Summary: This sermon looks at both what it means, and also what it does not mean, for us to take up our cross for Jesus.
Jesus said to his disciples and to the crowd following him, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34).
It’s hard for us to hear those words in the same way that those following Jesus heard it. The context is that Peter has just recognised that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed One (8:29), and Jesus has begun to teach that he “must suffer many things and be rejected …and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31).
Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah hit the bull’s-eye; but his reaction to Jesus talking about suffering, rejection and death was a complete miss – way wide of the mark. Peter rebuked Jesus (8:32)! The gospel writer Matthew tells us that Peter said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
The problem here is that when Jesus teaches us - or when Jesus asks something of us – if we say, “No, Lord” then he is not actually ‘Lord’.
Jesus recognised the rebuke of Peter as a temptation to avoid the costly path of confrontation that was leading him to the cross. Peter meant well! He didn’t want suffering for Jesus, especially now that he had recognised him as the long-awaited Messiah, but Jesus knew that the smooth, safe and attractive way of self-preservation was not the way to go; and so he rebuked Peter.
Jesus then went on to say, “Get behind me Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (8:33). A: He acknowledged the temptation. B: He believed that God’s way is the right way, and C: he confronted the temptation by reminding himself and teaching the crowd what we must do if we want to be a disciple.
Knowing that a cross lay before – a cross he could avoid by not heading for Jerusalem – a cross he could avoid by not antagonising and challenging the religious leaders – Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (8:34).
But what does that actually mean for us? What does it mean for people who genuinely want to be 21st century disciples of Jesus? And what does it mean for a person who is enquiring about the Christian faith?
Although the context is very different I feel a bit like St. Paul who wrote to the Corinthian church, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16)! There were times when Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God and some people said, “This teaching is too hard” and they ceased to follow him (see John 6:66). How tempting it is to try to sweeten the message of Jesus, but how utterly wrong it is to do so!
The German spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) said this: ‘Jesus now has many lovers of his heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of his cross’.
In answering the question, “How do I take up my cross?” I think it’s helpful to first of all say what it does not mean. It does not mean what British folk religion tells us! I was diagnosed with neck dystonia last year, my uncle Warner died aged 6 months, my uncle Warren died in his early 30’s due to Muscular dystrophy; some of you have recently experienced unemployment, some of you are dealing with difficult and upsetting family situations, and folk religion says, “Well, I guess we all have our crosses to bear.”
We considered last week the comfort God pours upon us. In particular, God comforts us not [just] to make us comfortable. He comforts us so we can be comforters; but trials and struggles are often not cross-bearing! Jesus did not mean that. Folk religion is wrong.
So, using me as an example, dystonia is not a ‘cross’ I have to bear. It’s a frustrating illness. Not a cross! The reason it’s not my cross is that it’s not voluntary. Jesus could have avoided His cross, but he chose to walk a path of obedience to His heavenly Father, and he says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Jesus never offered quick-fix solutions, and as we explain the Good News of Jesus it’s important to spell out both the implications of following him, and also the joy, the promises and the blessings that he gives!
Denying myself is saying “No” to me and “Yes” to Jesus; taking up my cross is voluntary. It’s considered, premeditated, - thought-out. 1st century cross-bearers were criminals on their way to execution, so choosing to take up and carry an instrument of execution is as shocking to us as it was to those who first heard Jesus.