February 28, 2021
When I was in middle school, I started to become fascinated by the popular kids. I would watch them and wonder how they managed to be surrounded by people all the time, how they were able to influence so many of those people. At the time I didn’t know any of the sociological concepts of status or power or influence, but I had my hunches about how those things worked.
Don’t worry. As I made my way through high school and got more comfortable in my own nerdy skin, I had good friends and got involved in plenty of things I found fun, from marching band to math team. From time to time I still wondered what gave those kids at the top of the high school food chain so much power. What drew other people to them like moths to a flame? Eventually I decided that those people who flocked to be near the popular kids wanted some kind of power-by-association. They longed for a portion of the status that those kids held so effortlessly.
Now I certainly don’t think Jesus was about power or status in the traditional sense, but I wonder if the disciples wanted that same kind of power-by-association. They had certainly watched Jesus do some amazing things. He had cast out demons and healed the blind, the deaf, the paralyzed, and the sick with a touch or a word. He had walked on water and calmed a storm and fed thousands. His preaching and teaching attracted a crowd, and those crowds clamored after Jesus wherever he went.
Not long after today’s gospel the disciples will reveal just how much they long for some power and status of their own. They’ll get caught by Jesus arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest (9:33-34). James and John at one point will ask Jesus if they can be seated on his right and on his left when he comes into glory, and you better believe that ticked off the rest of the disciples (10:35-45). Jesus keeps reminding them that he has come not to be served, but to serve – and that they are likewise called to be servants of all. But they don’t always want to hear that part.
Sometimes the disciples seem to get it right. Just minutes before today’s gospel, when Jesus had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter had nailed the right answer: “You are the Messiah.” Peter understands that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one sent by God to save the world. But Peter also freaks out when Jesus tells his followers that he will suffer and be killed. Peter does not want to hear that difficult truth, and Jesus has some harsh words for him. Peter probably is setting his mind on human things more than divine ones. Peter understandably wants Jesus to use his power and his popularity to avoid the terrible fate that Jesus describes. What’s the point of having that power if not to summon an army to one’s defense?
It’s not enough that Jesus refuses to use his power in the way that the disciples expect. It’s that he also makes it clear that he wants them to follow in his path of service and sacrifice. He says: “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This hardly seems like a winning recruitment slogan. Take up your cross. Remember that at this point the listeners know the cross only as an instrument of execution used by the Roman Empire to silence anyone who seemed like a political threat.
Jesus is essentially saying: “If you follow me, be prepared to give up what you really want. Be prepared to give your whole life. Be prepared to die.”
For most of us that would have been the moment when we said, “All right, Jesus. It’s been fun. I’ve enjoyed this a lot, but I’ll be going back home now. Good luck to you!”
What does Jesus mean when he tells his followers to deny themselves, to take up their crosses, to lose their lives for his sake? I don’t think he means that we should become doormats. He certainly doesn’t mean that we must endure abuse or harassment in our relationships. This passage has sometimes been used to justify that kind of suffering in the face of abuse, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.
The life to which Jesus calls his disciples – the life to which he calls us – is one of sacrificial love. It means getting up each day and looking for the ways that we can be of service to the people in our lives – family, friends, strangers, people in need near and far. And to offer that service as much as is possible with a loving heart. Not resentfully. Not by keeping score. Simply giving all that we can, freely and graciously.
Some days we would rather not take up the cross in that way. The cost feels too great. It often means, as Jesus says, that we deny ourselves. We set aside our own preferences and priorities for the sake of others. And of course we sometimes long to bask in a little glory – to get some recognition for our labors – or maybe to wallow in our own martyrdom, certain that no one else has given as much as we have. Jesus reminds us not to wait around for that kind of affirmation from the world. That’s not what matters.
Peter understandably gets upset when Jesus talks about suffering and dying. But Peter seems to miss a really important detail. Jesus says he will suffer and be killed and after three days rise again. Maybe that’s too crazy for Peter to imagine, but it reveals an important truth. Death is not the end of the story. Suffering and sacrifice are not the end of the story. The cross is not the end of the story. There is also an empty tomb.
It’s that triumph of life over death that holds us up as we seek to embody God’s own sacrificial love in our lives. And there are so many ways to live that love. Think about the places it shows up. We take up the cross when we care for a baby, feeding and rocking and changing that little one in spite of the sleep and sanity we are losing. We take up the cross when we care for aging parents and other older folks in our lives – calling and checking in and helping them get connected to a vaccine and – when possible to do safely – visiting in person. Parents take up a cross when you allow your teenager another chance to have some freedom, even though it’s terrifying. Teenagers, you take up a cross when you help a friend avoid doing something stupid and potentially life-threatening. We take up a cross when we give from our resources of time and money to feed the hungry in our community. We take up the cross when we speak out against the racism and violence that people of color experience every day, when we work to dismantle those forms of oppression.
In all the ways we take up the cross, we do so because love is a gift. A gift that we have received from God beyond our deserving and can’t help but share.
Theologian Richard Lischer reminds us that when Martin Luther went searching for what kind of God we have, he realized that we can look at the cross. On the cross we see God’s truest self. In a world where gracelessness is the norm and grace the exception, in a world where hate and greed and white supremacy attack the dignity of human beings, it’s important to tell the truth about Jesus – that Jesus gives himself to defy those forces of evil.[i]
And so we try to live with that same kind of love, overflowing with gratitude for what we have first been given. In Lischer’s words: “For the best liberators are those who have been liberated. The best lovers are those who know what it is to be loved. The best forgivers are those whose sins have been forgiven.”
So, people of God, take up the cross this week. Live as those who are liberated, loved, forgiven. Because that is who you are. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