Sermon preached September 13, 2009
Do you ever read “Dilbert”? Friday’s was a good one. Dilbert’s boss, the blad guy with the pointy hair on the sides, introduces Dilbert to a new employee named Gabe. “Gabe was downsized when his last employer had financial troubles. I was lucky to hire him.” Dilbert responds, “Because they always downsize their best employees first?” Gabe and the boss both look frustrated and Dilbert continues, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to put it in context.”
Putting it in context. That is important, especially when reading the Bible. If we really want to get at some of the meaning of a text, and the meaning of a text for our lives, context matters. Jumping from one text to another in rapid succession, which some “biblical preachers” do, often misses the context of any one of the passages cited.
This morning I want to focus on the words of Jesus in Mark 8, where he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” In particular I want to focus on the line about taking up the cross.
It has become commonplace for people to refer to their cross in life as some individual burden, or something for which they suffer. Someone in a dead-end unpleasant job they cannot leave because they need the income to support their family might say that that job is “their cross to bear.” Someone who has a physical ailment might refer to it as their cross to bear. Taking up a cross, then, is seen as an unpleasant reality that one just has to live with, suffer silently with. Is that what Jesus means here? I don’t think so. I don’t think that fits the context.
In Mark 8, Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah. Right away, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that his work could end badly – in suffering and death, but that he trusts in resurrection. Now remember the gospels were put together years after Jesus died, and how the stories get told in the gospels is related to the concerns of the emerging Christian community. That Jesus was indeed killed affects how this story is told. Anyway, Mark’s Jesus is making clear to the disciples that this Messiah business may be rough going. Then he goes on to tell them, and to tell the crowd that if any want to follow him, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow. Jesus put the work of discipleship in the context of his own mission, symbolized by the cross.
So what was the cross for Jesus? It was the instrument of his death, yes, but symbolically it is more than that. The cross is a symbol for Jesus’ openness to God and to the world. It is a symbol for his way of living out God’s love in his unique life. Jesus was executed because of what he taught and the healing that came into people’s lives through his teaching and touch. The authorities were afraid that his teaching might lead to rebellion. Jesus’ teaching and healing came out of his openness to God and his desire to let God’s love and grace touch the world through his life.
In this context, I would argue that the invitation to take up one’s cross is an invitation to open life to God and to the world, and an invitation to live out God’s love in our own unique way, which means developing our best selves. The second century Christian theologian Ireneaus wrote, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive” (Gerald May, Dark Night of the Soul, 181). To take up our cross is to move toward becoming more open, more alive. It is an invitation into the great wide open.
To take up our cross and follow Jesus is to follow Jesus into the great wide open. A number of Christian writers through the years have testified that this is what discipleship is all about – openness, adventure, possibility, joy, aliveness. The Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard, in a really fun-sounding book The Sickness Unto Death, writes, “For God is that all things are possible, and that all things are possible is God” (in Auden, The Living Thoughts of Kierkegaard, 155). The twentieth-century German theologian and Nazi death camp victim Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about discipleship penned these words: And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy. (The Cost of Discipleship, 41/40). The last phrase can also be translated, “discipleship is joy.” More recently, in his book The Ironic Christian’s Companion, Patrick Henry writes, Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity; a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (8-9)
To take up your cross is to follow Jesus into the great wide open – into joy, adventure, possibility, imagination, deeper openness to God and world.
But the context of the invitation to take up the cross speaks of denying oneself, of losing life, what about these aspects of taking up a cross? If I am going to talk about context I cannot ignore this. First, please note that the bottom line here is life – finding life, saving life. There is an important and deep truth in these words. Our self is complex. We carry within us all the marks of our experiences from birth, and a bit before birth, to this very moment. Our self is the complex interaction of our genetic inheritance, our family life, our relationships, our memories, our experiences, our desires, our hopes, our fears, our unique capacities and talents, our capacities for growth. Part of being who we are is how we continue to weave and re-weave our past into our present, e.g. when we forgive, we often lessen the hurtful impact of a past event, re-weaving that event into our sense of self. Have I painted a complicated enough picture? Our self is complex, plurality in unity. In Colossians in the New Testament we read, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3), and in that phrase you get another sense of the complexity of the self.
We are complex, parts of ourselves work against our growth, work against our becoming more fully alive. As a recently published book on kindness states, “the ways we protect ourselves tend also to be the ways we imprison ourselves” (On Kindness, Phillips and Taylor, 62-63). When we deny ourselves in taking up our cross it is denying those parts of ourselves that imprison us - - - old hurts held onto too long, old patterns of behavior that no longer serve us as we seek to grow and as we seek deeper more loving relationships. We know from experience that we are capable of sabotaging our own well-being. We know we can be our own worst enemies. To take up our cross and follow Jesus into the great wide open means being willing to leave behind that which closes us off instead of opening us up, that which imprisons instead of frees, that which poisons love rather than fostering it.
One last note about taking up our cross. We have often associated taking up our cross with suffering of some kind. Certainly the cross was painful for Jesus. While I have argued that suffering is not the primary characteristic of taking up our cross, I think it is a part of it. Greater openness to life means greater openness to the hurt and pain of the world, means greater openness to suffering. A man named Michael Eigen has written, “one cannot experience without suffering” (Feeling Matters, 2) and I think he is on to something. When we love, we open ourselves to the hurt of others, and to the possibility of being hurt by others. When we become parents we open ourselves to the suffering that comes from disappointing our children and being disappointed by them. While we want to deny those parts of ourselves that are less-than life-giving, there can be suffering in such self-denial, even if it is a long-run benefit. On a wider scale, openness to life is willing to be open to the suffering of the world which is enormous – hunger, injustice, brutality, oppression, terror all affect us at some level when we open ourselves more radically to God, to others, to the world and we seek to live God’s love in our own unique way.
The way of the cross is not always easy then. The great wide open can be a scary place, but it is the way of life. It is the way to enhance life. Jesus, in inviting us to take up our cross, invites us to adventure, joy, possibility, compassion, caring, imagination. Often people think of the image of taking up our cross as if we were blowing up a balloon into an enclosed space (demonstrate). I believe taking up our cross is allowing our lives to be filled with the breath of God so we can float into the great wide open.
Michael Eigen writes, “there are so many ways to light up the world” (The Electrified Tightrope, 276). God in Jesus Christ invites you to take up your cross, invites you into the great wide open to know life and to light up the world as only you can. Will you say “yes”? Amen.