It is hard for us to hear the words of Jesus with the same impact that Peter and the disciples heard them.
“Take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus says.
When we hear these words, “Take up your cross” our minds are already heavily influenced by the cross as a religious symbol.
I preach under a cross.
We hang our sorrows on a cross with strips of black cloth.
We wear it around our neck as jewelry and dedicate a whole wall to finding as may “beautiful” or unique ones as we can.
How can we hear these words the way Jesus’ disciples heard them? Maybe the answer to that is that we can’t.
Or maybe the key to getting close to hearing them is to learn what it meant in Jesus’ day to “take up the cross.”
The cross was the punishment reserved by the Roman Empire for those who were found guilty of insurrection and speaking against the emperor, and it worked just the way it is described in the Gospels.
If accused of insurrection, there was a trial.
If accused and suspected guilty, there was a public scourging to get you to recant. Public flogging was a way to keep people in line, as much to deter others from speaking out as anything else.
If scourging did not yield the desired results, then it was crucifixion. You were paraded through the streets to the place of execution, carrying the crossbeam upon which the deed would take place.
A soldier would say to you, “pick it up.” It is something you are compelled to take up, and not of your own choosing.
So key to understanding what it was like to hear Jesus talking about “taking up your cross and following” are these two elements.
It comes with an accusation against you that you must publicly account for.
It comes with a moment of decision about what you will do when confronted with that accusation.
So, I’ve tried to think of a way to help us hear this call to “take up a cross” as Peter might have heard it, and the best I could come up with is to do this.
(Photo – Uncle Sam praying to a cross of AR-15)
Now, just throwing that picture up I know has already raised most of the blood pressures in the room.
Some of you in this room are thinking, “how DARE the pastor bring up the politics and divisive images of the gun debate in this way!”
Some of you in the room are thinking “FINALLY, the pastor is going to talk about the gun debate and give us some direction as to his thinking.”
Some of you are thinking “I just want to get up and walk out right now because I already KNOW what the pastor is going to say and it’s not the position I agree with!”
Well, you can relax or be disappointed, because I’m not going to say anything about the gun debate or this political cartoon.
I just wanted you all to Experience this moment.
Things are going along, the sermon is ho-hum happening and all at once something happens that stops everyone right in their tracks and you get that sinking feeling that something is going to happen that YOU cannot avoid.
In the case of the Gospel for today, Jesus throws in an element that none of his disciples expected, the prediction of his own suffering and death at the hands of the leaders in Jerusalem!
When we think of “bearing the cross” we tend to conjure up images of noble efforts undertaken, difficult courses of action willingly chosen or endured.
We think of Jesus going to Jerusalem, but knowing the end of the story already, so the “sting” of the crucifixion is mitigated by the resurrection.
We have come to associate the call to discipleship, the call to “cross bearing” as some heroic venture, as if it were something to be sought out.
But this is the key to unlocking Jesus’ words to Peter and the disciple\s response this day. You don’t get to choose what following Jesus will thrust into your face.
The Cross isn’t something you choose, it is something you find imposed upon you and something to which you will simply have to react.
How you react is what this story is about.
Jesus starts talking about where all this Kingdom of God stuff is ultimately heading. To proclaim the Kingdom of God is to put yourself on a collision course with the Kingdom of this world, a collision course with the power of Caesar and the Empire. “He said all of this quite openly” Mark says, and Peter reacts.
“Don’t talk like that, Jesus! Don’t talk about politics! Don’t talk about suffering, being rejected, killed! That’s not what we signed up for!”
It draws Jesus’ rebuke and clarification. This is GOING to be imposed upon you. Any who want to become my followers, Jesus says, are going to have to deal with this and take up the cross as it is imposed upon them. You will have a moment of decision thrust upon you, a time when something is put in your path that you will have to look at and make a decision about based upon what you believe, and you will have to decide whether to pick it up and follow Jesus or not.
Dr. James Nestigen, a church history professor and Luther scholar was fond of saying that you don’t have to go looking for your cross, it will find you. He would go on to say that there are four vocations in this life where a cross will be readily imposed upon you.
There is the family. You will suffer 1000 little crucifixions in growing up, in parenting, in your relationships with your siblings and parents.
You don’t get to choose your family.
You don’t get to choose the abusive parent, the wayward child, the marital tensions or the breakup that follows.
You don’t get to choose the actions of your loved ones, the mistakes that they will make, the difficult places they will put you in.
Plenty of cross bearing takes place in the vocation of being part of a family, and none of it will be of your own choosing. There will be moments when you have to make a decision about what to do, and where to go, and whose side to take, and how to proceed in the best interest of everyone involved.
There is the vocation of work. Again, while you might choose your job, you won’t be allowed to choose the dynamics of that workplace, or the scheming that might go on or that you might even find yourself caught up in.
You don’t get to choose the market trends that will cause you to prosper or cause your job to come to an end, no matter how good you are at it.
You don’t get to choose the fact that hard work does not always result in reward. There are plenty of crosses imposed upon you in the workplace, from relationships with fellow workers, to dealing with the powers and structures that loom and threaten. The inequalities of race, gender and who is compensated fairly, or who gets advancements and why. Moments of decision of who you will align with and what you will do.
There is the vocation of church. Here too, a cross awaits. A former Minnesota Attorney General once quipped that he much preferred political fights to church fights. Political fights were generally cleaner and less personally malicious. Strange as it may seem, the place that talks most about the cross is also the place where you are most likely to experience some crucifixions, for here relationships are complex and the sense of right and wrong in situations tends to be amplified. Here the tolerance for change and the diversity in belief can be short and narrow. Feelings of righteousness in your own firmly held beliefs and justifications about your own point of view on matters are generally rigidly held and fervently conditioned, so that the grace you should be extending is in short supply. The church will crucify both leaders and followers, it’s got a lot of practice in the whole area of crucifixion.
Finally, there is the vocation of the government. You will be asked to die for your country, one way or another. We understand that particularly well right now in our current polarized political environment.
Speak against the current administration, or in support of it, and a host of labels and opinions will hammer you.
Speak a word of opposition or agreement to current policies, and a ready supply of wood and nails will come your way.
You don’t have to go looking for a cross, one will find you. Nestigen would repeat, over and over again.
And, you’ll perhaps best know when your cross has found you when those other two things mentioned in this story start chafing at you.
Profiting and Shaming.
Who is profiting from the current situation?
Who is being shamed, and will I join in or choose to speak against the shaming of others?
The take away from this Gospel lesson is that you must be ready for this moment, for following Jesus is going to lay before you something that you are going to be called upon to pick up and do something with or about.
Maybe it’s in the realm of the family.
Maybe it will be at your workplace.
Maybe it will be in the church.
Or maybe, this picture is your cross to bear at this moment. Crosses to bear are plentiful in the area of government and citizenship. Which one will you take up? Or will you join with Peter in saying, “let’s not talk about this…”
It is coming, Jesus says to Peter and all those who have followed him to this point. A moment when you will have to decide, when you will have something thrust upon you that you will either have to pick up or be tempted to walk away.
If you want to follow Jesus, you will have to pick it up.
You won’t be able to avoid it, for following Jesus just won’t let you.