Wearing the cross/bearing the cross

Good morning, Friends!

We’re getting kind of close to Easter, and we haven’t really spent much time talking about it yet. Some years we have a long build-up to Easter, with a whole series of Sundays where we prepare for the Resurrection. This year we haven’t really done that.

What I want to talk about this morning is the Cross.

I know it’s not a popular topic. It’s one that makes us all pretty uncomfortable. There are a lot of questions about what it means. But it’s something I think we need to face.

Just a quick fact check: Easter is the time when Jesus was executed by the Roman government. It’s not a pretty event. The crucifixion itself was really gory.

But the cross is at the center of the story of Jesus. We can’t pretend it isn’t there. We can’t ignore the cross, or erase it. It’s part of who Jesus is, and it’s part of who we are. So, let’s read what Jesus has to say about this.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

– Matthew 16:24-28

Most of us like to remember Jesus as a teacher. He was, indeed, a very good teacher. We spend a lot of our time every year talking about Jesus’ teachings.

We would rather talk about all of the healings Jesus did. We’d rather think about the people he helped, and the people he forgave. We would rather talk about almost anything but the cross.

And it’s strange, because a lot of people wear crosses every day. People wear them on necklaces. People wear crosses as ornaments. I have a Celtic cross that’s a tie pin. My brother gave it to me as a gift for standing at his wedding. You see me wear it almost every Sunday.

People have crosses printed on their Bibles, on holiday cards, even on their license plates. It’s a kind of a decoration people use. Many people wear crosses or carry them around, who aren’t even religious. It’s almost like the cross has become a kind of a good-luck charm, a magic symbol that keeps away trouble or makes people feel better.

And that is so strange, because the cross itself is not good.

I remember my wife and I were talking about this one time. And my wife said, “Wearing a cross is almost like wearing a symbol for the electric chair, or the gas chamber. Why would anybody do that? That’s really gross! ”

I guess that wearing a cross as a personal ornament is a sort of a way for people to say, non-verbally, “I’m religious!” Or, hopefully, it’s a way to say, “I’m a Christian!” But most of the time we don’t really think it through.

Jesus didn’t say that we should wear the cross, or display the cross. He said we need to take it up. There’s a big difference between wearing it, and bearing it. That’s what I want us to look at today. Do we wear the cross? Or do we bear the cross?

Jesus was very clear that he was going to suffer and be killed. That’s what we talk about, at Easter. Jesus died a terrible death. And yet, three days later, he rose again. That’s wonderful!

But Jesus was also very clear that people who follow him would share in his suffering. And that’s not something any of us want to hear.

A lot of the time I hear people say, when there’s somebody who bothers them, or there’s some kind of a situation that they don’t like, “Oh, that’s just a cross that I have to bear. . .”

Whenever I hear that I want to stop, and say, “You know, ordinary misfortune is not the cross. Putting up with somebody annoying is not the cross.”

There are a whole lot of things in life which just happen. A tree branch falls on my car. I get a sinus infection. I’m short of money at the end of the week. None of those is a “cross” for me to bear. They’re just bad stuff.

And, you know, sometimes bad stuff just happens. It happens to good people and bad people alike. It rains on everybody’s parade, sometimes. Most bad stuff is not God’s punishment. It’s not really the cross.

Even dying, just by itself, is not the cross. We all die. No exception. It’s one of the hardest things we have to face. And we spend most of our lives denying it. But dying, all by itself, is not the cross.

I hope you realize I’m not talking about this subject in order to be depressing. I’m trying to take one of the most difficult and misunderstood subjects in our religious life, and I’m trying to make it intelligible.

Jesus said one time, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. . .”

Wow! That sounds pretty extreme. I hope he doesn’t mean that literally. I hope it’s just a figure of speech!

I don’t think that Jesus was trying to break up families. There are plenty of other places where he reminds us to love our families. And there are many places where Jesus compares our relationship with God to that of living in a family.

So, I think there’s some hyperbole at work here. The family is important. But Jesus is saying, “There’s something at least as important as family, here.”

You love your family – but love Christ, too. They’re on a par. They’re up on the same level, where it’s beyond counting, beyond measuring, where we would sacrifice anything for them. That’s what Jesus means.

In another version of this same passage, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. . .”

The emphasis in Luke isn’t on making a supreme sacrifice, a once-in-a-lifetime gesture. In Luke it’s about  making daily choices, daily decisions, which are either for God, or not. Most of the time, those daily decisions are not all that painful or unpleasant. Most of the time, following Jesus is a joy and a pleasure.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

The key words there are gentle, humble, restful, easy and light.

So, it’s not always hard. But sometimes it is. And the language which Jesus uses to talk about the times when it’s hard to follow, is the language of the cross.

