synagogues, gathering crowds, healing the sick, breaking bread with the unclean. The crowds thronged to hear him and touch him, but resistance to him had begun to intensify. There were rumors that he was a rabble-rouser. He was claiming an authority for himself that should belong only to God. As the tension rose, he saw that his mission demanded that he go to Jerusalem, away from the calm fishing villages and fields to the noise and turmoil of the capital city. That would mean trouble for sure.
And so, as Mark puts it, Jesus “began to teach [the disciples] 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.”
Not surprisingly, the disciples didn’t like what they were hearing. Peter pulled Jesus aside and started rebuking him. “God forbid it, Lord. Why are you saying this? Have you lost your mind? We’ve got something good going here. Let’s forget Jerusalem. You’re the Messiah, God’s anointed, you’re not supposed to suffer and die. That’s absurd.” You can almost hear him say, “If we can focus on a good strong business plan with clear objectives, and keep building on our success, we’ll be fine.” Peter was frightened by what Jesus was saying. I think he loved Jesus and didn’t want him to die. And besides, if Jesus was vulnerable, then they all were.
At this Jesus turned and looked at his disciples and then blasted Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” The harshest rebuke Jesus ever gave anyone. And then he told his disciples what neither they nor we want to hear. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel will save it.”
Jesus said it with an urgency and passion that suggests that we’ve hit a non-negotiable—something we can’t avoid if we’re going to take him seriously. Get this wrong and you flunk the course. You have to take up your cross. “To save your life you have to lose it.” And I have to say it puts your preacher in an awkward situation. We preachers like to make a good case for how religion helps your life go better. I can cite you statistics that demonstrate religious people live longer, have lower blood pressure, stronger families, better sex lives. In fact, I not only can cite such statistics to you, I’ve done it before.
But what becomes clear today is that following Jesus isn’t necessarily going to be the answer to all our problems, and may be the beginning of some problems you’ve never wanted. Jesus is after bigger game than helping us to feel happy and comfortable.
A few years ago, journalist Philip Yancey interviewed a wide range of people, and he divided them roughly into two types: the stars and the servants. When he interviewed “the stars”—NFL football stars, famous authors, TV personalities—he found himself having sympathy for them. These supposed “idols,” he says, “are as miserable a group as I have ever met.” They seemed to have more troubled marriages, troubled psyches, and constant self-doubts than most.
But the ones he called servants—relief workers in Bangladesh, Ph.D.s scattered through the jungles of South America translating the Bible in obscure languages, organizers working in the inner city—were the favored ones. “I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to uphold them as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerged as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, supposedly ‘wasting’ their talents among the poor and uneducated. But somehow, in the process of losing their lives, they found them.”
When Jesus told his disciples to take up their crosses, he was saying that there are worse things than death—things like failing ever really to live, living in fear, never facing the places where our lives are caught and pushing through them, never quite getting around to giving ourselves to any cause bigger than our own. You notice Jesus doesn’t say, “Take up my cross,” as if we are expected to imitate him. He says, “Take up your cross,” the cross that’s already in your life waiting for you to pick it up.
Your cross is lying right where your life and Christ’s call to follow and love your neighbor meet. But so often what we see at that intersection is scary. We would just as soon step around our cross rather than pick the ugly thing up.
Part of our cross is being willing to face into the burdens in our lives that we would rather avoid. In the novel by Gail Godwin called Father Melancholy’s Daughter, a wise old Episcopal priest grapples in a sermon with what this cross might mean:
…Each of us has a place of particular pain. And we know that, when we’re in it, all we can do is say…this is not what I wanted…why can’t someone remove this cross from me?
…But then we have to take it a step farther and say, but it’s mine, this particular agony, it’s where circumstances met with myself and made this cross. Very well then, let me be crucified on this cross…this cross of my old expectations versus what is to be.
…Accepting our cross doesn’t simply mean taking responsibility for what we are…that’s arrogance, God made us what we are…it means taking responsibility for what we are doing with what we are….
A woman in her fifties has never really faced the abuse from her uncle when she was a teenager. And now, after a lifetime of not letting anyone get close to her, she’s realizing that the damage has never stopped. A man has been hiding his drinking unsuccessfully for years. Do these people have the courage to take up their crosses through therapy and recovery to begin to live more freely?
But for Jesus, taking up your cross is about more than simply bearing your own burdens. It also means taking up a piece of the world’s cross because you begin to have a hunch Jesus wants you to.
Sometimes it’s just noticing—seeing that a generation of kids is growing up only blocks from here without the schools or family support to make it in the world. Recognizing that if every one of us befriended just one child—for tutoring, or time together, or financial support for a school hundreds of lives would be vastly better.
Sometimes it’s the work we do. Not long ago I was making my way into one of the many dress-up fundraising evenings here in Washington and struck up a conversation with a man probably in his early thirties who looked as if he had just come from his K Street office. “What do you do?” I asked. “I teach fifth grade in a D.C. public school,” he said. “How long have you been doing it?” I asked, assuming he would say for a year or so—on the way to something more satisfying. “For five years,” he said. “That’s a long time and it must be hard. I can’t imagine anything harder,” I answered. He said, “I feel like I’m just getting the hang of it. But there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”
David Beckman, from Bread for the World, was our Sunday Forum guest last week and he pointed us to one cross we could take up—the reality of people dying of hunger, even more now in this terrible economy. Pick that cross up, he was saying, write letters, call your Representatives, send donations. It’s urgent.
Day after day now we’re staring at a cross in Darfur, of a genocide that no one seems willing to stop. It should make us as people of faith ask, “Is there nothing we can do to speak out for them?”
What is your cross? Jesus doesn’t say go out and find your cross. Just open your eyes. Look around you, see the pain and struggle and human need around you, and pick it up and follow him. It’s the secret to living a real life. If you turn away, you deny God the chance to show you real life—right in the thick of your worst fear.
Of course, this is not something we do one day and then we’re finished. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” That’s really what he means. It means being a disciple, staying in Jesus’ company, looking at the world with Jesus’ eyes. Looking at your own life—what you’re afraid of, what you see as unjust, what you’re angry about, what you yearn for, what has just fallen across your path that you never planned on—you’ll see your cross. Then for God’s sake don’t walk around it.
As best I can tell my cross and yours aren’t nearly as scary as they look once we pick them up and start carrying them. Light has a way of shining through our crosses when all we thought we would get is darkness. We discover that God is in the pain and fear, that we can make a difference, that friends will walk with us along the way.
Come, Jesus says. Don’t be afraid. Take up your cross and follow. If you cling to your life, you’ll lose it. If you lose your life, you’ll find it.
An old prayer says it all:
Thou the Cross didst bear:
What bear I?
Thou the thorn didst wear:
What wear I?
Thou to death didst dare:
What dare I?
Thou for me dost care:
What care I?
from Laurence Housman, Oxford Book of Prayer