‘He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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 save it.’ Mark 8: 34-35
These are some of the most puzzling verses in the Bible. Did Jesus really want his followers to volunteer for suffering? Did he really call us to deny ourselves so radically that we would pick up a cross, or some modern day equivalent, and offer ourselves up for torture and pain and death? Would the Jesus who had just healed a blind man, cured a gentile mother’s daughter and fed thousands with loaves and fishes really say that his followers are headed for death?
I am sure you’ve all heard many sermons that tell you that this is not about bearing all the small trials of life – it doesn’t mean what it’s come to mean in popular speech. ‘We all have our crosses to bear’. But if it’s really an invitation to a kind of masochism, the kind of unhealthy self-denial that people in churches sometimes seem to specialise in, do we really want to say ‘this is the word of the Lord’? If you put ‘take up your cross’ into Google and press ‘images’ you get lots of pictures of people going through public whippings and mock crucifixions. Is that really what Jesus was suggesting? If he was, you might think it’s no wonder that the churches are emptying fast.. I have said before on this text that I want to resist any reading which seems to say that we ought to seek out suffering, or any reading that suggests that pain and torture are somehow paths to holiness, or any reading that encourages anyone to think that they should take on pain. From flagellation to starvation, to the kind of passive aggressive martyr complex that assails many of us, I want to say a resounding and protesting ‘no’. I cannot believe that that is what God wants. I know that preachers are supposed to ‘afflict the comfortable’, but I’m as convinced as I can be that pretty much all of the people I have ever preached to have enough suffering and pain and struggle to endure. I’m not going to be part of inviting anyone to ‘take up a cross’ in that sense of volunteering for extra suffering. Of course I believe that sometimes we all have to put in some effort, make some sacrifices, put others before ourselves and give all we can, but I think that’s different from volunteering to be crucified. And I don’t think God is looking for martyrs in that sense.
But, I can’t rest with just resisting a piece of scripture. Because I trust God always to speak through it and to bring blessing. And so this week I’ve been wrestling with this text to find the blessing and make sense of it. And so I’ve come to tell you today what I think I’ve found. Because I think that this passage is not about volunteering for crucifixion – it’s about following Jesus on the way that leads, in the end, to life. His journey did involve the cross, did include pain, but it was pain and it was a cross that was transformed. It was death that was turned into life. It was a journey in which life was not, ultimately, lost, but saved. That’s what the final verse of the reading says. Follow me, and your life will be saved.
This passage was of course written by Christians who were looking back on Jesus’ life, looking back on his suffering and dying, but from a point of view after the resurrection. They knew that the cross, the cross any Christian might also ‘take up’ had become something different from an instrument of pain and death. It has become, in the most wonderful subversive move, a sign of life.
Let me see if I can convey something of the power of the cross today, a power that those early Christians knew too, a power that we can be part of too…
I wonder how many people here are wearing a cross in some way or other? A cross around your neck perhaps? A cross in your pocket? A tattoo somewhere? (it happens!). It’s likely that many of us are wearing a cross somehow or that we do sometimes. And if we went to each other’s homes we might find a cross on a wall somewhere. And if we look around the church we will find them here. And I wonder what the crosses we wear and display mean to us? It might be helpful to look carefully at some of them. Because of the kind of church we are they are not so likely to be the kind of cross with a figure of the dying Christ on them. They are not so much about the suffering and death of Christ. When we look at them we don’t think first of an instrument of torture and death, but something more like a sign of our faith. It’s become a sign of the promise of our faith, of the salvation we want to celebrate, of the transformation that life with God brings. If we take up a cross and paint it on our walls it means something different from what a cross meant in the first century Roman Empire – it’s not a sign of terror, but a sign of love. It’s not a sign to warn us that we might be punished, but a sign that we will not be punished because God loves us and is merciful to us. It’s not a sign of martyrdom, but a sign of life.
If I look at the cross I’m wearing, it comes from Wales, from one of the Celtic edges of Christianity. It has curves in it, and it looks more like a swirling plant. It carries hints of something like a tree of life – it says that my faith is about life, about renewal, about something that promises and brings life in all its fulness. In the church here we have a cross made in beaten silver. It is an empty cross – Christ is not there in suffering, but is risen. And the cross has become a beautiful shape in precious metal, a sign of God’s coming to bind earth and heaven together, a sign of the most terrible evil transformed by love. The cross has become a sign – and a sign of much more than the Romans ever thought it was.
In the days when Jesus lived, the Romans used the cross as a way of terrifying the local people, as a way of humiliating and scaring people. In the Roman Empire, the cross meant death and suffering for the lowliest people, for slaves and robbers and petty criminals. It symbolised all that has been and still is worst about what human beings can do to one another. But the crosses that we hang around our necks or display in our homes or churches – the crosses we hold in our hands when we can do little more, the crosses we make out of palms, the crosses we hang on our churches or focus on in our prayers – these are quite different. These crosses represent the transformation of death into life, the victory of hope over suffering, the triumph of love over hate. These crosses, I believe, the ones we are called to take up. These crosses, the ones that symbolise life saved and transfigured, these crosses are the ones we should hold.
In one of the churches where I served as minister we used to display a bare wooden cross outside the church in holy week. But on Easter day we would go and cover it with bright yellow daffodils, to signify our faith that death is defeated by life and that the cross we hold and take up is that kind of cross, the cross of life. Perhaps something like that has happened here – and perhaps it will again.
I don’t often, and won’t often, quote from Call the Midwife in sermons, but last week’s episode included one character encouraging another by saying, ‘Turn the cross into your anchor’. To do that is not to volunteer for suffering, but to find a foothold in life, to find a way to survive the suffering that life is likely to bring to any of us, to find a way to life. That is the kind of cross, I believe, that we are called to ‘take up’. For Christians now, the cross is transformed. It is not the horror of Roman punishment, but a wondrous cross, a sign of God’s presence with us in every pain we bear, and a sign that God is transforming that pain – and certainly not increasing it. The taking up of a cross is not a sentence, but it is a deliverance, because the cross has become a sign of salvation.
It is an astonishing testimony to the power of signs and the power of faith that the cross has been so transformed. The earliest Christians, by all accounts, could not quite cope with the idea of a cross as their main symbol – but as the church grew, people came to see how wonderfully, wondrously, subversive their faith really was. God can turn even a cross into a sign of hope. If God can do that, what could do with your life?!
I have found this extraordinary hymn from somewhere in Africa in the 10th century. It absolutely sums up for me what kind of cross I really want to ‘take up’, a cross that is worth denying myself for even, a cross that I want to celebrate and rejoice in too.. Listen to these amazing words:
The cross is the way of the lost
the cross is the staff of the lame
the cross is the guide of the blind
the cross is the strength of the weak
the cross is the hope of the hopeless
the cross is the freedom of the slaves
the cross is the water of the seeds
the cross is the consolation of the bonded labourers
the cross is the source of those who seek water
the cross is the cloth of the naked.
I want to live my faith and my life and my discipleship in such a way that the lost, even the lost girl in me, might find a way to life. I want to take up a way of being with God that means the weak will find strength. I want to bring hope to the hopeless and freedom to those enslaved. That’s the kind of cross I want to take up. I don’t want to deny myself for the sake of it, but if those things can happen more because I give a bit more myself, well that’s no bad thing. And if I will find life too in taking up that cross, the cross that shows how life can be transformed, well I will rejoice. And I hope you might too.
Praise be to God for the wondrous cross. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all. Amen.