The passage this week is one I always struggle with. Jesus tells his disciples that the road ahead will lead to the cross and then says that the mark of discipleship is to take up our own crosses. It is an infinitely humbling passage, one I can’t quite imagine ever living up to, even as I struggle to discern what it means to take up my cross. On Sunday I reflected primarily on how this invitation turns the world’s priorities upside down. Audio’s below and text is after the jump.
If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.
That is heavy. Literally heavy.
It doesn’t sound like good news, does it?
It almost sounds like Jesus is saying, if you want to follow me, deny yourself and be a doormat. Don’t put yourself first, and whatever hardship comes your way, embrace it, be a martyr.
I’m guessing most of us have heard someone interpret this in that way. And that kind of interpretation has been used to justify all kinds of cruelty. You don’t like the inhuman working conditions? That’s just your cross to bear. Your partner is abusive? Deny yourself and take up your cross.
Let’s be clear, Jesus did not say, take up your doormat. He didn’t say it, and he didn’t model it. From his baptism to his crucifixion, Jesus followed the will of God as he chose his path. He freely chose love, and he lived with the consequences that came with that. He was free and chose freely. Our God is the God of loving freedom. When love is coerced, it is no longer love.
So this is not doormat theology. But even so, it still sounds pretty miserable. Embrace suffering here, don’t seek fun or ease, and you’ll get your reward later. Give up all the things that give you pleasure, be a martyr, and you’ll get a gold star in your crown.
What Jesus is getting at runs counter to a life dedicated to seeking pleasure.
And that can be hard to hear, because, well, pleasure is pleasurable. And we have countless cheerleaders along the path of ease. Our economy is built on us wanting just one more thing to make life just a little bit more enjoyable. Our pop psychology and pop spirituality is centered around the pursuit of feeling better—emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
The essence of Jesus’ message here, deny yourself and take up your cross, doesn’t jibe with endless pleasure seeking. There’s more to new life than that.
But, usually, when we Americans hear that we should give up some pleasure, it is accompanied by the message that hard work is the way to winning. And if we’re headed toward an overly simple understanding of this passage, I think that’s probably the one we’re most drawn to.
Good things come to those who work hard. Suffer now for the sake of later glory. The winners are the hardest workers, and everyone wants to win.
Everyone wants to win. And the winners are the hardest workers. Right? Everyone knows that. It’s the script that underlies so much of our lives.
Whatever the field, whatever the game—career success, self-fulfillment, collecting toys, being respected, being liked—those are the just details, the script is the same: work so that you will win. Because losing, is, well losing.
This is not a new script. It’s a big one in our culture, but it’s far from new. Apparently it was the script the disciples lived by—two thousand years ago in a different place and a very different culture.
Unlike us, they were a minority in an occupied land. The Romans controlled what used to be Israel, and so the Jews—Jesus, his disciples, and everyone around them, were on the losing end of things, without power and longing for a sign of God’s favor. The hope was that the Messiah was coming, to banish Rome and set them free in power and might. They might not be able to win against Rome, but the Messiah could.
Just before this Jesus has asked his disciples: who do you say that I am? And Peter, always the spokesman, has piped up and said, you are the Messiah.
And so Jesus tells them the plan: I am the Messiah, and so I’m going to be despised by all of our religious leaders, and then they’re going to hate me, and I’ll suffer a lot, and they’ll kill me, and then I’ll rise again.
And Peter says, that is a horrible plan. You have completely misunderstood, Jesus. The plan is for you to win. And this sounds an awful lot like losing.
Sitting here two thousand years later, five weeks from Easter, we’re prone to Monday morning quarterbacking. We say, well, he said he was going to rise again. Peter should have gotten it. We should remember, though, that this was completely abstract for Peter.
I imagine hearing Jesus say, I’ll rise again, was somewhat like a dying relative telling us, we’ll meet again in heaven. Yes, we think, that’s true. And it’s a comfort. But it is most definitely not the same as having you here.
So anyway, Peter pulls Jesus aside and says, look, you have gotten this all wrong. You’re the Messiah. You need to win. Not end up a shameful loser.
We’re still right there with Peter. And this is what prompts Jesus to set Peter, and us straight.
