31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
September 12, 2021
Mark 8:34-35, 12:28-31
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Throughout the years, people have gifted me with a lot of crosses: small crosses, crosses I can wear, crosses I can carry in my pocket and hang on the wall, crosses from around the world.
When Jesus says to the crowd and his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34), I don’t think he meant this [handheld] cross. I don’t even think he meant a cross like this one, which although heavy would have been smaller and lighter than the one Jesus carried to Calvary, the hill where he was crucified.
Jesus isn’t talking about an object when he tells us to take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus is talking about a way of life, a mindset, a heart set, a way of living.
Previous to these verses, Jesus has been telling his disciples what is going to happen when they reach Jerusalem- that Jesus will suffer, be rejected by those in authority, be killed and on the third day rise again. That is not what Peter wants to hear though. Peter’s vision of the Messiah is one who gloriously rides into Jerusalem and throws off the occupation of the Romans and any others who are oppressing the Jewish people. Peter’s Messiah, Savior, warrior king, “is supposed to conquer the Romans, not be killed by them.” (workingpreacher.org, Elisabeth Johnson, Sept 16, 2018)
Peter doesn’t get it. Peter doesn’t understand the way of Jesus Christ. Peter doesn’t see what it means to follow Jesus. When they arrive in Jerusalem, Peter doesn’t deny himself, take up his cross and follow Jesus. Instead, Peter denies Jesus – because it is a natural human inclination to protect ourselves from suffering and pain. It is completely understandable that we will do whatever we can to save our own lives.
In her commentary on this passage, professor Elisabeth Johnson writes, “Jesus himself did not seek [out suffering], but he foresaw that it would be the inevitable outcome of his mission.” (workingpreacher.org, Elisabeth Johnson, Sept 16, 2018) Jesus did not choose to suffer. What he chose was to be committed to his mission, and that mission was and continues to be sharing God’s inclusive love.
When Jesus says, ‘take up your cross and follow me’, he is saying ‘take up the cross of love and follow me’. And that is not an easy cross to carry because love is tough. Love is a spiritual practice, an action, not just an emotion, and practicing God’s love on a daily basis is the most demanding thing we will ever be asked to do.
Demanding because sometimes love means denying ourselves. Love means denying our anger when we are tired and frustrated and just want to let lose on whoever is in our path. Love means denying our judgment when we encounter someone who is different. Love means denying our desire for instantaneous gratification for food or stuff or comfort when it means treating others, the earth, or even ourselves unkindly. Love even means denying our self-righteousness when we are sure we are right and the other is wrong. Love means dealing with our own woundedness and pain instead of seeking revenge or seeking a scapegoat. Love is hard.
Loving God and loving others is hard. Sometimes, it means risking our comfort, risking our safety, risking our pride. Love often means risking those things we think make up the “good life”, letting go of those things we think make up the “good life” – all for the sake of the gospel, the good news of God’s love. As Professor Johnson writes, “It means being willing to lose our lives by spending them for others — using our time, resources, gifts, and energy so that others might experience God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.” (workingpreacher.org, Elisabeth Johnson, Sept 16, 2018)
Loving God and loving others is hard. Following Jesus is hard. It means being willing to deny ourselves – our fears, our angers, our hurts, our wants – to take up our crosses of love and follow Jesus the Christ. It means remembering John 3:16 and 17:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 2:16-17 NRSV)
Jesus did not come to judge and condemn the world or to teach us self-righteousness and pride. Jesus came to save the world through love. For God so loved the world…
And this is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to follow Christ, to take up his cross of love, despite the suffering it might lead to, even when we are exhausted, even in the hard times, so that others might experience God’s love made known through Jesus Christ.
It takes courage to be a Christian. It means constantly being in conversation with God, as Jesus was, always asking, “Is this action, this word, this thought loving?”
Being a Christian goes beyond wearing a cross around your neck or worshipping in this Sanctuary or saying you are a member of the First Congregational Church, United Chursh of Christ. Being a follower of Jesus Christ means practicing God’s loving kindness and compassion – with all people, those you like and dislike, those you agree and disagree with. Not so we can have power or be admired or live the good life. We take up Christ’s cross of love so that others might experience God’s love made known through Jesus Christ.
It takes courage to practice love. It takes courage to heal the world and create God’s kingdom here on earth. It takes courage to be a Christian.