The way of the cross

Good morning, Friends! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Spring has arrived, and just like in Ireland, there are a thousand shades of green here in North Carolina. This is such a beautiful time of year.

Of all the Sundays in the year, this is the one time I can tell a couple of Irish jokes. Many of you know that half my family came from Ireland. So, here we go!

Paddy and Mary are courting. They’re getting to know each other, and they’re busy asking each other the kind of questions that all young couples ask each other.

“Paddy”, asks Mary, “if you were stranded on a desert island with only one person, who would you like most to be with you?”

“Oh, I’d like my uncle Mick,” replies Paddy.

Mary is disappointed but she asks, “What’s so special about your uncle Mick?”

“Well for one thing,” says Paddy, “he’s got a boat.”

Here’s another one.

Old Mr. Casey kept a cat for companionship and he loved his cat dearly. One he decided he was going to the States to see family who had left Ireland, and he asked his brother to look after the cat while he was gone. As soon as he arrived in the U.S. he called his brother long distance and he asked, “How is my cat?”

His brother said, “Oh, your cat died.”

Casey said, “That’s a terrible shock! Why did you have to tell me that way?”

His brother asked, “How else can I tell you that the cat is dead?”

Casey responded “You could have led me up to it gradually. You could have told me that my cat was up on the roof, but the fire department is getting it down. When I called tomorrow night, you could have told me they dropped him and the cat was injured. Then when I called on the third night, you could have told me that the doctor did all he could but my cat passed away. That way it wouldn’t have been such a shock. By the way,” Casey continued, “how is our dear mother?”

His brother said, “Oh, she’s up on the roof, but the fire department is getting her down.”

All right then. Let’s get down to business. We’re getting closer and closer each week to Easter. It’s the most important holiday in the whole Christian year.

But too often, we want to skip ahead to the jelly beans and the Easter bunny, and we want to ignore the reason for it all.

One of the hardest things to remember isn’t just that Jesus went to the cross, but he also predicted that his followers would, too.

We’re not always sure what “bearing the cross” is like – sometimes the difficult things in our lives are simply the result of our own stupidity, while others come from faithfully trying to live the way Jesus told us to live.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days he would rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “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 and for the gospel will save it.

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:31-38

We talk all year about the good example of Jesus. Jesus is a such great teacher. He’s such an amazing healer Jesus is a moral example for all of us to follow.

But now that Easter was getting nearer, Jesus talked about something else. He said that he was going to be killed. He said this very openly.

People didn’t want to hear this. People always want to follow a winner. You don’t follow someone who says that in just a little while, just a few short weeks, he’s going to be killed, and that all of his followers will run away and be scattered.

According to the experts, this is not how you build a strong and successful movement.

Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends, tried to get him to change this message. “Don’t talk about dying,” Peter said. “Back off on using the D word all the time!”

Jesus turned and looked at Peter and the rest of his inner circle of friends and said, “Get behind me! This isn’t you speaking. This is the voice of the tempter. This isn’t God speaking. This is the devil.”

What do you say to that? And Jesus went right on, not just talking to his closest friends, but to all the crowds who were listening.

Without the words of today’s reading, the gospel isn’t complete. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up the cross and follow me. . .”

That business of the cross sounds pretty uncomfortable to people today. For many people, the cross sounds masochistic – maybe even a little sick. I mean, why would anyone celebrate a prolonged, horrible death?

But the cross is part of what Jesus taught. Among the many things Jesus commanded, we always remember the two big ones: love God, and love your neighbor.

And now there’s this one: deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.
What is “bearing the cross” really about?

For most of us, it doesn’t wind up being actual, physical martyrdom. Certainly, many of the early Christians experienced the cross in that literal way. Early in the Christian movement, Christians faced deadly danger from religious groups, from Roman leaders and angry mobs.

But very few of us will ever have to face actual martyrdom. We have to understand the cross in different ways. For us, the phrase, “bearing the cross” usually means something else.

We often hear the phrase, “bearing the cross” in relation to serious illness or disability. If a person is tortured by pain, or is crippled by some accident or by some terrible disease or birth defect, we often say “it’s a cross they have to bear.”

I have known many people who have suffered terribly. They were in constant pain, and their families suffer with them. But in spite of everything, they kept their faith. They were certainly bearing the cross.

But I also know a lot of people who are blind or who live in a wheelchair, and for them, that’s just their normal life.

Someone else might be totally miserable, but for these folks, it’s their everyday reality. They’ve adjusted to it. They’ve overcome it. For these people, we don’t usually say they’re “bearing the cross.”

What makes them different? This business of “bearing the cross” isn’t always easy to understand.

Sometimes the cross is something inside us. For example, there can be the cross of not giving in to my own bad temper. Instead of automatically snapping or yelling at people, instead of going around angry all the time, sometimes “bearing the cross” can mean putting up with people.

Don’t say the first word that comes to your lips. Don’t smack other people down. Don’t sound off and say something ugly or hateful.