The point, he says, is not the script you think you’re supposed to follow, or that you want to follow: whether that script is seek pleasure or work hard and win… the script is not yours to write. It’s God’s.
Deny yourself—your own ideas of how it’s all supposed to go, what’s worth pursuing and what’s laudable and what’s shameful. Let all that go. I am the Author of Life, says Christ, let me write the script for you.
Back at the very beginning, before Jesus was even born, his mother Mary prayed, let it with be to me according to your will, O Lord. And at the end of the story, we hear Jesus pray, not my will, but yours. It’s our prayer every week, thy will be done. We pray this because Jesus tells us, deny yourself.
Not because you’re a doormat, and not because you’re working towards some goal you’ve set, but because you don’t write the script. God does.
And, the truth is, that script is often surprising.
You think Messiah is supposed to be a figure of glory, but I tell you, says Jesus, that this is what Messiah looks like: embarrassing, shameful death on a cross, brokenness and humiliation. It doesn’t look like a road to glory at all.
This low road, says Jesus, is my way in the world. My path is not first and foremost the path of glory. My path is the cross.
You want to find me? Don’t look for me in the corridors of power and at all the right parties. I’ll be in the forgotten corners, at the wrong tables, in the places that seem broken.
Which might sound like bad news—if we were winners, who always succeed, and are proud of all that we do, and who are never ashamed or broken. If that’s who we are, if that’s the world we live in, then this is bad news indeed.
But. But, if that’s not who we are, if that’s not the world we live in—if, instead, you are a person who knows what it is to stumble and fall, if you know, from intimate experience, what it’s like to fail, if brokenness of body or spirit is something with which you are acquainted, well then, this might not be such bad news.
Here is what happens when God rewrites the script: the world gets turned upside down and rather than meeting God primarily in the shiny glory of heavenly winners, we meet God in a convicted man, dying a painful and shameful death. And God took that brokenness, that shame, that loss, and said, this, this I can work with. And out of that brokenness, shame, and loss brought forth life—life abundant! Can you believe?!
For us this means everything. It is the sum of the gospel.
It means that those impossible goals we set for ourselves, or allow society to set for us: be successful, be really good, be well-liked, all those goals are not the point. They are a distraction at best, and devilish temptations at worst.
Giving them up will not be easy. It often feels like the wrong choice—and it is by the calculus of the world. It will often feel like losing, like death inside.
Sometimes when we give up the script by which the world asks us to live, the worst we will face is embarrassment. We will stand up for the outcast, claim the “wrong” people for our friends, and in the process the “right” people will look at us like we’re crazy.
Sometimes when we seek God’s way, it’ll look like we’re losing by every metric that matters. Sometimes it will cost us our reputation, or our comfort, or our pride. Sometimes, this will cost us our lives.
All this and more can happen when we let God rewrite the script, when we choose to follow the road that Jesus first walked.
And we like Peter we’ll find ourselves, at times, sputtering, but, but, but, this seems like foolishness.
And indeed it is—it is not the wisdom of the world, it is the foolishness of the cross.
And it is the best news we could dream of, and only path to life, because it turns every last one of our ideas and goals and preconceived notions on its head. And proclaims that God, unlike the world, does not despise the brokenhearted, the losers, the ashamed, the sinners.
The world, even our own hearts, may say that we’re only good enough if we do it all right, we’re only worthy, if we win.
But God, the Author of Life, comes with a different word: we are worthy not because of anything we do, but because God claims us in love. And the broken, the ashamed, the unclean, the weak, the losers are the very people for whom Christ came and with whom Christ breaks bread.
And when we’re lost, can’t find our way, and are having a hard time seeing Christ because of all the darkness, Jesus comes to us and says, keep walking, and keep looking.
You’ll find me at the cross, you’re on the right path, you’ll find me at the cross, and there, when all seems lost and night has fallen and brokenness and shame are all around, there is where God’s power turns this world upside down, bringing new life, a new day, all that we’ve dared to dream and more than we can imagine.
This, friends, is the promise of our Lord. It is trustworthy and true. It is the best news we could ever hope to hear.
It is for the sake of, and by the power of, this news that we humbly, moment by moment, take up our cross and dare to follow. Thanks be to God.by Sarah W. Wiles March 4, 2012 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA