“’If any wish to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it’”. The cross that Jesus carries-that cross is the cross of our sinfulness, the cross of our rebellion against God, and the cross of our self-inflicted separation from God. We know where the cross will lead Jesus
Jesus will carry his cross to the Place of the Skull. There he will be stripped naked. He will be laid on the cross, his arms stretched out on the cross bar, and nails will be driven through his hands (or his wrist say others), and then his feet (or his heels say some) will be nailed to the main tree. The cross is raised, and he is left to die an agonizing death stripped of human dignity, of friends, seemingly abandoned even by his heavenly Father.
Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. That’s a pretty scary invitation that Jesus is making to us. Imagine what it means to be a follower of Christ if you are an Iraqi or Syrian Christian in ISIS territory. Even now in Syria and Iraq, people are paying for their discipleship, for their faith in Christ, with their very lives. For 1400 years they have been able to co-exist with Islam which ordinarily treats them, along with Jews, as “People of the Book”, not as infidels. Over many centuries they paid special taxes to the religious authorities for keeping their faith. Secular Muslim governments abolished these taxes, but they survived in some places to this day. Now comes ISIS, with an aberrant version of Islam and kills Christians if they will not renounce their faith. So we can say that the cross of these Iraqi and Syrian Christians is indeed the cross of Christ. Like Christ’s it leads to their death.
“’If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’”. There seem to be two linked ideas here-to follow Christ one must deny oneself and to follow him one must also take up one’s cross. Self-denial is the theme of Lent. This is a period where traditionally we deny our flesh, our appetites, and our desires. If you practice Lenten denial with some rigor, you know how it feels. It’s not meant to be easy, at least at first. And I do not think that it is a suppression of self-rather I think self-denial permits the self to develop and step forth untrammeled by the desires and cravings we experience in our fleshly lives.
The question of denial of self is an interesting one, if only because some of those who notoriously denied themselves had forceful, vivid personalities which people love to write and read about. Denial of self does not mean suppressing one’s personality. Rather I think it means stripping away all the inessentials that inhibit our achievement of authenticity. Saint Francis of Assisi befriended a wolf, let head –lice feed on him, challenged popes and cardinals, founded a new monastic order that thrives to this day yet lived a life of privation and denial. His self-denial left him more forceful, more commanding, more authoritative, nits and all.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, a native of Albania, found her life’s work working in the slums of Calcutta with the dying, rescuing them from the streets and gutters where they lay, bringing them to her hospice where they were cared for and made comfortable until they died. She led a life of great simplicity, of heart-rending work with the poorest of the poor, yet when visited by Prince Charles and Princess Diana she took them to task, index finger wagging, for not having had enough children, which is to say, for practicing birth-control. Her life of privation and of self-denial served to make her a very assertive person who spoke fearlessly to royalty, to presidents and to Popes. So the command to deny the self is not a command to be a dishrag or wimp, to permit others to trample on you. Rather it is a command to strip away the inessential in our lives, and focus on the authentic, which is our life in Jesus Christ. And if you want to engage in a little finger wagging, go ahead.
The second idea that we need to take up our own cross is a bit startling. What does Jesus mean by this? What is our cross? Do you have a cross? Have you taken it up? How have you taken it up? Jesus’ cross necessarily results in his death, but also in his resurrection. You and I will carry our cross or crosses while we live. You might imagine someone saying about unruly children, unfaithful partners, or obsessive compulsive spouses, “well that’s just a cross I have to bear” and yes it is yours to bear, but again I don´t think that carrying a cross of this type means doing so passively. You need to work so that cross gets resolved, but be aware that there will be other crosses to carry, always. Some crosses, like the weakness that comes with old age we will lay down only when we die. When we die, we lay down our cross at last! And is that the end? If we have lived by faith, it most certainly is not.
Saint Paul writes in the Epistle passage we have read this morning “It will be reckoned to us (as righteousness) who believed in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification”. Faith in God and the risen Lord will see us through the portals of death into another life, the life everlasting which is the promise that Jesus Christ brought to fulfilment when he took up the cross and died for our sins. Just as he rose, we who believe in him shall also rise and be re-united with those we love in the presence of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission, Antigua, Guatemala