May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be always acceptable and pleasing in your sight, O Lord my rock and my redeemer. Amen
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’” These verses are a bit like a maze. Upon first glance, they do not look so bad and you feel you can get to grips with them. There is an easy path through them to the centre of Jesus’ message and like a maze with few twists and turns, the centre of the maze is easily found. However the longer I ponder these verses, the more twists and turns I find.
Deny yourselves. Take up your cross. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. This is easy enough to understand. If I am selfish with my life, I will lose my life, but if I am generous and give up my life, I will gain it. Therefore, I will be generous with my life, because I know that I want to gain it. But …… wait. Aren’t I then simply wanting to save my own life, which means I’ll lose it? They are a mind spinning few verses. Just like it is when you try and walk through a difficult maze to find the centre. When you have to decide on the direction to take at every turn and then constantly having to double back on yourself when you have taken a wrong turn. It leaves your head spinning. Well it does mine! So what do we make of these verses. Which turn do we take?
I think there are two main ways in which people hear this text and live it out in their lives. Some hear it as a call to live a meagre life, denying themselves the joy and fullness of life as a way of delayed gratification. The more I deny myself life’s comforts here and now, the greater my reward will be in heaven. That is to say ‘No pain, no gain’. They believe that this is how God wants them to live. Others hear these verses as justification or reason for the suffering that has already found its way into their life. “This is my cross to bear,” people say, when faced with suffering that is just as hard to explain as it may be to endure. If we look at the verse in this way, it surely paints a picture of a drill sergeant God. A God who makes it his job to put before you more and more obstacles and struggles in life to see how long you can endure them.
If these are the only two ways to hear this passage, that is in the maze we can only turn left or right, then I struggle with it. Is there another way of hearing the passage? You spot that unexpected turning you hadn’t noticed before which sets you off on another path. It seems to me that this passage is not about a call to a life of suffering and denying one’s self the pleasures in life, all so that one can receive a greater reward in heaven. Nor is this passage about a reason for our suffering. That God tests us by giving us all the crosses to bear and asking us to carry them to show the commitment and endurance of our faith. Instead, what if this passage is about life and hope. About not being afraid. Not being afraid of death. Not fearing the suffering places in our lives that can feel so much like death because surely the moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life also.
This was the case for Peter. Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter is the disciple who comes forward and says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The only problem is that Peter is expecting a different kind of Messiah to the one Jesus is. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah is someone who comes in strength and power. One who will defeat the evil powers of the world. So when Jesus begins to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and death, its no wonder that Peter cries out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Suffering and death were not the future Peter envisioned for Jesus, and they weren’t the future he envisioned for himself either. If Jesus must go to Jerusalem and face suffering and death, then as a follower of Jesus, doesn’t that mean Peter must go and do the same? Peter was afraid for Jesus’ life, but he was afraid for his own too. The moment we start to fear death, it is not long before we start to fear life.
Not so long ago I read an article in the paper about a mother who was so focused on protecting her children from any kind of danger in the world, that she schooled them at home and never allowed them to leave the house. They had no concept of friends or how to make them, or indeed any other kind of life other than what went on in their house. Their mother convinced them that the world was an evil, dangerous place and that they must fear it. All this she did because she thought she could protect her children and keep them alive, and yet, in the end all she was doing was suffocating the life out of them. Sadly this was one of many similar stories where lives were stifled because of fear. The moment we start to fear death, it’s not long before we start to fear life too. And Jesus wants us to have life.
Jesus is in search of life. Fullness of life. For each and everyone of us. After all it says it there in the passage we heard this morning. I wonder if you spotted it? It’s easy to miss. Peter did, because it is far beyond our human comprehension. Listen again…..
“Jesus began show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and … on the third day be raised.” There it is. And on the third day be raised. Resurrection. Jesus isn’t going to Jerusalem in search of death, but in search of life. New life. Fullness of life. Resurrected life. Maybe this passage, the alternative route through the maze, is not about fearing death or those moments in life that can feel like death, but about seeking life.
It can often sound trivial to say, but in life there is pain. There is suffering. So when Jesus asks his followers to take up their crosses and follow him into Jerusalem, it is not because Jesus wants to give us pain and suffering, but because Jesus knows we already have pain and suffering. It is already part of our lives and part of the world we live in. After all we hear or read about pain and suffering every day in the news or via social media. And of course we all have our own stories to tell also.
God loves us and the world He created. So Jesus says take up your cross and follow me, we will go through this together in search of life. To take up one’s cross is to embrace both the pain and suffering of the world and to embrace the hope of discovering life within it. A full life is not one that is absent of suffering, but one that faces such suffering with the courage to search for life, resurrected life in the midst of it. Jesus is in the business of bringing about life in the midst of death. Bringing about life out of the chaos and confusion we sometimes find ourselves in. Bringing about life in the darkest moments of our lives and the lives of others.
The path we take as disciples of Jesus is ours to choose. But remember, try to save your life and you will lose it. To be afraid of death is to be afraid of life. When you fear death, you walk right past the person in the street looking for a bed for the night or the mother rummaging in bins to feed her children from others scraps. You miss the surge of life that comes from helping a stranger. When you fear death, you can act as if the symptoms of illness aren’t there and so you could miss the life giving experience of telling your children and grandchildren all the stories you’ve wanted to tell them before your heart beats its last beat.
So take up your cross if you choose to do so, whatever it may be. And, as you walk this week in the crowd of others all carrying their crosses, you might just bump into a person who has a cross like yours and who has found a way to carry it that makes it less painful. Immediately you can feel the relief not only in your shoulders and your knees, but also in your soul too. You feel that surge of new life. Or you might find someone you can help through your experiences. You help them to find life in the darkness. Whatever happens this week, let us remember Jesus walks with us in search of new life and to a life in all its fullness. I close with the some words from the hymn by Charles W. Everest….
“Take up thy cross, let not its weight
fill thy weak spirit with alarm;
his strength shall bear thy spirit up,
and brace thy heart and nerve thy arm.”