“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns the disciples that following him will not always be easy. Back in chapter 12 he hinted at this, saying, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”
This time he is crystal clear about what’s going to happen to him: He will undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes. He will be killed, and then three days later, will rise from the dead. This sobering prediction caused Peter to blurt out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
And we understand why Peter would say such a thing. After everything he had experienced, this was NOT the way things were supposed to end. Peter was longing for a revolution, a toppling of the powers-that-be, a restructuring of society where everyone has a place at the table. This societal transformation was a sign of the kingdom or reign of God that Jesus was constantly talking about. Peter simply couldn’t conceive that in order for this kingdom to be fully revealed suffering and sacrifice would be involved.
But we see things more clearly than Peter, because we know the rest of the story. We see things more clearly because even a casual student of history is aware that change and transformation are hard. Oppressive empires do not topple easily. People who are in power want to remain in power no matter what it cost everyone else. Quite often, leaders of societal revolutions pay a high price for their leadership: Martin Luther King Jr and John F Kennedy come to mind. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. If it were not for the staged kidnapping and secret hide-a-way provided by Frederick the Wise, Martin Luther would probably have suffered the same fate as those I just mentioned. Oppressive empires do not topple easily. People who are in power want to remain in power no matter what it cost everyone else.
So, Peter was fooling himself if he thought suffering would not be involved in the kind of change Jesus wanted to bring about. This is why Jesus’ rebuke of him is so harsh: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
This is the same Peter whom Jesus called The Rock a few verses earlier in Matthew’s gospel. Peter would be the foundation upon which the Church was built. But not today. Apparently there were a few more lessons Peter needed to learn before this could happen. The biggest lesson all is that sacrifice and suffering are the cornerstone of the church Jesus wanted to build. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
What do we learn from this familiar verse? How do we avoid being called Satan What do we need to do so that we are not a stumbling block to what Jesus wants to accomplish through us and through his church?
These are big, heavy questions to ask. Often when we think about what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we’re afraid it might involve more sacrifice and service than we are willing to give. The way chapter 16 is structured gives us the impression that this might be the case. However, it might be a lot simpler than we think it may be. The reason why I say this is because of our second lesson from Romans 12. Paul puts together an exhaustive but remarkable list of what cross-bearing looks like. Although embodying this list is challenging, we just might be able to pull it off. So let’s look at some of the things Paul lists in Romans 12 and see what is required of us if we desire to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
Paul begins by saying, “Love should be shown without pretending…Love each other like the members of your family.” I love what The Message does this this verse: “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it… Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.”
Well, that’s enough to keep us busy for a while! The kind of love Paul is talking about is not all hearts and flowers and kittens mewing. This kind of love is genuine. It comes from the core of our being. This kind of love is sacrificial and serving, where it’s NOT always about us! I love the phrase “practice playing second fiddle.” It reminds us that genuine love is not something that comes easily to us. We have to work at it. We even have to practice doing it before it becomes second nature.
Paul described this kind of love best in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” This is what cross-bearing looks like. Like I said before, it’s enough to keep us busy for a while!
But Paul is hardly finished with his list. In fact, he has only just begun. He also tells us “Don’t hesitate to be enthusiastic—Be on fire in the Spirit as you serve the Lord!” [vs.11] Again, turning to The Message, we are given this essential piece of advice: “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame.”
If we are going to love from the center of who we are, we have got to take care of ourselves spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically. This is not, and I repeat, this is not a selfish act. If we do not take good care of ourselves we cannot possibly take good care of others. Lack of self-care makes our inner-Martha kick into high gear because we are “worried and distracted by many things.” We become one of my favorite made-up words from the Sound of Music: flibberty-gibbits. If you have ever been or experienced a flibberty-gibit it’s not a pretty sight!
Self-care requires that we get in touch with our inner-Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus, soaking up his wisdom and simply enjoying his presence. This needs to happen, not only on Sunday morning, but every other day of the week as well. Thankfully, at this point in my pastoral ministry I have developed some healthy habits regarding self-care but this was always the case. I had to experience a major burnout before I discovered how vital it is to nurture our bodies, minds and spirits. If you’re not sure how to do this, we need to talk!
Another important aspect of cross-bearing on Paul’s list involves the kind of service and hospitality we try to model as a congregation: “Contribute to the needs of God’s people, and welcome strangers into your home…Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying. Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status.”
All of a sudden, cross-bearing gets a little bit harder. The kind of behavior Paul is describing here is the antithesis of what we seeing in our nation these days. If I was to make a list that mirrored America, it would sound something like this: “Help those who can help you to get ahead. Don’t trust people you don’t know, especially those who are different from you. Rejoice with those who are rich and successful. After all, they worked hard to get where they are in life. Ignore the cry-babies. They will always be victims and will always be looking for a handout.
Some people are simply superior to others. It’s just the way our world works, so you better get used to it. And you know, gosh darnit, you are better than other people. Don’t associate with losers and whiners because they will only drag you down.”
It’s not a pretty list, is it? But I doubt that anyone will disagree with me that this is the kind of behavior we see being modeled in our nation today. Guess what? This may be the way the nation works but it is not the type of behavior follows of Jesus are called to exhibit. We can do better than this. We MUST do better than this, if we pledge to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
There is a lot more on Paul’s list, but I’d like to consider one more piece of advice he has to offer us. Brace yourselves: “If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people. Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath. It is written, “Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back”, says the Lord…Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. [CEB]
I think Paul saved the hardest part for last! We can all be somewhat successful with loving others from the core of our being. We can even learn how to play second fiddle every once in a while. Self-care is a no brainer and there are tons of resources available for us to learn how to do this. Serving others is a little more challenging. But at least our church models this kind of behavior so that we have opportunities to practice it.
Then, Paul just had to do it! He had to put that “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” thing on his list. Friends in Christ, we know this is so hard to do. When someone hurts us, we want to hurt them back. When someone says something nasty or unkind to us, we want to return the favor, only turn up the volume little bit.
This is why Facebook is such a mess. It’s become a shouting match between people who disagree with one another. Civil discourse is out the window. And heaven help us if we disagree with someone. These days, people can’t simply agree to disagree. Someone has to be right, and someone has to be wring. Not only are they wrong but they’re also the spawn on Satan and have no redeeming value whatsoever!
To defeat evil with good, is the hardest thing we will ever be called to do as those who take up their crosses and follow Jesus. Human instinct screams at us to do the opposite of this, but Jesus challenges us to do better: To rise above our sinful, vengeful selves; to build bridges instead of burning them down; to create shalom in the midst of an often violent and hostile world.
As we consider Paul’s list as a whole we realize that cross-bearing is a process. It’s something we will have to work on all the time. I guarantee you that every one of us will relapse and exhibit behavior that is less than godly. Thanks be to God, Jesus offers us forgiveness and challenges us to do better next time. So this is what it looks like to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. Let us prayerful consider Paul’s list in Romans 12 and ask God to show us the areas of our lives that need the most improvement. Amen.
Copyright ©2017 David Eck