This morning I want us to think about something none of us likes to think about very much. That may not be an engaging beginning for a sermon; even so, it is, I think, a fact of life that we ought to think about such things. If we don’t like them, it is probably because they express a truth which is difficult for us, and which we have been avoiding. And we all know, don’t we, that the more truth, the better off we are, even if we don’t like it.
What I want us to think about is a phrase from the Gospel we heard this morning. A saying of Our Lord – something Jesus says again and again. It goes like this. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” I don’t like to hear that, and I doubt that you like it any more than I. There are many things that we all would prefer to hear: comfortable words from Scripture, we might call them. Words which ease our troubles and bring us reassurance and peace. Surely, that comfort is part of our religion? After all, don’t we call it “good news”?
And yet, from time to time, we are forced to hear something else – something not comfortable; rather something disturbing and unsettling like that all too familiar verse from the Gospel. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Those are hard words, and if we are at all serious about our faith, they bother us. Bother us, I think, because we know that they too, along with comfort, are part of the message of Scripture, and they bother us because we know that what they tell us is inescapable, unavoidable, because it is true.
Jesus said many things like this: he told us, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth: I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother … and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.” Or in another place he says to a young man – and he is speaking to us as well – “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and come, follow me.” Those are hard words, aren’t they? Very hard.
I suspect, though, that they are not nearly so hard for us as what we just heard, this saying about the cross and taking up one’s cross. Those former words are all about giving up – giving up family, giving up possessions – and strange as it may seem, we can always imagine giving up something and going on with life almost as before. But in what I want us to consider, we are told that we must take something on . . . and what we must take on is a cross.
There are many crosses in human life. In fact human life is marked by a cross. That’s part of what it is to be human – to be one who bears a cross.
Sometimes those crosses are not ours. We are often called to bear the cross or help to bear the cross of another person. A wife. A husband. A son or daughter, a friend. There are times when we are obliged by love or friendship or vocation to take up a cross that does not belong to us. We don’t ask for it. We don’t want it any more than they, but love or duty presents us with that cross and we take it on.
At other times it is simple proximity that obliges us – a stranger on a train or a plane in distress, a drunk in a bar who spills out his heart to you and you take on the cross of someone whose name you never know, the victim of an accident, a lost child, a deranged person in the street. Another’s cross can come to us and we find ourselves involved in it for no other reason than that we are there and they are there. Remember. Simon of Cyrene stood by the road to Jerusalem watching the rabble as they hounded and taunted a man carrying a cross on the way to his execution. And then, Simon was handed the cross. As far as we know, before this he had nothing to do with Jesus, but he took that cross. He was just there.
But in what we are thinking about today, our Lord is not talking about taking on another’s cross. (Certainly, that is something he would expect us to do; that’s something he did.) What he tells us, however, is that we must take up our own cross. And that may be a somewhat different task, for to acknowledge a cross as one’s own is part of its agony and part of its pain. A cross which you know is your own is a very heavy burden.
I wish I could tell you that our religion promises us no crosses. There are some who will tell you that – that a cross in your life is just a mistake or a blunder or that you can somehow bypass the crosses that will surely come to you. There are some who say – and we have all heard them – that being a Christian is a sure promise of success and profit and happiness according to the standards of this world. That’s rather cheap, I think, and even if we hadn’t heard the Gospel this morning, we would still know that that’s not true. It’s a lie and not what our religion is about at all. Christianity never promises us that there will be no crosses. Indeed, it assures us that there will be crosses. And one thing that our Lord steadfastly insists is that you can’t get around your cross, you can’t bypass the cross/crosses that come to you in life.
Do you remember the Gospel? “Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and the scribes and be killed . . . and Peter took him and began to rebuke him.” Peter, with the best of intentions, wanted him to deny his cross, to get around it somehow. And Jesus answers Peter in the strongest possible terms – we rarely see him so angry – “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God but of men.”
Satan? Peter . . . Satan? Yes, it is Satan who would have us ignore our cross. It is the demonic and the evil that tempts us always to take what seems the easy way out – to try to get around whatever cross is part of our life. And if we try it, if we do ignore that cross, then Satan has won. Our crosses; our cross is a fact. To ignore or try to get around it is to become more securely bound to it. We become dominated by what we try to wish away.
The cross is there. You have it in your life; I have it in mine. It is a fact about us. It comes to us in many ways and at many times in our lives:
Through the death of someone we love.
Through failure. Poverty. Illness. Addiction. Prejudice. Mental suffering.
Through not being loved and through not loving. Not being understood. Being rejected.
Through things within our psyche which we cannot change. Disappointment.
The changes which come with age.
Loneliness. Hatred . . . You know the cross, and so do I.
* * * * *
Our Lord never promises that in this life there will be no crosses. What he says to us is this: to face it, to take it up, and to follow Him. And if we face it, if we take it up, and if we follow Him, He does not take it away. No, no, no. He does something better. He meets us at that cross, and He takes us through it and beyond it.
My brothers and sisters, there is no cross that will ever come to you in life which He has not known. You will never be alone at your cross; He will always be with you. One of the places He has most surely promised to be is there.
And remember this: your cross is never an end. (It is the Devil who tells you that, who summons you to despair and would have you depressed, dominated and destroyed by your cross. The Devil would have you crushed by it, or would have you ignore it and pretend it is not there, for the end result is the same.) The Lord Jesus asks you to face your cross and to take it up and to seek Him there and finally to follow. For He will lead you and take you through it, and beyond it. And He will never leave you.
We can do no better than to end with the words of Paul the Apostle: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is His victory.
That is his power being made perfect in weakness.
And it is our victory, as well.
And that, Good People, is the reason we call the Gospel . . . Good News!