Today’s reading from Matthew is the turning point of the Gospel. Up to now it’s been mainly an account of miracles as signs of the kingdom of God, and of Jesus as the one who has come to proclaim it and to prepare people to enter it. But here, about half way through the Gospel, we’re given the prediction of the passion and resurrection. And we’re told what it is to be a follower of Christ, and what it will cost. The answer is, it will cost ‘everything,’ just as it cost Jesus everything. Christ will suffer and die, and being a follower of Christ, you too, must suffer. And you will lose your life.
This is the hardest part of the gospels for us to hear. We don’t mind the idea of suffering and death for the sake of Jesus when we sing about it in hymns, or include it in prayers, but it isn’t our preferred option.
It wasn’t the preferred option for the disciples either. When Peter’s confronted with the prospect of suffering and death, he remonstrates with Jesus. ‘God forbid it, Lord,’ he says. But Jesus puts him straight, in the process calling him ‘Satan,’ a stumbling block, an impediment to the fulfilling of Christ’s ministry.
If we want to make sense of Matthew’s Gospel we have to understand it was written for readers who realised that their allegiance to Jesus would be costly. They knew that discipleship would most likely involve being persecuted, betrayed, tortured, handed over to the courts, and finally, crucified.
So how do we fit in? How do we take up our cross today? Because it’s unlikely that any of us here today will be crucified for our faith. One of our most loved hymns is Charles Everest’s Take up thy cross, the Saviour said, if thou wouldst my disciple be’. But what exactly do we mean when we sing it?
We know what it meant for the early followers of Christ. It meant capital punishment – being put to death. So I wonder what they would think of us, today, after all they’d gone through for their faith? Would they count us as real disciples – when for us ‘taking up our cross’ usually means putting up with inconveniences or irritations – like having our relatives to stay, or having a slight touch of catarrh, or giving up sugar for Lent? But for those early disciples, taking up your cross was literally a ‘one-off.’ You couldn’t be crucified more than once.
Again, we need to remember that the books of the New Testament weren’t written for us. The words we hear aren’t addressed to us. There’s a distance between us and the people for whom they were originally written. The early disciples are strangers to us, and we to them. So – given we’re worlds apart from these people who were preparing themselves to become martyrs, how can we make sense of the instruction to take up your cross?
There’s a distinctive theme in Christ’s exhortation to discipleship, and that’s the saying, ‘Anyone who wants to be a follower of mine must renounce self’ (8:34), and this is a challenge we could reasonably make our own. That is, think of ‘following Jesus to the death’ as meaning the death of self-interest – disassociating ourselves from the claims that self makes. The verb that’s used refers to the action of ‘cutting off a relationship.’ And here the relationship is with your ‘self.’ You must cut off the relationship with your ‘self.’ Self-preservation isn’t our priority. Preservation of our own interests isn’t to be our purpose. Our purpose is giving up our interests for others. Giving up ourselves for others, we might say. Reducing ourselves. Making ourselves small so that others may flourish. Remember the story of the man who was rich, and is told that the only thing he can do is get rid of his riches – and be small. Too big to get through the gate. Had to get rid of it all.
Take up my cross? How do I do that? Well, I get rid of everything that can come between myself and others. Otherwise I’ll be like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. It means the biggest thing can’t get through the smallest thing. Can’t be done. And Jesus comes into Jerusalem to get rid of it all. Everything’s about to go – glory, status, adulation ….all about to go. Coming in on a donkey rather than a war-horse or chariot is a pretty obvious clue as to what’s about to happen. And what’s about to happen is Christ getting rid of it all. Even life itself.
Suffering and crucifixion weren’t fashionable ideas. They were objectionable ideas. Neither Jews nor Gentiles could see the point in either of them. And the way of suffering and death is unacceptable to us as well. It’s not what we want. So there’s a dislocation here. We’re trained to preserve our lives. Yet here we’re talking about renouncing our self-interest. Isn’t this a contradiction?
Not really, because survival and fulfillment aren’t the same thing. We can concentrate on preserving our lives, and look out for the good of others only when it doesn’t impact on us. Or we can look for fulfilment in our lives, and that means getting of the ‘self’ that excludes the interests of others.
I guess sometimes we ask ourselves the question – ‘What’s the point of living? What’s it all about? Is it to find happiness and fulfilment and success?’ Well, we could say that. But is it a better answer to say ‘the point of living is to find happiness and fulfilment – in the happiness and fulfilment of others?
So – taking up our cross? Think of it as death to self-interest. Think of it as becoming ‘small.’ Getting rid of all we do to make ourselves big, and keep others down and out.
That would be ‘taking up our cross’ enough for now. It’s a start.
The beginning of a journey. But a journey already blessed by the One who suffered and died and rose again for us, that same One to whom we owe all praise, honour, worship and thanksgiving, today and forever.
Holy Trinity Geneva
30 August 2020