Hold on tight beloved- this might be rough- please hold on to the end.
Because today, I have to upend some religious speak that people think is Christian. I have to undo some presumptions about how God works. Because Jesus makes it oh so clear today in this passage. There is no room for doing backwards discipleship- if we are anywhere but behind Jesus we could just be following the Tempter, the one opposed to God. Because Jesus said to his own disciple- get behind me Satan.
I hear it sometimes, and I don’t always say something because it’s not always the right moment- but people say this- its just my cross to bear. And they are speaking of some kind of life situation that is really hard and ongoing. They put it in the terms of this passage- that a difficult thing is a cross to bear, they paint a hard situation in the colors of Jesus and religion.
That is not what Jesus was talking about. Jesus does not ask you to bear difficult life situations and call it your religion. This is not discipleship.
This too is true: Jesus is with you in your hard times, Jesus understands your suffering. But Jesus does not ask you to suffer just because. Jesus did not send us Covid19 just so we could all have a little more cross to bear. We are all suffering somehow in these times, and God is with us in our suffering. Now maybe in our suffering we become more Christ like, maybe in our suffering we learn to depend on God in a new way; maybe in our difficulties our faith grows- but God did not do this to us so we could grow closer to God, God did not do this, period.
If you don’t believe me let’s reflect a moment on the Exodus passage- the people were being oppressed by the Egyptians, made to do harder and more labor for less compensation and the Pharaoh was afraid of them and started killing their babies, this went on and on while Moses grew into a man, and then God says to Moses in the burning bush- I have seen what’s going on, I have heard the people’s cries, and guess what I am going to do something about it. God doesn’t say, it’s so great that people are crying out to me more since they are oppressed, I’ll just let that go on. No. God calls Moses and starts this whole story right there so the people can be free. He hears their cries of suffering and wants to change that situation. So they won’t have to labor for somebody else. So they can have a better life, more hope, more joy- in the words of the gospel of John, more abundant life. Of course there will be some complications along the way, if you know the story- but the point is, God does not put the suffering on the people, God rescues the people. That is what God does.
The same God sent Jesus to us, as we say so often, to save us. To liberate us. To open up a way of transformation and new life.
So why does Jesus say here, if you are going to follow me, you have to take up your cross?
Well if we back up to before that miracle feeding on the mountainside, remember Jesus heard what happened to John, the one who baptized him. John spoke against the powers that be and was executed for it. Jesus knew that carrying out his mission of healing and feeding and teaching- making more plain just how bad things were for people under the Roman Empire AND encouraging people to live in a different way, a different empire, the kingdom of God (remember empire and kingdom are the same word in Greek) was going to get him killed, just like John. And it would be the peoples’ own religious leaders who would play a part in it.
Peter doesn’t want to hear Jesus say this. Peter has seen the healing, the teaching, the feedings, he thinks things are going great. And he thinks according to human history, the patters of the world- when you are going to initiate a new kingdom or a new empire, what do you do, you round up some troops and fight for it. Especially if you are the very son of God- having God on your side, of course you are going to win!
So when Jesus starts talking about what’s coming, his suffering and death- Peter thinks he needs to correct Jesus- that’s not what the anointed one of God does- the anointed one of God fixes things, not dies! Makes things great again! Conquers! Victory! Not suffering and death!
Jesus says that extreme phrase- get behind me Satan! And again Peter is acting like the tempter in the desert- remember on the boat Peter asked, is it really You, Lord? And now just like the tempter Peter is saying you can have anything you want- power glory- and that is the temptation Jesus had to overcome. Because that is not God’s path for him. That is not the way that leads to transformation, something different, the abundant true life God wants for us.
Every time there is a war, that extreme violence and quest for power, people get hurt, people die. On a smaller, personal level, every time we hurt other people, they might seek to hurt us back or if they can’t, they go hurt someone else. These are the human patterns. Those who are abusive to others often have been abused themselves. We know these patterns well. Jesus has to do something different to break with those patterns.
Jesus had been faced with the temptation in the desert back in chapter 4 to fight, to seek glory for himself, to give himself over to the tempter, but he resisted. With the word of God and the Spirit of God he resisted and came to know his true identity and his true path. He knows that the ways of God he is revealing, the kingdom of God he is living out, are going to make people in power upset. The romans and the religious leaders. And that the only way to reach transformation, will be not to fight back. To absorb the pain they inflict on him and only show love. While speaking truth and never letting go of his true identity the whole time. That is the suffering of taking up a cross. He also knows that God will raise him from the dead after three days. He will give away his life as he lives truly and authentically according to God’s ways, and then he will receive his life back again.
So how do we follow this path? How do we take up our cross? I think the passage from Romans gives some pretty great clues. It is not a passive acceptance of suffering but choosing how we live and how we react in every circumstance. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. That is a coming alongside others whatever they are going through, showing empathy, living with love. Bless those who persecute you and feed your enemies. Don’t’ seek vengeance. Don’t return evil with evil- don’t hit back, don’t namecall back- don’t repeat the cycle. This is not becoming a doormat, however; remember God doesn’t put you in a place to just continue to bear suffering with no end. The point the letter Romans gets to is, you conquer evil with good. By showing love over and over you work a transformation in the relationship that wouldn’t be possible with a tit for tat response. It is the same way of Jesus on a smaller scale.
How on earth can we possibly do this? It’s not our nature. So we can’t do it on our own. But by being filled continually by the love and grace of God that we know in Jesus Christ. And we find that as we give ourselves away we are refilled even more. This is the testimony of some of the people in our grace groups, that intentionally working on doing gracings for others, opens us up to receive even more from God. This is the way of being continually transformed by God.
What does this mean for us in a time of pandemic? I’m right here with you trying to figure it out. But I am fairly certain it at least means that I wear a mask and try to stay apart from people when I’m out, and not go out more than I need to. I am fairly certain it doesn’t mean mass gatherings with no masks. One of the lines Jesus said in that chapter 4 is, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test, when he was invited to throw himself down from a building.
And what does this mean for us in a time of national reckoning with widespread racism, shown to us once again this week? A continual insistence that there be transformation and change, through nonviolent actions. Weeping with those who weep for those killed or harmed. At least that. Overcome evil with good. Good includes working for God’s ways of justice that lead to true peace.
The way that seeks power, that seeks the easy way, that hits back when hit, is not the way of Christ Jesus. There are lots of ways people suffer in this world. Jesus knows what we go through and is with us. But if we dare call ourselves followers of Jesus, disciples or Christians, our way is to follow the way he showed while on earth- that of love without bounds, words that are true and helpful, giving, healing, and yes absorbing pain, taking up our cross when it comes a consequence of living out God’s kingdom. With the power of God to refill us and not stand still but trust that good does conquer evil and that giving our lives away is the way to have true life. And no it is not easy but the promise of transformation towards God’s true kingdom is in that way. And Jesus will bring it to completion, he promises that here. But let us in the meantime take up the cross of transformative love, give ourselves away to know the true life he gives, Amen.