What does it mean to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus? This is a question that people have been struggling with for years upon years. It has been used as a foundation for great acts of kindness and courage, yet it has also been used too many times to cause great harm for people in their lives. Don’t even start to think that serious questions over what Jesus means by saying “take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus already has an idea that his words spoken here are mightily controversial. He already knows that there are and will be those who are ashamed of Jesus and his words here. So, how are we to take this call to action that Jesus proclaims after rebuking Peter, calling him and his ideas of what Jesus should be “Satan”?
In one sense, I am ashamed of these words. I know that’s very dangerous thing to say especially since Jesus warns that those who are ashamed of these words now, will be ashamed of Jesus when comes again in glory. It’s just that I simply can’t escape the fact that this phrase or paraphrase of it has been used too many times in the past to cause people to stay in bad situations that took away life from people – sometimes literally taking life. “Take up your cross” or “you cross to bear” has been used to keep women in abusive relationships, because a woman should bear that cross so as to bear witness to the abuser in love and charity. It has even been used in the past to keep people in slavery or other forms of oppression. Let me say right now that that is NOT an okay use of these words. That is why I am ashamed of these words. I am ashamed because these words have been used too much to get people to quietly endure pain and suffering that God never intends for people to have to go through in their lives.
Yet, despite God not wanting us to quietly endure pain and suffering, we all do endure pain and suffering in our lives. Pain and suffering is a reality. There is no escaping it, yet there is a huge difference between God wanting us to suffer AND the recognition that there is pain and suffering in our lives whether or not we want it in our lives. The idea that Jesus is looking to create a society of people who seek out pain and suffering is just plain ridiculous. Rather, Jesus is looking for people in the midst of their pain and suffering to get up and follow him even in the midst of their pain and suffering. Jesus recognizes that, all too often life plainly sucks, and he is calling them to trust and follow him in the midst of that suffering – calling them to a new life lived in the hope of God’s love.
Despite of all of that, there is another answer to that question of what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus. That answer is that you recognize the reality of the suffering and still stand up for what is right. Take farming for example. Here is a profession where you are at the complete mercy of not only nature, but also the local to global economies that dictate whether or not you’re going to make money off of the crops you planted or the cows that you milk. For many farmers, this means that there will be very lean years where you live right on the edge of losing the farm and everything that you’ve put so much love and work into. In one sense, it would be smarter to get out do something else that has a regular paycheck providing steady income and maybe even benefits. But, why do farmers still farm? Why do they still go out to their cows to milk them? Why do they plant new fields every year? But despite all those questions, there is something right about making a living intimately connected to the earth and providing people with food AND providing a diverse market when there are so many large corporate operations looking to pay the absolute minimum for the labor required to bring forth food from the earth.
I’m also reminded of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s. In the civil rights movement, we had people who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way as a protest to “stand up” for what. Dr. King knew that bad things were going to happen to people, especially if they stood up against the injustices that had been oppressing them for so very long. The thing is, he wasn’t seeking out pain and suffering or even resigning himself to the pain and suffering of segregation and discrimination. No, he was standing up in the midst of his pain and suffering that he shared with everyone else who stood up with him.
You see denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus means striving for what is right, good and healthy for you in your lives. Sometimes that means looking for ways to end downward spirals of pain and suffering. Sometimes that means striving for what’s right even if it may be a lost cause. But, this idea of bearing your cross is at its heart loving all the people who are around you. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. The way of Jesus is looking to the needs of other people who are around you. The way of Jesus is putting to death selfish concerns and desires and living in the hope that Christ brings us through his death on the cross.
We must always remember that, when Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, he goes before us to the cross to stand up for all of humanity, even in the midst of his pain and suffering. Jesus knows that his way must be a way that leads to his death, because it is only by his death that he might stand up for us even in our death and raise us to new life. Peter doesn’t want it to be this way. That’s why he pulls Jesus aside and tries to correct his idea that Jesus hasn’t come as military leader to defeat all opposition. But, Jesus will have absolutely none of this. Jesus says that there is a divine reason for he has come to earth – to be rejected and suffer, for what is right. What is right is the cross that Jesus bears is that Jesus loves us even when we reject him to suffering and death. In Jesus’ cross, in Christ’s death, we are shown the eternal depths of God’s love and forgiveness for us in the world. Jesus’ way, the way we are called to follow, is a way of incredible love, love even in the midst of pain and suffering, love that stands up for and cares for the others in our lives. We don’t do this to emulate Christ’s suffering. We don’t do this to even perfect our faith. We do this for the sake of the one who does all of that for us. We do this to emulate Christ’s infinite love for all of creation, not as we ought, but as we are able. Christ’s love is the hope for what is good, right, and healthy in the world.