Take up your cross…. is not an invitation to passivity. It is not about quietly and submissively accepting whatever hardship falls on you. Jesus was never passive. He did not just react to what was thrown at him. He lived a life of active initiative. He courted trouble! He is not telling us to accept our cross. He is telling us TAKE UP your cross and FOLLOW me. Those are active verbs, not passive. He is not telling us “accept your cross.”
I think this is the first time that I have noticed this very obvious fact about the language in this Gospel reading (Mark 8:34-9:1). The language is not passive but active! I’m not sure what to do with this insight. So this sermon is a work in progress.
So here is my message today. Yes, you do have ‘crosses’ in your life, crosses thrown at you because you live in a world where there is much that is wrong. You will experience crosses of injustice, of mistreatment, of gossip and defamation. You most likely will experience the cross of financial difficulty, most likely you will experience the cross of illness; maybe the cross of a relationship or a marriage that falls apart; maybe the cross of a child who gets in serious trouble. Need I go on?
Yes, those are the crosses that we receive, and we have to deal with them. But I believe Jesus is telling us something different today.
“Deny yourself” is a phrase that has been seriously abused, misunderstood, and used by the church to keep people in subservient condition. It is a phrase used by monks to promote their own distorted version of Christianity. Who is Jesus speaking to and what does he mean by “deny yourself”? Is he telling you and me to reject everything that is important to us? Is he telling us to feel guilty for who and what we are?
Imagine you’re a homeless woman and you’re in church today and you hear this Gospel reading. How are you supposed to deny yourself? Is Jesus even speaking to you? You already are carrying the crosses that your homelessness has imposed on you. Are you supposed to feel guilty for wanting a home for yourself, a small apartment of public housing? Some segments of society are telling you that it’s your fault that you’re poor, you’re lazy, lacking initiative. Some politicians and their supporters don’t want to give you any help. Then you hear Jesus tell you to deny yourself and follow him. Deny yourself and your desire for a better life with a roof over your head, a place to call your own? And if you refuse to deny yourself and your desires Jesus will deny you and be ashamed of you when he comes in glory? The words of Jesus become a weapon to keep you down and never to rise from your poverty.
Words like these have been used for 2,000 years to keep people in their place; to keep people resigned to a life of powerlessness. It is language that keeps people in abusive situations. It is language that priests and the church have used to keep people from rising up against injustice and against abusive spouses. And yet Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).
I don’t believe Jesus is speaking to that woman or anyone else who already lives a life of self-denial. But he IS talking to that homeless woman and to every one of us – with an invitation to a creative life, a life of initiative and boldness. Jesus did not stop at ‘deny yourself’. He goes on to say “take up your cross and follow me.” It is a call to break out of a life of individualism and self-interest and into a life guided by God’s amazing and radical love. “Take up your cross” is to resist and oppose precisely those ideas and structures that create injustice and make people captive to spiritual and material abuse. It is a creative act rather than a passive acceptance of suffering. And it could be costly to you. Costly perhaps in money – but more importantly costly in your reputation, maybe costly in family relationships, perhaps even costly in your personal safety. In other words, something that shows you to be a disciple of Christ.
To follow Jesus means to be in intimate relationship with him and the Father who sent him so that we may have life in him and through the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus real to us every day. To follow Jesus means being embraced by God’s compassionate and self-giving love and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Then indeed you will not taste death, for death itself becomes just another facet of finding life in Jesus’ name.
(The above is a shorter version of a sermon preached on April 4th, 2021. The full sermon is available on audio file below.)