A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, 2018, at St Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Mayfield Village, Ohio
When Jesus said, if anyone would be my disciples they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me, it was a while before anyone considered the cross a sign of salvation (to say the least).
When Jesus said, “take up your cross,” no one wore crosses around their necks, or cast them out of gold and precious metals. There were no processions of gilded crosses through city streets, followed by hymn-singing children and choirs, their way scented by incense.
When Jesus told the crowd, if anyone would be my disciple they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me, the only people carrying crosses were condemned criminals, enemies of the Roman empire.
Before and until Jesus’ resurrection, and for many people even after it, the cross was a sign of resistance, of insurrection, but most consistently and certainly of suffering, pain, and death.
No wonder Jesus anticipated resistance to his words: those who are ashamed of my words; but he was adamant in his interpretation of God’s will for his disciples: Get behind me, Satan! he told his closest friend and follower. He was ashamed of Peter’s shameful response to God’s plan of salvation.
Peter was afraid, as well he might be. No one wanted to get crucified. No one would willingly seek out the pain and terrible torture of that death. There were those who would risk it, for violent insurrection that might just, if they killed enough Romans, make a difference … Barabbas, the man whose cross Jesus took in that prisoner exchange on the Pavement negotiated between Pilate and the crowd – Barabbas was one such revolutionary.
But Jesus wanted to go in without even so much as a sword or a club. He wanted to take on the establishment with nothing but love, righteousness, and the will of God to sustain him. He was resigned to the cross, but he considered it the price of salvation, of doing the righteous thing.
I have been trying to imagine how the words of Jesus to the pre-resurrection people would have sounded. We cannot hear of the cross without spiritualizing it, sublimating it post-resurrection. To have the same impact today as he had on that crowd in first-century Galilee, what might Jesus say?
He would not tell us to take up a flag, because the cross was not a rallying cry, nor a point of pride.
He would not tell us to take up a gun, because the cross was not a weapon that an individual could wield, but an instrument of the empire’s oppression; although if you want to go there, remember that the only people carrying it were those condemned to die by it.
He would not tell us take up a petition, because he was not asking anyone’s permission to change the world.
Addressing a crowd of undocumented immigrants, he might tell them to have their bags packed before following him.
Addressing a crowd of high schoolers, he might tell them to expect their suspension notices in the mail, as they follow him out of class with their hope and their protest signs.
Addressing a historically Black church – I hesitate to speak this aloud, but I think that it gets to the tone of what Jesus told the crowd in first-century Galilee – he might tell them to take up their rope, their noose, and follow him.[i]
That is what he was risking, defying the world order that fears death and cowers to power. This is the warning he was offering to the crowd. And if anyone is ashamed of my words, he told them, shame on you.
The call of the gospel, as we hear it in this Lenten season, is not only to believe and to be saved. That is the promise, and the prize. It is God’s saving grace and magnificent mercy towards us. But if we want to take full advantage of it, if we want to enter the heart of God, to live more fully into our creation as images of God, then we need to follow Jesus.
“Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
Turn towards righteousness, for it is closer than we think.
The righteousness we seek is summed up in the law and the prophets and by Jesus: love God with all your being, and your neighbour as yourself. The way of the cross does not seek out trouble, but that loving righteousness, that righteous love, and will not be deterred by any obstacle set in its way.
Whether it is kneeling in prayer instead of standing for an anthem; whether it is refusing to profit from gun dealers and their promoters; whether it is speaking out for families whose desire is for food security, or simply to stay together; or for students whose desire is to live without fear;
there is often a cost to doing the right thing, regardless of the systems that surround us, and that is what we call our cross.
But we are privileged, those of us who stand on this side of the resurrection. Because we hear Jesus’ challenge and we know, we know how the story of his cross ends. It is not discouraged by suffering. In the garden, he prays it through, makes the decision to stand with courage, to continue in the way of the cross even unto death. He demands peace from his followers even in the hour of his arrest; he will not let violence enter his heart, nor be deterred by the corruption of the cross-makers. He is not defeated even by death.
Righteousness will prevail. The kingdom of God is closer than we think. Take courage, then, for the way of the cross, follower of Jesus, is the way of life, of righteousness, of peace, and it will lead us home to the very kingdom of heaven, the heart of God.
[i] For more on this, see James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis Books, 2013)