“The cross” isn’t just being nice to people who you think don’t deserve it. “The cross” can mean knowing yourself, who you are, and choosing to try and say what Jesus would say instead. And making that choice the next time, over and over.

Forgiving people once, then seven times, then seventy times seven times, can actually be a way of bearing the cross.

Trying to respond in wisdom and love to someone who has deliberately tried to hurt you. That’s really difficult. Not trying to get back at them. Not trying to take revenge. Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Giving someone an extra chance, when you’re sure they’re going to do the same thing again.

The cross can also be overcoming my own laziness or pride, or the cross of forcing myself to be honest at all times, of always telling the truth, no matter what.

Sometimes the cross has to do with living with somebody else – the cross of living with a family member who has severe mental illness, for example, or the cross of living with someone who has a serious alcohol or drug or gambling addiction.

One of the most important things to remember is that the cross itself is not good. Good may come out of being faithful. Good may come out of suffering. But there’s nothing good about suffering itself. God wants us all to be healthy and full of life.

I want to ask you to do something a little different for a moment. Could you please grab your hymnal, and turn to hymn number 344?

It’s a song we sang here at worship about a month ago. It’s a really simple song. It was written by a pastor who was working with a mountain tribe in India. He wanted to write a special song for his tiny congregation.

Being a Christian in that area was extremely unpopular. If you became a Christian, you faced opposition from your community and from your whole family. Look at the words:

I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, I have decided to follow Jesus, No turning back, no turning back. . .”

Then look at the next verse:

The world behind me, the cross before me. . .

And the third verse:

Though none go with me, I still will follow. . .

Think about that, with your family and your neighbors and everyone in the community, disapproving of you and mocking you and turning their backs on you, because you decided to be a Christian.

Now turn the page for just a minute, to the next hymn, #345:

Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, tempestuous sea; day by day his sweet voice soundeth, saying, “Christian, follow me.”

If we haven’t heard that voice recently, if we haven’t heard Jesus saying, “Follow me,” maybe we need to listen harder.

The hymn says that life is a hurricane, and we may be fighting for our lives in it. But if we listen, we can hear Jesus calling to us, and telling the storm in our hearts, “Be still. . .”

Or read the second verse:

Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love me more. . .”

The words are old-fashioned. But if you think for just a minute, the message is totally up-to-date.

How much of our society marches to the beat of wanting “More, more, MORE!”? We are terrified that we don’t have enough. We admire people who have ridiculous amounts of money. In our hearts, we want to be like them.

And Jesus says, “That’s a false God. That’s a pagan idol. You can’t worship both God and money.”

That’s why Jesus told the rich young man to give everything away. Not just because there were poor people who needed help. But because his obsession with riches was keeping him away from God.

Let’s look at the words to just one more hymn. Turn to page 512, to the great spiritual, We Shall Overcome, and read the words:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day; O, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day. . .

And the rest of the verses:

The Lord will see us through; We’ll walk hand in hand; We are not afraid; The truth shall make us free; We shall live in peace. . .

A good hymn is always a prayer. It puts our faith and hope into words. And we stand up and sing it out loud, clearly and bravely, because a good hymn sings what we feel in our hearts.

Many people feel that the cross has to do with bravery. It does, but we need to understand what being brave really means.

Brave people are often afraid. Brave people can feel lost and confused. They can feel uncertain. But brave people go ahead and do something that needs to be done, because of their love, their sense of duty, and their faith in God.

It’s easy to be brave when you’re marching in a parade, with thousands of people marching beside you and everybody’s going in the same direction.

It’s much harder to be brave when what you think is right is unpopular, when people are throwing rocks at you, and when even your friends think you’re crazy.

The cross often has to do with obedience. It has to do with keeping faith with God. It has to do with following God all the way, no matter what the consequences are.

When we follow Jesus, most of the time it’s happy and joyful. We hope life is like that. But sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it hurts, but we know we still have to do it.
When we suffer for doing something right, that’s the cross.

If it really is the cross, we usually find Jesus walking ahead of us, as a leader or as an example. Or we find Jesus walking beside us, as a companion. If we discover that Christ is with us, then it’s probably the cross, because we are following in Jesus’ footsteps.

The cross may be public and dramatic, or it may be private. It may be one big event, or it may be a whole series of challenges.

I sometimes think that it’s as if God gives each of us a million dollars’ worth of faith to spend during our lives. Some people spend it all in one shot, in one great dramatic act of obedience and love and faith. Other people spend it in little dribs and drabs – a nickel here, a dollar there.

There’s also the second half of today’s Scripture as well: “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 find it.”

The cross isn’t just about loss and suffering. The cross is about losing life, but it’s also about finding life, too.

Many times we suffer in life, and it’s terrible. But we also find great rewards. Or we may lose someone we love, but we have wonderful memories. We have losses, but we have so many blessings.

Those words help us to make sense out of suffering. Those words tell us that God is with us, when we suffer, and that God will never let us go.

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