Over and over again, Jesus says, “If you want to follow me, you have to be like me. If people reject me, they will reject you. The disciple is not above the master. You too, will be hauled up in front of courts and governors, and be asked difficult questions, just like me. Don’t expect anything different.”

The cross is not just about bad luck or suffering in general. The cross is about suffering, but still choosing to be faithful. The cross is about not abandoning our trust in God. It’s about our commitment to remain followers of Jesus, even when the going gets tough.

One of our misconceptions is that bearing the cross means that we’re always brave and strong. I don’t think so. Do you all remember when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he said, “Father, if it’s possible, let this be taken from me. . . Nevertheless, not my will, but thy will be done. . .” (Matthew 26:39)

That is a crucial point. If there’s a way for us to get out of it, without denying God, then that’s OK. It’s perfectly all right. If it’s possible to avoid or escape suffering, that’s great!

But sometimes it’s harder. The cross is about the choice to be faithful, to bear witness for God – even when it hurts. The choice is to take up the cross, and not flee it, when those are the only choices there are.

So, what are some examples of what we’ve been talking about? Where do we see people, taking up the cross?

Well, the first place I’d look, is in those first days after the Resurrection, when Jesus’ friends were still figuring out what to do. They prayed. They did healings. They taught in the Temple, just the way Jesus used to. And then they got called up in front of the council, who scolded them for teaching in public about Jesus. The council threatened them, and said that they would punish them.

What did Peter and John say? “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; we can only speak about what we have seen and heard. . .” (Acts 4:19-20)

Right there is first place we see Jesus’ followers bearing the cross. It wasn’t physical punishment. They only had to face threats. But they chose to speak the truth, rather than be silent, rather than deny what they had seen with their own eyes.

A little later on, a group of Jesus’ followers were arrested for teaching in public. The authorities threw them into prison. That night, it says that an angel of the Lord came and opened the prison doors, and told them to go right back to the temple at daybreak and teach some more.

Now, the authorities were some kind of surprised at this, and so they arrested them again. And the authorities brought them back and said, “Why are you doing this? We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you’ve filled Jerusalem with your teaching.”

But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. . .we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey God. . .” (see Acts 5:17-32)

Again, the important point: not that they were arrested. Anybody can do that. Just get drunk and drive around on Saturday night. They started bearing the cross when they said, “We must obey God rather than men. . .”

That is the heart of following Jesus, the heart of discipleship. Taking up the cross, when you could avoid it. Choosing to tell the truth, rather than keeping silent or telling a lie.

During the period of the early church, Christians got in trouble by the thousands, by the tens of thousands, because they refused to swear loyalty to Caesar. They were not rebellious. They were grateful for peace and the benefits of society. But they refused to go along with everybody else and say that Caesar was a god, and they refused to honor the pagan gods of Rome.

It would have been so easy. All you had to do was to go in front of a Roman official and burn a tiny pinch of incense and swear by Caesar – literally, swear by Caesar’s genius, not by the man himself. The “genius” was supposed to be the divine spirit that gave Caesar wisdom and power. Swearing only took a moment, and you’d get an official, signed certificate, good for the rest of your life, saying that you were OK.

And Christians refused to do it. And they were imprisoned, fined, punished, and, in many cases, put to death. They took up the cross.

The early Friends, in the 1600’s, did much the same thing. They got in trouble, for refusing to take off their hats, or use polite phrases, when they came into court, or when they met people who were supposed to be of a higher social status. Friends went to jail by the thousands for this. For not taking off their hats.

Their witness was, that all people are equal before God, so it’s wrong to go along with phony differences of rank.

Quakers also got in trouble for refusing to swear. They wouldn’t take loyalty oaths, and they wouldn’t take an oath in court.

When the bailiff said, “Raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” Quakers said, “NO. We will not swear. Jesus said to let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No. Anything more than that, Jesus said, was wrong.” (see Matthew 5:37)

Quakers said, “You’re setting up a double standard. If we didn’t take an oath, does that mean we’d lie? Shouldn’t we just tell the truth, all the time?”

Suffering for doing right, suffering for telling the truth, for refusing to fight, for being a witness, is bearing the cross.

It doesn’t happen every day. And usually it’s not on a big scale. Most of the crosses we bear are small ones. Most of the time, following Jesus is a joy, and a delight.

But when it comes, maybe without warning, we need to be ready. Our feet have to be planted firmly, our arms have to be ready, our choice needs to be made. We have to be ready to look foolish.

Wearing a cross is easy. Bearing the cross, means following Christ.

This is a hard subject. I’m sure it’s raised a lot of questions, and a lot of thoughts in our minds. Let’s settle into a time of prayer and sharing together.

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