The Cross of Christ
A Sermon preached by the Rev. dr. bob flanagan
Sunday, September 16th, 2018
“He said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me..’”
Our problem today is that when we think of Jesus’ statement that I just read, many of us immediately imagine hoisting a heavy wooden cross on our shoulder. To be a Christian is to find support in the cross.
First, deny yourselves and taking up the cross reminds us of the walk Jesus took to Calvary. In our mind, we see a whipped and beaten Jesus, struggling with a cross on his shoulder, as he walked through the streets of Old Jerusalem. Then, Simon of Cyrene slid the cross on his shoulder for the final steps to Golgotha, the place of his crucifixion. Since that journey is ingrained in our memory, many struggle to consider any other way of taking up the cross.
Second, many today live busy, exhausting lives. They spend their days in their cars. They feel pressed to get everything done. They end their week curled up on the couch, drained from the experience of living. Those people fight through each day and cannot conceive of a different way to take up the cross than to hoist it on their shoulder as they plod through life.
Still, others find life disappointing. They spend their days wishing for a different life. They regret many of their actions or what others have done to them. They are mired in the swamp of what-might-have-been. Life is difficult for these people because they feel that a cross has been put on their shoulder by others or God.
For others, their lives are boring and colorless. They have accomplished much but now are lost. Lost because they have no purpose, and they sense the will to live seeping from them day after day. Living has become a burden because they are empty inside. So hoisting a cross just weighs them down even more. How else could they see taking up the cross?
Others have only guilt. These people have hurt others or the world in small or large ways and are burdened by their actions. They feel they deserve their dismal life. They pick up the cross as a punishment for their selfishness. They carry it with a warped sense of pride. The cross is a way to help them to make right their wrongs.
The trouble with hoisting the cross on our shoulders is that we are weighed down by it, and when it is added to the burdens of our lives, we are nearly crushed by it. Our faith becomes a burden. We stumble forward with little joy or happiness.
Living our faith weighed down by the cross and daily living is wrong. It’s not what God or Jesus intended. It does not create a healthy spiritual life. Carrying the cross on our shoulder not only extinguishes our faith but when others see it, they are repulsed. Who would want to join a church where everyone is bent over, weighed down by their faith journey.
Can we discover a different way to interpret what Jesus said? Let’s look again at the three-steps Jesus outlined. Those steps being: 1. Deny oneself. 2. Take up the cross. and 3. Follow Jesus.
Since we know the ending of the gospel story, it’s hard for us to forget it. Remember, however, today’s reading happened in chapter eight, halfway through the Gospel of Mark. Earlier in chapter eight, Jesus fed four thousand people and cured the blindman at Bethsaida. So we must set aside what happened at Calvary. We must not yet follow his bloody steps toward death.
In chapter eight, Jesus wanted something else from those around him. First, he wanted them to lay down their burdens. The Greek word that we read as “deny” also means to disown or renounce claim to. Jesus thus asked his disciples to disown their burdens and instead claim God. Jesus asked his disciples to renounce their claim to a life filled with getting things done and instead accomplish God’s work. Jesus asked his disciple to let go of regret and guilt and selfishness for a path that was not heavy but light.
The sixteenth-century Spanish Carmelite monk and priest St. John of the Cross gave us insight into what Jesus meant by “deny themselves and take up the cross.” But his words are challenging. For John of the Cross deny meant to renounce all desire. Those things that arise from the will; what we might call the ego. One must let go of all wants and desires, even the desire to have faith (169-173). In a sense, John of the Cross advises Christians just to be. He calls on us to let go of regret and guilt and selfishness. He says not to hold on too tightly to things but journey toward God.
About the cross, John writes, “The cross is a supporting staff and greatly lightens and eases the journey” (171). Wait a minute. The cross doesn’t go over the shoulder? Then what? It is a staff or a walking stick. It is something that supports us when we stumble. It keeps us from falling into a ditch or into evil ways.
What a different experience John of the Cross gives us. Our load is lightened. Our burdens are set aside. We walk free from regret, guilt, and selfishness. And there is more. We have a cross. A cross that helps us. A cross that supports us on our journey of faith. We can walk as lightly as angels.
What does the cross as a supporting staff mean for us? First, remembering we live in the twenty-first century, don’t give up your job and become a burden to others. We must work and earn a living and support ourselves. We do so, however, with a lightness. We dwell in the moment. We allow ourselves to be.
We also have our cross, the support knowing that Jesus is with us, that God is with us, wherever we go. The cross means that we are not alone. We are never alone. God is always with us. When we make a mistake, when we find ourselves stumbling, when we regret or feel guilty, we remember our supporting staff, the cross of Christ.
The cross of Christ is always there for us. We may lean on it. We may grab onto it tightly. We may use it to fend off the troubles of the world. When life is too much, seek out the cross of Christ. Close your eyes and imagine you are holding the cross and it supports you in whatever you do and it comforts you through whatever difficulty you face.
We are fortunate to have the cross of Christ. It is not a burden but a blessing. It is a joy. It is power. It is all we need.
Kavanaugh, Kieran and Rodriguez, Otilio trans. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Revised Edition. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991.