near the center of the whole gospel story –
are the words: “Take up your cross and follow me”
This sentence gets right at the heart of the matter for those of us who would call ourselves Christians – followers of Christ.
Take up your cross – an instrument of suffering and death – and follow me.
It’s not a very tempting offer.
It might not be the banner we want on our website:
“Come to St Michael’s – and take up your cross.”
Or is it?
Just what does it mean to take up a cross and follow this Jesus,
this one who’s love for us took him all the way to death on a cross –
beyond, to a new resurrection life.
Let’s go back to the story,
back before today’s lesson to what we heard last week.
As Jesus is walking with his disciples, he asks them,
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answers, “You are the Messiah”
In that phrase are so many hopes and expectations.
The messiah who will save us from Rome, as God once saved the Hebrews from Egypt.
The messiah who will rule us as King David once ruled us.
The messiah who will make all our dreams come true.
And for a moment, that hope is fulfilled.
You are right! Jesus says.
I am the Messiah!
And you will be the foundation of my church – a model for all who will follow me –
a starting point for generations to come.
Then, the story continues, and it all changes.
Jesus begins to tell them what it means for him to be the messiah
Not what they have hoped.
He tells them he will be opposed by the religious leaders.
He tells them he will be arrested, and killed, and on the third day rise again.
God has a new plan for salvation –
a plan to meet violence with love
to meet condemnation with forgiveness
to meet death with resurrection.
God has not come to enter into the dog-eat-dog, might makes right ways of the world.
God has come to turn that world around,
to change everything.
God has taken on flesh to show us a new way to live –
and his life will lead him through suffering and death to hope and resurrection.
Jesus tries to tell his disciples what this means.
But it is hard to hear.
Hard to have one’s hopes dashed and replaced by a whole new paradigm.
Then Jesus goes a step further.
He invites the disciples into this new paradigm.
Take up your cross and follow me, he says.
I am going into opposition and death – and I want to take you with me.
What does that mean?
What would that even look like?
It is more than one sermon to uncover what it means to “take up a cross.”
It is at the heart of what we do here, together, in worship and in formation and prayer –
discerning what it means for each of us to take up a cross and follow Jesus.
Discovering together what it means to live a cross-shaped life.
But in his letter to the Romans – in all his letters – Paul offers us some ideas.
The topic sentence of this section of the letter –
what we read last week at the beginning of chaper 12 – is ,
Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice in worship to God.
Then Paul goes on to tell them what that living sacrifice –
that cross-shaped life, lived in the Spirit of Christ – looks like.
Let love be genuine.
Hate what is evil.
Respect and encourage one another.
Rejoice in hope.
Be patient in suffering.
Offer hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you.
Be at peace with everyone.
Care for your enemies.
And that last line – the key to all – “overcome evil with good.”
That is the new paradigm.
Meet evil – pettiness, animosity, jealously, anger, fearfulness – not with more of the same,
but with love and peace and prayer.
This it is not easy.
This cross-shaped life is something we have to choose over and over again, every day.
Every time someone pushes our buttons.
Every time someone cheats us or hurts us.
Every time we see someone suffering and are tempted to look away.
David Lose, the preacher and blogger I quote to you often, says it this way,
Faith is a full contact, participation sport. You can’t just sit back and expect to really know God, you have to get up off the couch and get in the game
So, is anyone but me wondering how this invitation to take up a cross is good news?
So far we’ve looked at Paul, who manages to pack 23 imperatives into a few sentences of his letter.
I’m reminded of my 13-year-old son, who says to me often these days,
“Mom, you’re so bossy,” because I’m telling him to do his homework,
or brush his teeth, or eat something beside Ramen noodles.
But I tell him – I have to remind you to do these things that you already know you need to do.
And maybe that’s what Paul is up to here.
Reminding us of what we know, deep down –
that peace and love and welcoming the stranger are the best way,
and worth the extra effort and challenge.
We also know what Paul knows, that Jesus’s challenging invitation comes with a promise.
Those who give up their lives for my sake, Jesus says, will gain life.
Paul calls it life in the Spirit.
Some have called it Easter life – living in the light of resurrection.
Lutheran pastor and writer Dan Erlander calls it Living Wet –
living in the promise and assurance of our baptism.
I suggested that “take up your cross” might not be the most appealing invitation.
But again, David Lose suggests that we take another look,
It’s not, of course, a very tempting invitation to the independent self-made man or woman the culture has told us we must be. But to those of us whose lives bear little resemblance to the commercials and billboards we are spoon fed each day –
to those of us who do not have our lives in order no matter how many Facebook posts or pictures we make insisting they are –
to those of us whose families look nothing like those we see on television, and who feel wretched about that –
to those of us, ultimately, who bear the scars of disappointment, set back, and failure –
this invitation deserves a second hearing.
Because Jesus’ life and ministry invites us to imagine that that God who beckons us into this kingdom understands our fear, knows our pains, and has borne our frustrations, failures, and disappointments – and loves us just as we are.
The invitation to “take up our cross” to follow Jesus into a life of service and love sounds a little different in this context, doesn’t it?
We all know the brokenness we bring to the table,
no matter how much energy we spend trying to hide it from others.
But we follow a messiah who knows all about brokenness.
Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us in the Animate: Faith video on the cross,
that even in his resurrected body, Jesus bore the wounds of his crucifixion.
And that’s reassuring for her, and for every one of us who show up here with our own wounds and scars.
When Jesus invites us to follow, he invites us into a new way of life.
Life shaped by love, not fear.
Life shaped by trust, not greed.
Life shaped by kindness and generosity and hospitality.
Jesus invites us into a life shaped by sins forgiven,
and resurrection lifting us out of death and despair.
Not an easy life.
Not a life free of suffering.
But abundant, cross-shaped life,
in which God shapes our suffering and brokenness into something new.
Thanks be to God.