If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.”
We have heard—and used—the phrase “Jesus Christ” so many times that we have probably lost sight of the power of this revelation. When we say this, we are saying “Jesus the unbelievable Messiah.” For Peter and his companions, it was a felt shock to say that this guy, this wandering Jewish teacher who looks and talks like one of them, is the One the prophets promised, the One for whom the Jewish people have been waiting. This is not what they expected from a Messiah.
Even more shocking is Jesus’ teaching that the Messiah must undergo great suffering, rejection, and death. Once again, this is not the kind of Messiah they heard about in the synagogue. Worse still is Jesus’ teaching that disciples must be willing to suffer and die in exactly the same way.
But today’s gospel asks us to take all of Jesus, not just the parts that we like. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther articulated a distinction between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The theology of glory celebrates everything we like about Jesus: he’s a great healer and a good storyteller. He loves children, and he dances at weddings. What’s not to like? What’s not to follow?
In the theology of the cross, God comes to us as a God who suffers and dies a miserable death right in the middle of his ministry, before accomplishing all those things he promised. Today’s gospel tells us we have to pay attention to this prediction of suffering and death as much as in all the triumphant and glorious parts of the Christian story.
So where do we find the good news in today’s gospel? It’s not the most upbeat gospel for a September Sunday which so many churches call “Welcome Back Sunday” or “Start-up Sunday.” But really, this is a perfect challenge for us in this new season: How far are we willing to follow Jesus?
The author and teacher Brian McLaren makes an important distinction between being a fan of Jesus and being a follower. A fan of Jesus loves Jesus, claims Jesus as a friend or brother or even a savior. But Jesus doesn’t say much in his teachings about wanting to gather fans around him. He talks a lot about what it means to be a follower. Are you a fan or a follower?
Today’s gospel tells us that in order to follow Jesus we must pick up our cross and be willing to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake.
Jesus’ audience at the time would have had very specific associations with the cross. Many of them would have remembered a time 25 years earlier, when the Romans crucified 2000 Galilean revolutionaries, with crosses dotting the landscape like so many billboards advertising the power of the Roman regime. To pick up one’s cross meant to get right into the face of that power, as Jesus did. To willingly engage the cross is to say: that power has no power over Jesus and no power over us.
What is the line on which you are wiling to put your life?
The earliest Christians would have understood this gospel because they put their lives on the line every time they gathered together for what we call church. Theirs was an underground activity punishable by death. Imagine, for a moment, that you needed to break the law and risk your life in order to go to church. Imagine leaving through the back door of your house, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, so you’d be sure no one would see you. Imagine getting quickly into your car, or walking hurriedly to the nearest bus stop. Then when you arrive at your destination, looking around again to be sure there aren’t any authorities watching you go in. Imagine your relief once you get here, to find others here with you who have also risked their reputation and their safety to come and pray and break bread together. What would you hope to find here? What would make it worth risking your life to come to church?
The institutional church has gotten so fused, over the past 1700 years, with the surrounding culture that it is hard to recognize what is truly Jesus-led about what we do. Here are the opportunities that I see in this place, this fall, to pick up our collective cross and follow Jesus:
- We are carrying our cross and following Jesus when we give up any notion of preserving the institution of the church, and instead pay attention to what new things the Spirit may be birthing so that we can carry on the ministry of Jesus in this place.
- We are carrying our cross and following Jesus when we look into the dark places at the edges of our common life, and we go and seek out the last, the least, and the lost. Who’s hungry? Who’s alone? Who’s misunderstood and marginalized? We are carrying our cross and following Jesus when we are willing to make fools of ourselves by sharing God’s abundant love with them.
- We are carrying our cross and following Jesus when we aren’t afraid of death. Every Sunday when we break bread, we mark the brokenness of Christ’s body and the new life wrought by that death. There may be things in this place that need to die in order for this band of followers—you and me—to faithfully engage God’s mission in our neighborhood and in the world. There may be ways that we do things and ways that we think of ourselves that grew out of the institution that birthed St. David’s one hundred and forty years ago but which today do not leave room for the Spirit to birth new ways of following Jesus.
I’d like to ask you to sit with this for a moment and then, in place of the Nicene Creed, please join in singing “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Some of you know this old Sunday school tune; this morning I invite you to think of it as our creed, our statement of faith.